03212018What's Hot:

My Life In the Elusive Green Economy

The earth is excellent. It’s the only planet with Netflix, Coca-Cola and my kids. I worry about how we’re broiling it with greenhouse gases, how its ice caps are melting and its coral reefs are dying. I’m freaked out that we’re damaging its ability to sustain us, and that this might be the only thing future generations remember about us.

And yet … meat is also excellent. I eat a lot of it, even though every bite makes climate change a bit worse. I love traveling, too, and I’ve never skipped a trip to shrink my carbon footprint. I don’t line-dry my clothing, compost my garbage, or unplug my laptop at night, either. I’ve been reporting on humanity’s climate impact for years, but I’m basically a climate hypocrite, haunted by the tragedy of global warming but too lazy and too selfish to do everything in my power to fight it.

Story Continued Below

To be honest, another motive to avoid changing my lifestyle has been money, which can buy all kinds of excellent things. I looked into solar power a decade ago, but the economics made no sense for our family, so I stopped looking. Maybe I should have taken a major financial hit to help prevent climate-driven refugee crises, wildfires and the eventual drowning of our hometown of Miami. I didn’t, though, and you probably wouldn’t have, either. Most of us care more about our families than the Earth and its other 7 billion inhabitants.

But in 2017, I finally went green. I bought solar panels for our roof and an all-electric Chevrolet Bolt. I didn’t do it because the climate emergency has gotten more urgent, although it has, or because I want to be a better person, although I do. I did it to save money.

Over the past decade, the costs of solar panels and electric-vehicle batteries have dropped so dramatically that they’re starting to make financial sense—not yet for all consumers in all parts of the country, but for more consumers every day. Now my life has become a daily education in the fast-changing economics of green. Our home solar investment should pay for itself in eight years, a solid return with virtually no risk. The Bolt is a fun, safe, practical car that’s also pretty cheap, especially factoring our savings from brewing our fuel on our roof.

While the political debate over climate change has been stuck for years on the same is-it-real, is-it-us, should-government-act arguments, there’s been a quiet revolution on the ground, driven not by environmentalism or altruism but the bloodless logic of the marketplace. That’s a huge deal, because the climate would be doomed if it depended on billions of people revamping their approaches to energy and transportation to try to change the world. Now that I’ve plugged into this emerging green economy, I’m seeing firsthand how the world really is changing, but also some of the obstacles to change.

At the macro scale, the U.S. has already passed a tipping point: The majority of America’s new power-generating capacity over the past two years has been wind and solar, while more than half of the nation’s coal plants have been scheduled for retirement since 2010. Government subsidies and other actions have helped—fossil fuels enjoy different forms of government aid—but the corporations and utilities making long-term investments in renewables don’t tend to assume endless largesse from Washington.

“People still think of clean energy as an agenda pushed by political activists, marginal stuff that doesn’t deserve a seat at the grown-up table,” says Francis O’Sullivan, research director for the MIT Energy Initiative. “We’ve entered a new era where that’s not true.”

At the micro scale—the scale of my family—the low-emissions transition has been bumpier. The economics for consumers still varies. And while I’m enjoying feeling like an early adopter, like I’m catching Springsteen at a dive bar before he becomes Springsteen, it isn’t always easy being green. I can testify to the “range anxiety” that electric-vehicle drivers feel on highways with so few public-charging stations; my Bolt’s battery can go 238 miles on a single charge, but it almost ran out of juice on my first all-electric road trip. Meanwhile, state rules around solar power are often designed to preserve the status quo.

Politics may be the biggest roadblock to change. America’s infrastructure was built for a world powered by the combustion of 300-million-year-old carbon, and its pipelines, smokestacks and gas stations all produce revenue for influential interests that see a green new world as a financial threat. Those interests have powerful allies in President Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans who control Congress. They’ve turned the U.S. into a global outlier in the war on global warming, dismissing climate concerns as out-of-the-mainstream eco-hippie nonsense, attacking zero-emissions alternatives as Big Government assaults on freedom and capitalism.


Illustration by Paul Blow

It’s true that solar panels and electric cars are still on the fringe, making up less than 2 percent of the electricity and vehicle markets. But they’re by far the fastest-growing segments of those markets. And as I’m learning at home and on the road, a world where more of us generate our own power and fuel could be a very different world.


