California Legislature Passes AB 327 With Solar Provisions

The California legislature has passed Assembly Bill 327, a bill that would lift a pending suspension of the state's net energy metering program (NEM) at the end of the year, as well as a 5 percent cap on the amount of electricity that utilities would have to buy from renewable energy customers. It now heads to Governor Jerry Brown's desk, where it is expected to be signed into law in the coming days.

AB 327 has had an interesting history. It was initially seen as an attempt by California utility companies, namely Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric, and Southern California Edison, to put a stop to the exponential growth of rooftop solar energy. Originally, the law included measures that would have made solar panel installation much less valuable to California customers, while also raising electricity rates for people who don't use a lot of energy. It accomplished these goals by giving the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) the authority to approve a flat $10 fee on all electricity bills to cover fixed costs, such as transmission and distribution.

It also has language that would allow the CPUC to approve a flattened rate structure, a major change to the way Californians pay for their energy. After a rolling blackout crisis in the early 2000s, California legislatures allowed the CPUC to put in place tiered rates for power that charged more for entities that used more electricity, as a way of encouraging efficiency. AB 327 would lead to a flattening of those rates, so that there is less of a penalty for using more electricity.

This would also have made solar panel systems less valuable for high-power users, who have the most to gain from switching to renewable energy. With lower per-kilowatt-hour rates for those customers, it would take longer for them to earn a positive return on their investment in solar, especially since they wouldn't be exempt from the flat fee mentioned above.

These changes raised the ire of the solar industry, but thanks to the involvement of Governor Jerry Brown, several provisions have been added to the legislation that changed it from being a bill meant to kill renewable energy investment, to one that will spur more growth in solar, and potentially other sources such as wind and geothermal.

The most important change that was made lifted a suspension of net metering that would have occurred at the end of the year. Net energy metering (NEM) allows rate payers with solar panels to sell their electricity back to the grid when they don't use it, earning a rebate for each kilowatt-hour they sell. This program was set to expire in 2014, but with the passage of AB 327 it will continue indefinitely. In addition, the new law would lift a cap on the amount of NEM electricity that utilities must buy from their customers. Previously, that limit was set at 5 percent of the state's overall electrical use, but going forward there will be no cap, assuming the governor signs the bill.

"This is a banner day in California," Rhone Resch, the president and chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said in a news release. "Once again, state lawmakers have set the bar high when it comes to the adoption of renewable energy. AB 327 provides a clear pathway for the continued growth of solar generation in California."

At a time when energy use is skyrocketing and the effects of global warming are becoming clearer, policy makers should be encouraging the use of environmentally friendly products rather than putting in caps and limits. The passage of AB 327 is further demonstration of California's ongoing commitment to green living.

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Green Buildings And Productivity

We've been talking a lot lately about green building practices and how these can help the environment while also saving businesses money. One aspect we haven't yet focused on is the fact that there is evidence these structures contribute to a more productive, healthy workplace.

Researchers at Michigan State University recently surveyed two groups of workers who moved from conventional facilities that were not "green" to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED-certified) buildings that featured energy efficiency improvements, sustainable construction materials and other features intended to promote public health. What they found is that in both cases, the companies experienced reduced absenteeism and other issues that affect worker productivity.

Among other improvements, the survey found that employees experienced lower rates of depression, suffered fewer complications from asthma and other respiratory illnesses, and had reduced levels of stress and anxiety in their new work environments.

Overall, workers were expected to spend 1.75 more hours in the office because of the LEED certification improvements than if they had remained in their previous locations.

"These preliminary findings indicate that green buildings may positively affect public health," stated the researchers in their report, published in the American Journal of Public Health and reported on by healthy living site

LEED certification is awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council to structures that are developed using sustainable methods and materials. Buildings are given silver, gold and platinum status based on the degree to which they pursue these efficiency standards. The two buildings in this study were silver and platinum LEED-certified.

