Trump Proposes Covering Mexican Border Wall With Solar Panels

President Trump has proposed using solar panels in the construction of a wall along the 3,200 kilometer (1,988 miles) border separating Mexico and America — a key point in his election campaign. According to three individuals who have direct knowledge of the meeting with Republican leaders, Trump claimed he wanted to cover the wall segments with solar panels so they’d be “beautiful structures.”

Trump cited the wall’s economic benefits as well as its environmental ones. Thomas Gleason, managing partner of Gleason Partners LLC, the company that proposed the design, told Business Insider that each solar panel on the wall would produce 2.0MWp per hour of electricity, and, because of this, the wall would pay off the cost of its construction in 20 years through the energy it sells.

The cost of solar panels has decreased rapidly over the last nine years, from around $8 per watt in 2009 to roughly $1.50 per watt in 2016, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, and Gleason believes the cost will continue to diminish over time.

While the bottom of the wall would still be built out of stone, the solar panels situated on the Mexico-facing side would be double tiered, with the upper layer moving to capture maximum sunlight.

Though any wall between Mexico and the United States is likely to still be controversial, one equipped with solar panels would have benefits on both a small and large scale. It would provide those on both sides of the border, which is currently underserved by electricity companies, with greater access to power. On a larger scale, it would contribute to the amount of electricity the U.S. generates from clean energy sources, which would in turn contribute to fighting climate change.

Opinions on the proposal are split.

Wunder Capital CEO Bryan Birsic told Business Insider, “While we would prefer a different location and purpose for a large solar installation, we strongly support all additional generation of clean power in the U.S.”

Meanwhile, Nezar AlSayyad, a UC Berkeley professor of architecture and planning, told The Guardian that the wall was still “indefensible” and that “trying to embellish it with a technical function or a new utility … is a folly.” Political theorist Langdon Winner was even more outspoken in his criticism: “I’m wondering what the solar electricity would be used for? Electrocuting people who try to climb the wall?”

Although the wall itself is controversial, any move by the U.S. government to promote solar energy is positive as it would lessen the country’s own carbon footprint and help the world combat climate change.

Solar Sidewalks Could Power Our Cities

This summer will see the planned opening of a solar-powered sidewalk on the campus of Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia. The 1,200-foot array should be able to generate about 15,000 kilowatt-hours a year — enough to power one and a half average American houses — even as students walk all over it.

In an interview with the Vancouver Sun, Thompson Rivers professor Michael Mehta said a major goal of the project is to get people to rethink where solar energy can be gathered. The very fact solar power plants are sometimes called solar farms points to the problem: Many such projects are in rural areas that could otherwise be used for agriculture. Mehta and his colleagues on the Solar Compass Project want urban environments to be put to work gathering solar energy, instead.

Building a high-tech sidewalk can potentially do more than just take in the sun’s energy, according to Mehta. He said the panels could also carry fiber-optic signals or be used to display messages and reroute travelers in response to changing conditions. But the main goal for now will be proving the sidewalks can successfully take in power. Mehta told the paper that the 64-panel array should produce enough power to keep 40 computers running eight hours a day for an entire year.

This isn’t the first experiment with road surfaces capable of harvesting the sun’s energy. A nearly 250-foot bike path called SolaRoad opened in the Netherlands in 2014, while the American company Solar Roadways has hugely ambitious plans to make American roads solar-friendly. But that would require materials capable of gathering solar energy while standing up to the wear and tear of passing vehicles, and no such material exists yet.

The Thompson Rivers project faces a far less challenging task, as the sidewalks only have to be able to withstand foot traffic and the occasional bicycle. Mehta said the solar surface could theoretically support a fire truck, though there are no immediate plans to put the sidewalks to that particular test.

Solar Energy Is Now Setting Historic Records In Sales

With the fossil fuel industry and its backers filling up slots for Donald Trump’s future cabinet, it hasn’t been an optimistic time for clean energy and environmental advocates. But there is one bit of good news. New data from the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research shows that its been a record-breaking few months for solar energy.