It was 2007 when I first made some calls about solar panels for our house in Miami Beach. The closest installer I could get on the phone was in Vero Beach, 150 miles north.

Back then, the solar industry didn’t really exist. The U.S. had around one gigawatt of installed solar capacity, out of 1,000 gigawatts of overall electric capacity, because solar was still absurdly expensive. The installer actually asked if I cared about price, and when I replied ‘duh, of course,’ he seemed to lose interest in driving three hours to meet me. I don’t recall the prices he quoted, but I do recall figuring out that simply painting my roof white to deflect sunlight could generate a quarter of the energy savings for 1 percent of the cost. So that’s what I did instead.

At the time, I didn’t even consider an electric car, because there were no electric cars, just a documentary called Who Killed the Electric Car? (The film largely blamed General Motors, which hated its first plug-in model so much it recalled the vehicles and crushed them.) A glimmer of change flashed across the horizon in 2008, when a Silicon Valley upstart called Tesla Motors launched a cool all-electric sports car called the Roadster. But it had a not-so-cool $ 109,000 price tag, due mostly to the exorbitant cost of lithium-ion batteries. Tesla nearly collapsed after that year’s financial crisis, and sold just a couple thousand Roadsters before halting production.

Clean energy just wasn’t a thing back then, unless the modest sales of those squiggly light bulbs that glowed the color of jaundice counted as a thing. It didn’t seem likely to become a thing, either. The federal government’s long-term energy forecast predicted that solar would be an insignificant source of power for decades to come, and didn’t even mention all-electric vehicles. Alternatives to fossil fuels were still extreme luxury goods.

I happened to snag a front-row seat to America’s dizzying transition to affordable alternatives, because I happened to write a book about President Barack Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus package. The main goal of the stimulus was to prevent a depression and spark a recovery, but it also poured an astonishing $ 90 billion into renewables and other green industries to jump-start all kinds of challenges to the carbon-burning status quo.

For example, the stimulus created a U.S. supply chain for electric-vehicle batteries almost entirely from scratch, providing $ 2 billion to help build factories for which there was zero demand at the time. The stimulus also helped finance the world’s largest wind farm, a half dozen of the world’s largest solar farms, the first clean coal plants that would capture their carbon, super-efficient light bulbs, and much more. The idea was to let a thousand green flowers bloom—to usher a variety of promising ideas out of the lab and into mass production, then let the market sort out which ones would survive.

This was, to put it mildly, controversial, in part because green power and green fuels were widely viewed as airy-fairy fantasies for unkempt tree-huggers. I once mentioned the potential of wind and solar on some TV show, and the legendary newsman Sam Donaldson scoffed that maybe they would arrive someday, but not in his lifetime. The Republican Party, while trashing the entire “Porkulus” as a Big-Government boondoggle, savaged its clean-energy investments as particularly ludicrous left-wing social engineering. Obama’s 2012 opponent, Mitt Romney, mocked him for living in an “imaginary world” where windmills and sunshine powered the economy and taxpayers supported “losers” like Tesla, which had barely averted bankruptcy, thanks to a $ 465 million federal loan.

Tesla didn’t remain a loser for long; it repaid its loan nine years early and now has roughly the same market value as GM. But some of Obama’s green investments did fail, including a few battery factories, every clean coal plant, and of course Solyndra, the high-tech California solar manufacturer that defaulted on its $ 535 million stimulus loan and became a poster child for the folly of green utopianism. The irony of the debacle was that Solyndra didn’t fail because its technology didn’t work, or because solar was an uneconomic vanity technology for virtue-signaling celebrities. It failed because its cutting-edge, high-end solar panels only made sense when solar remained expensive, and solar quickly got cheap. The same price swoon that killed Solyndra was a bonanza for solar installers and consumers; today, the U.S. has 50 gigawatts of solar capacity, a 5,000 percent jump in a decade. And overall, the green loan portfolio that lost its bet on Solyndra is on track to turn a profit for taxpayers.

Every green stimulus loser had its own story, but the winners shared a similar story: Mass production created economies of scale and lower costs, which led to even more production and even lower costs. The cost of onshore wind power has dropped about 50 percent in a decade, lithium-ion batteries nearly 80 percent, and solar panels more than 80 percent. Energy-saving LED lights have been the biggest winner, with costs crashing 95 percent and sales up a thousandfold, a boom Goldman Sachs has called “one of the fastest technology shifts in human history.”

