Dear EarthTalk: What’s going to happen to the U.S. solar industry when the federal solar investment tax credit expires next year? — Victoria Chase, Washington, D.C.
In the U.S., a new solar project was installed every three minutes in 2014, and jobs in the solar industry rose from 15,000 employees in 2005 to nearly 174,000 today. This substantial growth is in large part thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2005’s 30 percent Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for commercial and residential solar energy systems. In 2007, after only one year of implementation, the ITC led to the doubling of installed solar electric capacity. In 2008, Congress passed an eight-year extension of the ITC, allowing solar to become the fastest growing energy source in the U.S. Solar has also become much more affordable: The average installed cost per watt has dropped from around $7.50 in 2009 to $2.89 in 2013.
After December 2016, the ITC solar credit will drop from 30 percent to 10 percent and the residential credit will drop to zero — unless Congress extends this deadline. Large companies are currently making significant solar investments before the solar tax credit deadline arrives. In February 2015, Apple announced that it would spend $848 million over 25 years to buy 130 megawatts of electricity from First Solar’s California Flats Solar Project in Monterey County. The project, which will occupy 2,900 acres of land in Cholame, Calif., is the solar industry’s largest-ever corporate power purchase agreement.
“Apple’s commitment was instrumental in making this project possible and will significantly increase the supply of solar power in California,” said Joe Kishkill, First Solar’s chief commercial officer. “Over time, the renewable energy from California Flats will provide cost savings over alternative sources of energy, as well as substantially lower environmental impact.”
Two weeks after Apple’s announcement, Google announced that they would be making a $300 million investment with SolarCity, America’s largest solar provider, for residential solar projects across 14 states and the District of Columbia. The SolarCity fund, which totals $750 million, is the largest of its kind ever created for residential solar power. “We’re happy to support SolarCity’s mission to help families reduce their carbon footprint and energy costs,” said Sidd Mundra, Renewable Energy Principal at Google. “It’s good for the environment, good for families and also makes good business sense.”
Duke Energy has also played a major role in catapulting solar energy in North Carolina, which ranked third among states during the third quarter of 2014 in installed capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Duke Energy’s $500 million solar expansion plan includes their recent approval to build three solar farms in eastern North Carolina that will total 128 megawatts of capacity.
“These projects will help provide significant amounts of cost-effective renewable energy to benefit our customers,” said Rob Caldwell, Duke Energy’s senior vice president for distributed energy resources.
To allow solar to continue to soar, the 2016 U.S. Budget includes proposals “to reform and renew tax credits that incentivize the deployment of wind, solar, and carbon capture sequestration technologies.” Ken Johnson, chief spokesman for SEIA, says that his group plans to lobby Congress to extend the credit. “That’s our top priority for this session of Congress,” he said, adding that developers across the solar industry are “trying to do as much as possible before it drops to 10 percent in 2017.”
CONTACTS: First Solar, www.firstsolar.com; Solar City, www.solarcity.com; Duke Energy, www.duke-energy.com; SEIA, www.seia.org. Top photo: Visitors check out First Solar’s array of photovoltaic panels outside of San Luis Obispo, California. Credit: Russ Ferriday, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: What is the “National Food Policy” that environmentalists and foodies are asking President Obama to enact by Executive Order, and how would it affect American diets? — Justin Brockway, Los Angeles, CA
A November 2014 op-ed piece in The Washington Post entitled “How a National Food Policy Could Save Millions of American Lives” makes the case for President Obama to sign into law an executive order establishing a national food policy for managing the nation’s food system as a whole.
Authored by food writers Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan, along with Union of Concerned Scientists’ Ricardo Salvador and United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, the op-ed states that because of unhealthy diets, a third of our kids will develop Type 2 diabetes — a preventable disease that was formerly rare in children.
“Type 2 diabetes is a disease that, along with its associated effects, now costs $245 billion, or 23 percent of the national deficit in 2012, to treat each year,” the authors note. “The good news is that solutions are within reach — precisely because the problems are largely a result of government policies.” The authors cite Brazil and Mexico — countries they consider “far ahead of the United States in developing food policies” — as examples for positive change: “Mexico’s recognition of food as a key driver of public health led to the passage last year of a national tax on junk food and soda, which in the first year has reduced consumption of sugary beverages by 10 percent and increased consumption of water.”
While the White House has not responded in any way to the suggestion thus far, the article’s message that the current food system has caused “incalculable damage” remains alarming.
Whether or not to pass our own tax on junk food and soda in the U.S. has been the subject of much debate in recent years. Some say it’s deceitful to suggest that a tax on sodas is necessary to curb obesity and Type 2 diabetes when numerous other unhealthy options like sugary caffeinated beverages, candy, ice cream, fast food and video games that promote sedentary behavior would still be widely available. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Public Economics suggests that soft drink taxation leads to a moderate reduction in soft drink consumption by children and adolescents; however “this reduction in soda consumption is completely offset by increases in consumption of other high-calorie drinks.” Furthermore, in 2010, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg stated that “an extra 12 cents on a can of soda would raise nearly $1 billion,” which suggests that government officials expect people to continue buying soda despite the tax.
Even though passing a soda tax has proven to be controversial, The Washington Post op-ed clearly points out the federal government’s contradictions concerning food. Existing federal guidelines for the U.S. diet, known as MyPlate, recommend that half the food we eat should be fruits and vegetables, yet these foods are granted less than one percent of farm subsidies. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of subsidies go toward corn and other grains. The result, the op-ed states, is the “spectacle of Michelle Obama warning Americans to avoid high-fructose corn syrup at the same time the president is signing farm bills that subsidize its production.”