In the third quarter of this year, a record amount of solar energy was installed in the United States, according to the data. And, on the whole, it’s shaping up to be another historic year for the renewable energy technology, with expectations that this fourth quarter will yield even higher results.

At a rate of one megawatt of solar photovoltaic — that’s enough to power about 164 homes — installed every 32 minutes between the months of July and September, this boom occurred at an “unprecedented rate,” according to their report. Utilities adopting large-scale solar energy projects were responsible for much of the change. (Residential solar paneling installation actually decreased slightly from the second financial quarter.) According to the associate director of U.S. solar at GTM Research, the reason so many of these solar projects came to fruition was the presumed expiration of a major tax credit that incentives solar energy use. Instead, Congress extended it through 2019.

However, the future of solar energy use within the U.S. remains somewhat up in the air. Trump hasn’t much spoken out against these tax credits, or against solar energy specifically, except in relation to the isolated occurrence of one failed solar panel company backed by the Department of Energy five years ago. He has, however, stated that he is interested in pursuing “all forms of energy,” largely as a means to the end of “making America wealthy again.” (He also has a major, personally-driven vendetta against wind farms.)

Clean energy proponent Bill Gates, who recently launched a $1 billion clean energy fund alongside other tech big-wigs like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, recently spoke with Trump about the importance of green energy on an eight-minute phone call. (Asked if he thinks that his appeal to the famed climate change denier on the basis of American innovation was productive, Gates offered only a vague, “Well, we’ll see.)

Still, some clean energy stakeholders fear the worst, and on Tuesday, Trump transition officials announced that former Texas governor Rick Perry is the president-elect’s top choice to lead the Energy Department. (the two-time presidential candidate who once promised to eliminate that exact department he will now head.) Still, some experts hold out hope that the rapidly decreasing price of solar energy, the momentum of the industry, and its political appeal as a domestic source of jobs will be enough to continue its growth through even a hostile federal administration.

Utility Companies Drop Millions On Last-Ditch Effort To Pass Deceptive Florida Solar Initiative

On Tuesday, former Florida Senator and Gov. Bob Graham (D) added his voice to the growing chorus against Florida’s Amendment 1, which asks voters to support a utility-backed initiative that could make it more difficult for the solar industry to develop.

“There is an amendment on the ballot that isn’t what it appears to be,” Graham told reporters.

The amendment has increasingly come under fire in the past few weeks, especially after a recording surfaced of a conservative policy wonk praising the initiative. A vice president at the James Madison Institute referred to Amendment 1 as “political jiu-jitsu,” that used solar’s own popularity as a way to earn support for a measure that would not actually help grow solar in the state.

Even before then, utilities — and conservative groups tied to utilities — had poured more than $22 million into backing the initiative. Last week, the alliance — a group called Consumers for Smart Solar — spent another $3.5 million on ads in the state. Of that, $3 million came from Florida Light & Power and Duke Energy, two major southern utilities.

An audit of donors to Consumers for Smart Solar found that of the only 12 individuals who had donated, 11 had direct ties to the utility industry or one of the conservative groups supporting the organization.

Meanwhile, support for the amendment seems to be falling, as solar supporters have coalesced into an alliance of their own. As recently as late September, the amendment was polling with 66 percent support (a constitutional amendment in Florida requires 60 percent of the vote to go into effect). But a more recent poll put support at only 40 percent — and that poll was conducted in the days before the revelations about intentionally misleading voters.

Supporters of the amendment argue that it is important to enshrine policies that protect non-solar customers from cost-shifting — that is, when some customers have to pay more than others to maintain the grid. Most evidence, though, does not support the theory of cost-shifting, because of the broader benefits of distributed solar generation.

“The economic benefits of net metering actually outweigh the costs and impose no significant cost increase for non-solar customers. Far from a net cost, net metering is in most cases a net benefit — for the utility and for non-solar rate-payers,” the Brookings Institute concluded recently.