LEDs are simply better mousetraps, lasting 50 times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs and using 85 percent less energy. When my family moved to a new house in Miami in 2016, all the bulbs were LEDs, and none have burned out yet. Remember all the tea party outrage over Washington killing freedom by banning inefficient incandescents and forcing us to splurge on fancy government eco-bulbs? It’s faded now that Walmart sells four-packs of LEDs for less than six bucks. Sometimes, results can trump politics.


Politico Illustration

Large-scale electricity generation is heading that way, too. Utilities in the middle of the country have discovered that building new wind farms is now cheaper than operating existing coal plants. Similarly, utilities in the Southwest and Southeast are finding that new solar is cheaper than existing coal. The CEO of the utility giant NextEra Energy recently said on an investor call that in a few years, unsubsidized new wind and solar will be cheaper than existing coal or nuclear, even though wind subsidies are being phased out and solar subsidies are being scaled back, even though Sam Donaldson is still alive.

The transformation on the consumer side has been less abrupt. But even in the internet era, when futuristic ideas like smartphones become facts of life overnight, it’s hard to fathom that America already has more than 1 million solar roofs, up from 30,000 a decade ago, or that it could have 1 million electric vehicles by the end of this year, up from a few millionaire-owned Roadsters. I’ve tried to call attention to these disruptions; my 2012 book had a chapter titled “Green New World,” and I wrote a 2014 article titled “The Green Revolution Is Here.” But the revolution didn’t arrive in my home until last year, when I finally put my money where my reporting was.


Rooftop solar panels aren’t yet a financial no-brainer like LED bulbs. But for some homeowners, they’re getting close. “In a good chunk of the country, it’s just a good deal, full stop,” Greentech Media solar analyst Shayle Kann told me. He was talking about states where installers like SunRun or SolarCity offer solar lease agreements, so you can put no money down and pay a fixed monthly price that lowers your electric bill. It’s easy, it’s accessible, and it’s almost guaranteed to save you money.

It’s also, in the state where I live, basically illegal.

I’m serious: Florida bans third-party solar ownership, so Floridians have to be able to afford to buy their panels up front. That’s because Florida’s electric utilities don’t want anyone else generating power, and they have a lot of clout. Strange as it seems, the Sunshine State—third in the nation in population—is 12th in installed solar, behind not-very-tropical paradises like New Jersey and Massachusetts.

In fairness, my own utility, Florida Power & Light, likes solar so much it’s built 10 big solar plants in the past few years; its parent company is NextEra Energy, the world’s top generator of wind and solar power. But while FPL likes cheap centralized solar power it can sell at a profit to captive customers, it has fought hard to restrict cheap rooftop solar power that can turn those customers into mini-competitors. Only 0.1 percent of us now produce our own juice, and it’s clear why FPL wants to keep it that way; I used to pay FPL $ 500 a month for its power.

I ended up negotiating a deal with a Miami installer named Daren Goldin, a former construction manager who started Goldin Solar in 2014 and has quintupled his revenue every year. Daren’s final offer came to $ 2.35 per watt—more than double what utilities now pay to build solar farms, but way below the $ 10-per-watt average for residential solar back when I talked to the Vero Beach guy in 2007. The solar analyst Kann told me we got a good deal for a large system, which was nice to hear, because we paid more than we’ve ever paid for anything we couldn’t live in. The final price tag was … deep breath … $ 57,756, plus a $ 400 connection fee for my pals at FPL, who also held our permit hostage until we bought extra liability insurance.

It was painful to burn through our savings, but we’ll get our money back and more. For starters, there’s a 30 percent federal tax credit for solar, so our actual cost will be about $ 40,000 after our refund. And our roof immediately began producing the vast majority of our electricity, lowering our $ 500 monthly bills to around $ 80. We generate more power than we use during daylight hours, so we send our excess back to the grid, which gets subtracted from the power we buy after sundown. It works out to about $ 5,000 in annual savings, which should pay back our upfront cost in eight years. The economics would have been even better if FPL’s electricity rates weren’t unusually low, or if Daren didn’t have to engineer a costly custom-built waterproofing solution for our nonstandard roof. Still, an annual return of 12 percent is pretty sweet when Treasury bonds are below 3 percent. It’s certainly a safer investment than stocks; our only real risk is Florida’s utility-controlled political system revising the solar rules, which happened in Nevada and Arizona.