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Santa Clara Students Design Fantastic Efficient House

The Solar Decathlon, a competition hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy, will be taking place in October, pitting teams of college students against each other to design houses that are energy efficient, affordable and aesthetically pleasing. EarthTechling reports that the team from Santa Clara University (SCU) has unveiled their entry into the competition, and it's definitely going to turn some heads when they transport it down to Irvine, California, for the Decathlon.

One of the most notable features of the structure, which they have named "Radiant House", is its cutting-edge solar panel mounting system. Their racking apparatus requires lower costs and is integrated into the roof much more seamlessly than a typical rooftop solar panel system would be.

The house also has its own smartphone app that allows the homeowner to shut off lights, heating and air conditioning from anywhere in the house.

The SCU team has competed in past Decathlons, placing third twice. While they say they focused on engineering in their first competition and design in their second, the Radiant House is an effort to bridge the gap between those two disciplines.

The Decathlon is an exciting opportunity for students and the public to reflect on sustainable architecture and how green building methods can be brought to a wider audience. Typically we associate energy efficiency and green construction methods with more expensive homes, but the goal of the Decathlon is to demonstrate that clean technology isn't a luxury that only the wealthy can afford. With Radiant House – which the SCU team says was built at two-thirds the cost of their previous Decathlon entries – the public now has a model for how sustainability can be incorporated into a middle-class lifestyle.

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Materials Manufacturers Undermining Green Building Initiatives

The green building movement has been at the forefront of new construction over the last decade, and continues to be a major priority for development officials across the country. There are currently over 16,500 Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certified commercial buildings in the United States, accounting for over 2.1 million square feet of commercial space. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, there are also over 39,000 LEED-certified residential units. The success of the program, which sets standards for sustainably constructed buildings, naturally has multinational corporations concerned about their profits., a site dedicated to advancing social causes, reports that many companies in the timber, plastics and chemical industries are trying to create alternative certifications with different standards for what qualifies as "green building". Of course, these new systems are much more generous in handing out designations, with more lax rules about where materials can be procured and how they are manufactured.

Even worse, the industry is pushing some states to effectively ban LEED certification. According to Mother Jones, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia have put in place new laws and executive orders that prevent developers from seeking any green construction designations that are not approved by the state. Although they don't specifically mention LEED, it is the obvious target of the new laws.

If there is a silver lining, it's the fact that these efforts to undo progress in the area of sustainable building are largely limited to specific geographic areas, and have been less successful in other parts of the country. As more structures are built with LEED certification, policy makers in the South can take note of the numerous economic and environmental advantages that green construction presents.

Keep checking back with LifeIsGreen for more updates on green living.

New Research Hopes To Make Biofuels More Viable

A new report published in the academic journal Planta sheds new light on the growth cycles and oil production of green algae, which many scientists believe could be a viable source of renewable energy in the future if researchers are able to better understand how they operate. 

The main issue with using algae for oil production is that the conditions leading to higher rates of creation are detrimental to the health of the algae cells. Scientists have determined that depriving them of nitrogen causes more biofuel to be produced, but also results in slower growth. Ideally, one would be able to achieve high rates of fuel creation without inhibiting the development of the algae themselves.

The Planta study, written by researchers at the University of Florida, made some key discoveries about the way green algae react to limited nitrogen. The cells are able to begin producing lipids (oils) within just hours of being starved of nitrogen, and that 30 percent of those were created as the alga's cell membrane began to collapse under stress.

"Our hope is that what we have done will be helpful to understand what's going on in cells under nitrogen starvation and might help us to tweak the technique where we can use the cells to make lipids but not necessarily stop growth—that's our long-term goal," Bala Rathinasabapathi, professor of horticulture science at the University of Florida, told scientific news site Futurity.

Biofuels will be an important part of the world's renewable energy portfolio. Although burning these fuels produces carbon dioxide, they are derived from plants that absorb carbon from the atmosphere. If scientists can engineer production processes that are less energy intensive, it could result in a carbon neutral fuel for cars and electricity production.

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The Advantages Of Double Paned Glass

As we discuss frequently on this blog, one of the most important aspects of going green is outfitting your home in such a way that energy isn't wasted. As you accumulate more appliances and electronics, your demand for electricity and climate control will also rise. To limit your carbon footprint, you'll need to adopt measures that keep your energy usage at a reasonable level.