In a call with reporters Tuesday, Graham put it even more strongly: “There have been a number of studies on [cost-shifting],” he said. “In virtually every instance… the result is, ‘No,’ but even more, ‘Hell no.’”

“The installation of solar saves customers money because it avoids having to build additional generating capacity,” Graham said.

Florida’s Deceptive Solar Amendment… What You Need To Know Before You Vote

Solar companies usually back solar amendments.

But they have all lined up solidly against Florida’s Amendment 1 — “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice,” which, despite its title, is not about consumer rights or choice. In fact, it would effectively work against solar, by allowing utilities to add special charges for solar customers, the same type of charges that gutted the rooftop solar business in Arizona. It would also make solar leasing more difficult or impossible.

In the Sunshine State, solar energy is pretty popular, but a late September poll showed 66 percent of voters backing Amendment 1, despite the implications.

Why a majority of voters are supporting the measure seems to come down to two key factors: money and misinformation. The utilities and groups backing Amendment 1, which goes to voters November 8, have significantly outspent their opponents, and a coordinated misinformation effort has confused many voters.

Three utilities, Duke Energy, Gulf Power, and Florida Light & Power, have spent nearly $14 million on direct funding for the campaign, which is being led by a group called Consumers for Smart Solar. The nearly $14 million does not including money that utilities have donated to other groups which have, in turn, funded the campaign.

In addition to the money, which has funded a tsunami of TV, radio, and robocall advertising, the backers of Amendment 1 are depending on a solid — and admitted — misinformation campaign.

The attempt to mislead voters started at the very conception of Amendment 1. As soon as it was put on the ballot, the wording of the measure was the subject of a court challenge, led by solar supporters. The state supreme court eventually accepted the measure’s wording, but not before one justice wrote that it was “the proverbial ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing.’”

In fact, it’s unclear whether anyone supports the measure who isn’t tied to the utility industry or a conservative group supporting Consumers for Smart Solar, the advocacy group behind the measure.

For over a year, local newspapers and national magazines have been warning Floridians that Amendment 1 is not a pro-solar measure. By now, just weeks before the election, every major newspaper in the state has come out against the measure.

There is a single letter to the editor re-posted on Consumers for Smart Solar’s Facebook page that was not penned by someone who works for the campaign. ThinkProgress contacted the author, Florida resident Virginia Nelsen, who said she no longer supports Amendment 1.

I read [the measure] and it sounded really good to me — and I thought I knew what I was talking about,” Nelsen told ThinkProgress. “Now I’m completely confused.”

Nelsen said no, she is not worried about cost-shifting — which is when the behavior of one group, such as solar users, drives up costs for other users. And while she doesn’t have solar and isn’t planning to get solar, she said she doesn’t think it’s anyone else’s business where you get your electricity. She was also troubled by the fact that the measure is being supported by the utilities, who she said are just trying to protect their monopoly.

“People in Florida are pretty confused,” Nelsen said.

By any measure, there seems to be scant support for Amendment 1 among ordinary Floridians. An audit of donors to Consumers for Smart Solar found that of the only 12 individuals who had given, 11 of them had direct ties to the utility industry or one of the conservative groups supporting the organization.

Over the weekend, another Florida voter, 84-year-old Barbara Waks, called the Miami Herald to say she had just heard about leaked audio from a conservative conference in which a lobbyist appears to brag about how the amendment leverages voters’ support of solar to help the utilities.

“Your article came one day too late,’’ Waks told the paper. “I read it and I almost cried. I’m one of the stupid people who was duped. I voted incorrectly. Is there anything I can do?”

Waks said she voted early. “I’m furious that they would put something on the ballot that would deliberately confuse people and I’m furious at myself,” she said.

A conservative advocacy group for retired Americans, known as 60 Plus, has launched robo-calls supporting the measure featuring Pat Boone. This isn’t the first time the group has gotten involved in an anti-solar campaign. In 2013, 60 Plus became caught up in an investigation in Arizona, after the state’s utilities regulatory commission admitted it was funding groups that were running anti-solar ads.