It’s also pretty sweet that our house is now a miniature clean power plant. I can check our solar production in real time on an app, which just informed me that our panels have generated enough electricity in six months to run 65,000 lightbulbs for a day, while providing the carbon benefit of planting 850 trees. I often show my kids the app to try to teach them about lightening our impact on the land, and to make myself sound like the John Muir of daddies. And nothing could be sweeter than keeping so much of the cash we used to fork over to FPL. It’s like the Danny DeVito character says in Heist: “Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it money.”

Of course, FPL needs money, too. I had a nice chat recently with FPL spokesman Mark Bubriski, who graciously congratulated me on my lower bills. But he also reminded me that FPL has an obligation to keep everyone’s refrigerator running every second of every day, a complex job that requires constant rebalancing of power supply and demand throughout the grid. Bubriski said that job could get even more complex if a lot more FPL customers get solar panels, because FPL would never know exactly how much power they would produce, or when exactly clouds would pass over them. They can’t be switched on and off like a gas plant.

Someday, though, my family could help FPL manage its grid. To understand how, it helps to understand our other major purchase of 2017, the one that will help FPL recoup a bit of its money from us.


Full disclosure: My wife and I are not car people. At our wedding, in a train station, the rabbi said we’d have a happy marriage as long as we stayed off the road. We do most of our fighting in the car—because I won’t ask for directions, or the kids won’t be quiet, whatever, we get irritable. We don’t think driving is fun or self-expressive, so we didn’t get excited about the gushing reviews of Tesla’s $ 69,500 Model S luxury sedan that sounded like teenage boys reviewing porn. Cristina leases a nice SUV, because she works in real estate and her clients expect it, but I’ve driven a beat-up old Volvo for years.

But as the Volvo neared the end of its road, we looked into Tesla’s new mass-market Model 3, with a starting price around $ 36,000. When the Model 3 ran into production delays, we started focusing on the Chevy Bolt hatchback, which had dorkier styling and a they-killed-the-electric-car GM pedigree but a similar price. I had never even seen one in Miami, where drivers who go electric can usually afford to splurge on the Model S. The Bolt was the 2017 Motor Trend Car of the Year, but the first Chevy salesman I asked about it seemed perplexed by my interest: “Bro, you know that car don’t take gasoline, right?”


Illustration by Paul Blow

The apathy worked in our favor; the dealership sold us a Bolt that had languished on its lot for three months for $ 6,000 below suggested retail. There’s also a $ 7,500 electric-vehicle tax credit, so even though we paid an extra $ 750 for the capability to use superfast charging stations that fully recharge an empty battery in an hour, the price came to just $ 24,000 before taxes and fees. We also spent $ 1,300 to buy and install a semifast home charger that can fully recharge overnight; a regular 110-volt outlet would take more than two days. All in, we paid about $ 4,000 more than the base price for the gas-powered Chevy Cruze hatchback.

But as we did indeed know, we’ll never need to buy gas for the Bolt, which has a powerful battery manufactured at one of those stimulus-financed factories in Michigan. Electric cars still cost more than traditional vehicles up front, but often cost less over their lifetimes. Our Bolt consumes about 3 cents’ worth of power every mile; our old Volvo guzzled 12 cents’ worth of gas per mile at $ 2.50 a gallon, while the Cruze would have cost 8 or 9 cents a mile. Electric cars also cost much less for maintenance than internal combustion vehicles, which have thousands more moving parts, require oil changes, and are powered by multiple controlled explosions under their hood every second. Union of Concerned Scientists engineer David Reichmuth studied the costs of operating vehicles in 57 cities, and found plug-ins cheaper to drive everywhere. In two or three years, he told me, the lifetime costs of mass-market electric vehicles should drop below comparable gasoline cars even without government incentives.