Dear EarthTalk: The collective impact of all the iPhones and other devices we buy, use and then discard must be mind-boggling at this point. Has anyone quantified this and what can we do to start reducing waste from such items? — Jacques Chevalier, Boston, MA
With a record four million pre-orders for Apple’s best-selling iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, it’s more evident than ever that consumers want the latest in smartphone technology at their fingertips. A new report by analysts at German market research firm GfK determined that global smartphone sales exceeded 1.2 billion units in 2014 — a 23 percent increase over 2013.
With so many new smartphones and electronics being purchased, are users disposing of their older devices properly? According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, approximately 2,440,000 tons of electronics, such as computers, mobile devices and televisions, were disposed of in 2010. Twenty-seven percent, or 649,000 tons, of that “e-waste” was recycled. Because some materials in electronics, such as lead, nickel, cadmium and mercury, could pose risks to human health or the environment, the EPA “strongly supports” keeping used electronics out of landfills.
“Recycling electronic equipment isn’t quite as easy as leaving it in a bin in your front yard, as we’ve learned to do with paper and plastics, but the health and environmental benefits of recycling e-scrap are tremendous,” said EPA Region 5 Administrator Mary A. Gade. “Also, we know that half of the devices thrown away still work.”
If Americans recycled the approximately 130 million cell phones that are disposed of annually, enough energy would be saved to power more than 24,000 homes in a year. If we went ahead and recycled one million laptops, too, we would save the energy equivalent to the electricity used by 3,657 U.S. homes in a year. Furthermore, for every million cell phones we recycle, 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered. Recovering these valuable metals through recycling precludes the need for mining and processing that much new material from the Earth, thus not only conserving natural resources but preventing air and water pollution as well.
Thankfully, recycling old smartphones and other electronic devices is an easy, typically cost-free process for consumers. Electronics retailer Best Buy offers the most comprehensive appliance and electronics recycling program in the United States, with more than 400 pounds of product collected for recycling each minute the stores are open. Best Buy offers free recycling for most electronics and large appliances, regardless of where they were purchased, allowing the company to achieve its ambitious goal of recycling one billion pounds of electronics and appliances by the end of 2014.
Some charitable organizations, like Cell Phones for Soldiers, also offer free cell phone recycling. Since 2004, the non-profit has prevented more than 11.6 million cell phones from ending up in landfills. All cell phones donated to Cell Phones for Soldiers are sold either to electronic restorers or recyclers, depending on the phone’s condition. The proceeds from the phones are used to purchase prepaid international calling cards for troops and provide emergency financial assistance to veterans. “Cell Phones for Soldiers truly is a lifeline,” says Robbie Bergquist, co-founder of the non-profit. “To withstand time apart and the pressure of serving our country, the family connection is a critical piece to survival.”
Dear EarthTalk: What is Global Divestment Day and how does it relate to protecting the environment? — Michel LaPlante, New Orleans, LA
With crucial international climate negotiations coming up in Paris this fall, the first ever Global Divestment Day took place on February 13-14, with activists and everyday people across six continents and 48 countries joining together in more than 300 events — including street theater, elaborate props, sit-ins, vigils, dancing, bicycle parades and social media blitzes — all in the name of calling on corporations, foundations, endowments and other institutions to divest from fossil-fuel industries in order to speed society’s transition to renewable, non-polluting sources of energy.
The climate movement has embraced divestment — that is, ditching stocks, bonds or investment funds deemed unethical or morally ambiguous — given how effective the tactic was in helping topple Apartheid in South Africa by shaming the companies still willing to do business there. Other successful divestment campaigns have targeted tobacco as well as companies doing business in the embattled nation of Darfur.
“The fossil fuel industry has our political process in shackles with its financial might,” says Fossil Free, the group that created and organizes Global Divestment Day. “But we are matching their financial might with a different kind of power… Through divestment, we are directly challenging the social license of these corporations who have become rogue entities seeking profits at the expense of people and planet.”
Global Divestment Day, the group argues, highlights a conflict that most politicians are loathe to address: “If the world is to avoid catastrophic global warming, most known fossil fuel resources need to stay in the ground. Yet, fossil fuel companies not only plan to extract and sell their existing reserves but are exploring ever more sensitive territory to find new ones, thus ruining any chance of securing a safe planet.”
Fossil Free and other groups and individuals participating in Global Divestment Day are asking portfolio managers to stop adding new investments in fossil fuel companies and to sell off their holdings in the top 200 fossil fuel companies within five years. To date, more than 200 institutions with combined assets topping $50 billion have signed on, committing to divest in fossil fuels. Some of the heavy hitters so far include the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, the British Medical Association, Stanford University and the World Council of Churches.
Meanwhile, a growing chorus of voices from the financial and investment communities agrees that divestment might be the quickest route to mitigating climate change. A senior investment analyst with European investor Axa IM told the Guardian that “moral issues” are playing a role in recent low oil prices “with the divestment movement steadily gaining traction amongst investors across the globe.”
Fossil Free points out that divestment isn’t so much an economic strategy as a moral and political one.
“Just like in the struggle for civil rights here in America or the fight to end apartheid in South Africa,” the group reports, “the more we can make climate change a deeply moral issue, the more we will push society towards action.” The group adds that divestment also forces prominent institutions and individuals to choose sides, sparking public debate on the topics at stake and raising awareness for doing the right thing. “We need to make it clear that if it’s wrong to wreck the planet,” Fossil Free concludes, “it’s also wrong to profit from that wreckage.”
CONTACT: Fossil Free, www.gofossilfree.org.