Billing itself as a “conservative AARP,” 60 Plus has close ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and to other Koch-funded groups. A spokesperson for the group did not return email or phone messages asking for comment.

Floridians Overwhelmingly Support Solar In Tuesday Vote

Solar advocates finally got a win in the Sunshine State on Tuesday, as voters approved a measure to get rid of property taxes on solar equipment.

With more than 1,970,000 Floridians checking ‘yes,’ the measure, known as Amendment 4, received more support than the state’s two U.S. Senate primary winners, Marco Rubio (R) and Patrick Murphy (D), combined.

It’s not surprising that the measure passed, although the overwhelming support was a morale boost for the industry, which has faced hurdles in Florida. Amendment 4 received 72 percent approval overall — and needed only 60 percent to pass.

“The passage of Amendment 4 is a victory for Florida’s taxpayers and businesses” — Rep. Ray Rodrigues (R)

The amendment was the culmination of a bipartisan effort from the state legislature to make solar more affordable, especially for big box stores and for solar companies that offer leased equipment. While homeowners themselves were already exempt from paying property tax on solar equipment that they owned, businesses were on the hook.

“The passage of Amendment 4 is a victory for Florida’s taxpayers and businesses,” State Rep. Ray Rodrigues (R) said in a statement. “Floridians will benefit from lower taxes, reduced energy costs and the increased security of a diversified energy portfolio.”

Rodrigues cosponsored the bill putting the amendment on the ballot, along with fellow state representatives Lori Berman (D) and Dwight Dudley (D). The amendment had broad support from solar industry groups, environmental groups, and traditional business groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, and the Florida Retail Federation. The amendment will now go back to the legislature to be enacted into law.

“With this Florida amendment, the economics of solar have improved.” — Ragan Dickens, Walmart

Supporters are hoping the tax break will spur companies such as Walmart, IKEA, and Costco, which have made massive investments in solar elsewhere in the country, to install solar panels on their Florida stores. It will also allow solar leasing companies such as SolarCity to improve their margins.

“While we don’t have any onsite solar installations at our stores in Florida right now, we’re always looking at opportunities to add solar at stores across the country where it makes economic sense,” said Ragan Dickens, director of sustainability communications for Walmart. “With this Florida amendment, the economics of solar have improved, and we’ll certainly evaluate our opportunities there.”

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group, Florida has the third-most potential for solar in the country, but it is only 14th in amount of installed solar — even while installing 90 percent more solar in the past year. Massachusetts, Colorado, and North Carolina all have more installed solar.

“It’s clear Floridians want better access to affordable, clean energy options and this vote is a significant step in the right direction,” SEIA vice president Sean Gallagher said in a statement. “Now it’s time to keep the momentum going. To ensure a bright solar future for Florida, customers should vote NO on Amendment 1, the anti-solar amendment that will be on Florida ballots this November.”

Amendment 1 was certainly the dark cloud on the horizon during the Tuesday’s Amendment 4 party.

If Amendment 1 passes, it will prohibit Floridians from selling their electricity to third parties. In effect, it would do away with Floridians’ rights to lease solar panels, since, in that situation, the owner of the panels generally sells the electricity to the homeowner. Leasing solar systems has been an effective and popular way to allow homeowners to go solar without paying for the system up front.

Opponents have argued that the measure is designed to limit rooftop solar in Florida, and, as written, is intentionally confusing to voters, who might not understand what they are voting for.

“[Tuesday’s vote] is a big step forward for Florida, removing a longtime barrier to solar adoption, and the wide margin shows voters want rooftop solar,” said Will Craven, a spokesman for SolarCity. “But Amendment 1 in November could be three steps back, as it aims to trick these voters into supporting something that sounds pro solar, but would actually put a thriving solar industry further out of reach. Only monopoly utilities will benefit from a Yes on 1 vote, everyone else will lose.”

The state Supreme Court ruled against that argument in March and allowed the measure to go to voters during the general election.

Amendment 1 will also face a 60 percent threshold for approval, but there is expected to be a significant media campaign encouraging people to vote yes on 1.