Oh, did I mention we actually enjoy driving the Bolt? It goes zero to 60 in a zippy 6.6 seconds, and the reviews have been enthusiastic, if not quite as ecstatic as Tesla’s—“a blast to drive” from U.S. News, “fun to drive” from Car and Driver, “shockingly good” from Consumer Reports. Is it really shocking that a car without an “ignition” or “exhaust pipe” or “spark plugs” would handle more smoothly than noisy, vibrating petroleum-explosion machines? One reviewer did complain that the five-seat Bolt “looks smaller than it is,” an odd way of saying it’s more spacious than it looks because it doesn’t have a bulky engine. The Bolt feels like an ideal car for local driving, except that the peacocks that strut around my Miami neighborhood are slow to get out of the Bolt’s way because it’s too quiet for them to hear it coming.

The Bolt’s problem is on highways, where we’ve discovered that its range at high speeds is considerably less than the advertised 238 miles, and that there’s virtually nowhere to charge it. America still has about 200 gas pumps for every superfast charging outlet. On road trips, it’s hard not to stare with dread at the Bolt’s vivid electronic display of how much charge and mileage remain in its battery.

Before Cristina and I took our Bolt to Boca Grande on Florida’s southwest coast in January, an app told us the only superfast charger between us and our destination was at a Best Western 130 miles away. After two hours of squabbling, as our miles-of-range display sank much faster than our miles-traveled display rose and I tried to pretend everything was under control, we arrived with just 35 miles of juice to spare. We recharged over lunch and then drove into more range-anxiety drama in Boca Grande: Our hotel had promised us a semifast charger, but it was only for Teslas, so we had to plug into a superslow 110-volt outlet overnight. The next day we made it back to the Best Western with just 15 miles to spare—and just 30 seconds ahead of the only other Bolt we had ever seen in Florida. Its driver had to wait an extra hour while we recharged, which prompted Cristina to suggest that if our Bolt hadn’t arrived first she would have had grounds for divorce. Maybe our rabbi had a point.

Two weeks later, I ignored Cristina’s advice and took the Bolt back to the southwest coast for a conference at Florida Gulf Coast University 150 miles away. This time, I figured I’d just drive straight there and recharge overnight, but my hosts sheepishly informed me that there weren’t any chargers on the entire campus. FGCU had installed one for its former president’s electric car, then uninstalled it after he left. So I stopped again at the Best Western, where I found out southwest Florida’s only superfast charger was no longer open to the public, just to hotel guests. Fortunately, the manager let me charge one last time. The next day, after turning off the Bolt’s air conditioning to conserve power, I made it back to Miami with a quarter-full battery and a splitting headache.

I had to drive to Orlando the other day, and this time I took Cristina’s gas-powered SUV. Again, there was only one useful charger on the way, and I couldn’t handle any more stress or invasion-level planning.

Experts used to fret about the chicken-and-egg problem where nobody would build public charging infrastructure until there were enough electric vehicles, and nobody would buy electric vehicles until there were enough chargers on the roads. But now people are buying electric vehicles, and the chargers haven’t materialized. Chris Nelder, electricity manager for the Rocky Mountain Institute, says they’re just too expensive for private firms to install when drivers mostly charge at home. The obvious solution would be for utilities that already sell power to install them, but most state regulators have refused to let utilities charge their ratepayers for the hefty installation costs.

“It’s frustrating, because there’s literally nothing internal combustion vehicles do better than plug-ins,” Nelder told me. “They just have more refueling infrastructure.”

Well, one thing they do better is produce profits; GM is losing thousands of dollars on every Bolt. But in contrast to the 1990s, when it literally scrapped its money-losing shoebox known as the EV1, GM is doubling down on electric vehicles, vowing to launch at least 20 new models, aiming to make them profitable by 2021. In Norway, after huge subsidies made plug-ins cost-competitive with traditional cars, they rapidly took over one third of the market. In the U.S., plunging battery costs could give them a similar boost, along with the natural advantages of electricity to power the upcoming wave of self-driving cars.

“Plug-ins are going to take over,” Nelder says. “The question is when.”

That question will be answered in part by technological advances to batteries, and in part by economic trends like the prices of gasoline and electricity. But politics is also looming over the transition to a low-carbon economy.