Possibly the most effective way to do this is to install double-paned windows. There are a number of reasons for this.

  • Double paned glass is much better at insulating your home, compared to single pane windows. The half inch space between the two pieces of glass keeps heat from radiating outside. The San Francisco Gate estimates that homeowners can save hundreds of dollars and over 2,800 tons of carbon dioxide emissions by switching to this type of window.
  • Typically that space is also filled with a non-toxic gas such as argon, which accomplishes two things: It enhances the radiation dampening effect, and it also blocks out ultraviolet (UV) rays which can damage your carpet, paint and flooring. Excess UV exposure also leads to higher temperatures inside.

In addition to the energy saving benefits of double paned glass, there are other advantages. These windows are good at blocking noise from outside, making them ideal for homes located in crowded urban areas, near freeways or in neighborhoods where gardeners frequently wake you up in the morning.

Whether you live in a desert area that experiences extremely high temperatures in the summer, or a mountainous region with freezing winds and snow in the winter, you can save hundreds on your heating and cooling expenses by switching to double paned windows.

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Success Of Swedish Renewable Energy An Important Lesson For U.S.

With all the news about the Syrian Civil War, many people may not have realized that President Barack Obama is actually in Sweden holding a bilateral conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. The reason this pertains to green living is that one of the topics on the table is the success of Sweden's renewable energy industry, and the lessons that the United States can learn from it.

Like many Scandinavian countries, Sweden is particularly progressive (and aggressive) when it comes to sustainability and environmentalism, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than its renewable energy portfolio. The country derives 47 percent of its power from renewable sources, and much of the remainder comes from nuclear reactors.

As political news site ThinkProgress points out, this didn't happen by accident. Sweden began a concerted effort in the 1950s to move its energy infrastructure in a more sustainable direction. In 1991, the Swedish government instituted a carbon tax of $133 per ton emitted. This policy, along with heavy investment in biofuels and a general lack of reliance on coal, gives Sweden one of the lowest carbon footprints for any developed country.

During a joint press conference with Prime Minister Reinfeldt, President Obama listed Sweden's commitment to energy sustainability as one of the areas from which the United States could learn a lot. The same could be said of many European countries, which have done a much better job persuading citizens that it is vital to their economic wellbeing and independence that they develop a dynamic renewable energy portfolio. Hopefully the president's visit will push the debate in such a direction.

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Will Utilities Continue To Oppose Net Metering Policies For Solar Energy?

One of the biggest successes in the effort to promote renewable energy generation has been net metering. With this system, a household that has solar panels can sell any excess electricity produced back to the grid, earning a per-kilowatt-hour rebate that can offset their power expenses at night when solar panels stop generating.

While these policies have been popular with rate payers, they've been decidedly unpopular with utilities. To understand why, one needs to know a little about how the electricity industry operates.

In order to be profitable, utilities must be given monopoly power over a particular municipality's electricity infrastructure. The reason for this is that the construction and operation of a large power grid is expensive, and in order to make up for those costs, utilities need to charge higher prices. If a competitor were allowed to come in and deliver power without having to make such an enormous investment in distribution and delivery, the business of running a municipal electricity system would be unprofitable.

The advent of rooftop solar generation threatens to upend the advantage of monopoly pricing power for utilities, or so these companies say. If more customers switch to solar power, then the costs of maintaining a grid will be shared with fewer rate payers, thereby causing a steady increase in prices. This could result in more residents and business migrating to photovoltaic panels, creating an endless cycle that could make fossil fuel-based utilities obsolete.

The problem with this story is that rooftop solar panels provide less than one percent of the country's electricity. It's hard to imagine the death spiral that utilities are predicting will occur any time soon, and in the meantime it's not in the interests of environmentalists or public officials to slow the growth of this technology. The threat of climate change and environmental catastrophe are too great for public utility commissions to give into the fears of power companies that are simply trying to defend their profits.

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