Rooftop Solar Could Provide Almost 40 Percent of US Electricity

When it comes to personally investing in green energy, installing solar panels on your roof is one of the more practical options available to us regular people. Wind turbines and hydro power stations are awesome, but they’re not something the average suburban or metropolitan consumer really has much to do with up close. Solar technology, on the other hand, is much more personally accessible.

But how much of a contribution can solar really make to the electricity grid? According to a new analysis by the US Department of Energy, it’s a pretty big chunk. If all of the available roof space that could be practically fitted with solar panels were maxed out, it could make up the equivalent of 39 percent of the nation’s electricity.

This amount, which adds up to a technical potential of 1,118 gigawatts (GW) of capacity and 1,432 terawatt-hours (TWh) of annual energy generation, could take a large burden off our reliance on fossil-fuel-based power – but obviously, it’d be a massive undertaking to fit out all that available roof space.

To come up with the estimate, scientists from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) used light detection and ranging (LiDAR) data to calculate the suitability of rooftops for hosting solar panels – aka rooftop photovoltaic (PV) systems – in 128 cities across the US, then extrapolated from there.

Within the cities examined, the researchers found 83 percent of small buildings have a suitable location for installation of solar panels. But when they analysed each building’s capacity to hold a PV system on their roof, only 26 percent passed the grade.

While only about a quarter of most small buildings’ roofs could practically be used for solar panels, there are a whole lot of them across the US, which means this type of building could actually provide the greatest combined technical potential compared to other kinds of structures.

The upshot is that people’s houses could make the biggest contribution to solar power generation, with all small buildings in the US combined accounting for about two-thirds of the country’s total rooftop technical potential. Medium and large buildings combined would make up the other third.

But the scientists say we could even go beyond this, because obviously the combined rooftop area across the nation, while massive, is surrounded by all kinds of other potential solar-absorbing spaces and surfaces.

“It is important to note that this report only estimates the potential from existing, suitable rooftops, and does not consider the immense potential of ground-mounted PV,” said NREL senior energy analyst Robert Margolis. “Actual generation from PV in urban areas could exceed these estimates by installing systems on less suitable roof space, by mounting PV on canopies over open spaces such as parking lots, or by integrating PV into building facades.”

If you want to find out about the potential energy generation your house’s roof could provide, and learn more about the kinds of costs involved in installing a solar system, check out Google’s Project Sunroof, which figures out how much solar energy is hitting your rooftop based on satellite imagery.

Awesome.

Florida Will Vote This Year On Measure That Would Block Solar Leasing In The State

A measure that opponents say is intentionally confusing and will stifle solar growth was given the go-ahead by the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday. It will appear on the Florida ballot in November.

Environmental and solar advocates challenged the measure, titled, “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice,” saying that it does not reflect any choice and does not create new rights. Sponsored by utility companies and other groups tied to the Koch brothers, the measure will prevent people from selling their electricity to third parties. This would effectively prevent solar leasing in the state, because under that system, an owner — usually a solar company — installs panels at a home and then sells the generated electricity back to the homeowner.

“This amendment hoodwinks voters by giving the impression that it will encourage the use of rooftop solar when, in fact, it would do the opposite,” Earthjustice attorney David Guest told the News Service of Florida.

The measure was proposed by a group called Consumers for Smart Solar, which has already spent nearly half a million dollars just getting the it on the ballot. A competing measure, which would have reduced barriers to rooftop solar, did not receive enough signatures to make the ballot.

“Florida families and businesses should be able to put the Sunshine State’s plentiful solar resource to work reducing bills, driving energy innovation and building healthier communities,” said Scott Thomasson from Vote Solar, a national non-profit solar advocacy organization. “The state should be reducing obstacles for consumers who want to invest in affordable solar, but instead this amendment adds more barriers.”

In a scathing dissent, Justice Barbara J. Pariente warned Floridians about the measure’s confusing language.