The shift from Obama to Trump represented an abrupt U-turn in federal climate policy. Trump rejected the Paris climate accord, leaving the U.S. the only nation on earth refusing to commit to its emissions goals. His Environmental Protection Agency is pushing to scrap Obama’s Clean Power Plan that would limit carbon at power plants, Obama’s fuel efficiency standards that penalize gas guzzlers, and just about all of Obama’s policies designed to rein in pollution from fossil fuels. His Energy Department proposed massive subsidies to keep failing coal plants afloat, and a senior department official candidly declared: “I’m not a researcher, I’m not a scientist, I’m an advocate for the coal industry.” Trump also slapped tariffs on imported solar panels, which could slow down the rooftop boom. And his latest budget proposed brutal cuts in clean-energy research and deployment.

But the green economy is still growing around the world, and Trump can’t just undo it here. Congressional Republicans decided not to gut the tax credits for renewables and electric vehicles in the final version of their recent tax bill, so the upheaval of the past decade seems likely to continue. Coal plants are retiring just as fast under Trump as they did under Obama. Every major automaker has new electric vehicles in the works. Utilities and corporations are still making plans for a carbon-constrained world, because we’re still living in a carbon-constrained world, even if federal policies assume we aren’t.

While Trump tries to slow down the transition, it’s interesting to think about ways markets could speed it up, which brings me back to FPL’s need to balance electricity supply and demand. As I told Mark Bubriski, I can help with that. My solar panels return power to the grid in the peak daylight hours when FPL needs more power to run South Florida’s air conditioners, and I consume power from the grid overnight when demand is lowest. My solar production doesn’t match up perfectly with FPL’s peak load, because Floridians use a lot of power when they get home after sundown. But I happen to have some adjustable demand of my own, in the form of a new car I’d be happy to charge whenever it’s most convenient for FPL, as long as FPL makes it worth my while.

Experiments have proven that when utilities offer serious “time-of-use pricing,” where customers get discounts on off-peak power but pay surcharges for peak power, plug-in owners charge off-peak and save money while easing peak demand. Those shifts could eventually happen automatically, with technologies that would enable FPL to store excess power in my Bolt’s battery when the grid is overloaded and draw power out of my battery when the grid needs more. Energy storage is a kind of killer app for a green world, solving the problems created by renewables that create power only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, and one way to think of my Bolt is as a mobile automobile-shaped storage device. If plug-in owners can get paid for providing storage and load-balancing services while our cars are parked, the economics of plug-ins will get much better, which will help them move from the fringe to the mainstream, which would also help FPL sell more juice in the long term.

The short-term problem is that regulated utilities don’t do things their regulators don’t let them get paid for, and the status quo is working well for FPL. Innovations that would help reduce its peak load and avoid the need for new power plants could actually damage its bottom line, because it’s guaranteed a profitable return when it builds new plants. It does have a rudimentary time-of-use pricing program, but when I inquired about it, an affable company representative explained that it doesn’t make much sense for anyone who uses any grid power before 9 p.m. “I’m looking at your bill,” he told me. “You don’t want to do this.”

Ultimately, though, the more green gets built, the cheaper green gets, and in a world of smart thermostats and smart cars and consumers with more power over their power, utilities will have to adapt or die. Batteries are already so cost-effective that FPL is building storage with its next solar plant to provide round-the-clock power, and NextEra’s CEO told investors that will soon be the new normal for renewables. Residential solar is getting normalized, too, which will reduce how much installers have to spend on customer acquisition and other “soft costs” that now add more to solar prices than the panels themselves.

The transition to green is increasingly a question of when rather than if, but it will still require some tectonic cultural shifts. We’ve all grown up in a world where the normal way to make power was to dig up plant matter from the Carboniferous Era and then set it on fire, while harnessing the wind and sunlight around us seemed weird. Our normal cars burn that ancient carbon in explosions a few feet in front of us, while powering them with the electricity that runs everything else in our daily lives still seems weird. If you pulled back far enough, you might say it’s our traditional approach to energy that’s been weird. And now that approach is becoming not only unsustainable for our home planet but unnecessarily expensive, the unforgivable sin in the marketplace. It may turn out that our incessant demand for better deals will give future generations something better to remember about us.

Michael Grunwald is a senior staff writer for Politico Magazine.

This article tagged under:

More from POLITICO Magazine

Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories

comments powered by HyperComments

More on the topic