“Let the pro-solar energy consumers beware. Masquerading as a pro-solar energy initiative, this proposed constitutional amendment, supported by some of Florida’s major investor-owned electric utility companies, actually seeks to constitutionalize the status quo,” Pariente wrote. “The ballot title is affirmatively misleading by its focus on ‘Solar Energy Choice,’ when no real choice exists for those who favor expansion of solar energy.”

She also pointed out that the measure takes pains to define even commonplace words such as “consumer,” but does not define “subsidy,” which is used in a misleading and unsubstantiated way in the measure. She said the concerns over solar customers shifting costs to other, non-solar customers were “speculative and not borne out in any present reality.”

“It is shameful that the utilities would go so far, and spend millions to manipulate and deceive their own customers,” Stephen Smith, Executive Director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said in a statement. “We will absolutely continue to shine a light on their dirty tricks and hope that the voters of Florida will see their ballot initiative for what is it: a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a sham designed to keep more money in the power companies pockets.”

All four justices who supported the measure’s inclusion were Republican nominees to the court. Two dissenting justices were nominated by a Democratic governor and the third, Pariente, has been nominated by both a Democrat and a Republican.

Utility Companies Are Playing Dirty In Florida To Kill Solar Energy Initiative

Facing a future where competition is rampant, customers pay less money, and solar users actually get paid for driving power back to the grid gives any entrenched utility executive heartburn. Fortunately for them, we live in an era where buying state law and tricking consumers into rooting against their own best self interests is easier than ever before. Florida (where air conditioning drives the second highest energy consumption nationally) is quickly becoming the poster child for how utilities are using ethically incontinent lawmakers and a gullible populace to prevent solar power technology from reaching critical mass.

In Florida the average household spends $1,900 a year on power, 40% higher than the national average. Yet incentives or other measures designed to spur solar power adoption are either absent or illegal, in large part thanks to utility lobbying. Last year, a coalition of strange bedfellows calling itself the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) tried to push an amendment that would have opened up the Florida energy market to solar competition. The group helped create a coalition dubbed “Floridians for Solar Choice” with an eye on a November 2016 ballot initiative:

Seeking to crack open Florida’s energy market at the ballot box, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) mounted a $2 million campaign to qualify a “Solar Choice” amendment for the 2016 election. The constitutional amendment would have ended Florida’s rare lock on electricity sales; only Kentucky, Oklahoma and North Carolina have similar prohibitions. It would have freed consumers to install leased solar panels on their rooftops at no upfront expense. Retailers could have installed solar arrays and sold power to tenants in the same shopping complex.

Instead of just the boring traditional approach of attacking the initiative (which was polling at 70% public support), Florida utilities got creative. They created an operation calling itself Consumers For Smart Solar — a group pretending to support solar technology, yet whose sole purpose is to push a competing proposal that hard bakes the existing, utility-friendly regulations into the Florida state constitution. The sales pitch at the group’s website works hard to craft the illusion that the proposal is a huge boon to consumers and solar:

Amendment 1 helps those who choose solar by allowing state and local governments to pass commonsense consumer protection regulations, designed to prevent fraud, abuse and overcharging. Non-solar customers who use traditional energy are protected by these regulations and we think solar customers should be protected, too. Even if you don’t choose solar, Amendment 1 works for you by ensuring that everyone who uses the electric grid helps pay to maintain it—including big, out-of-state companies.

The “about us” section of the group’s website fails to mention its ties to the utility sector whatsoever. Instead, as we’ve also seen in telecom, the group crows that it has the support of a variety of third-party associations and minority groups, apparently willing to sell their constituents’ best interests down river for industry financing. It also has the support of a myriad of groups just like itself, professing to be “coalitions of working people, business owners, environmentalists,” yet oddly enough supporting proposals that work in stark opposition to the interests of pretty much everybody — except utilities.

In other words, an ouroboros of carefully-constructed bullshit built specifically to protect the status quo.

Unsurprisingly, the initiative backed by companies and individuals actually supporting solar power has raised $1.52 million as of January 1, while the initiative backed by regional utilities like Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, Tampa Electric and Gulf Power has raised nearly 7 million. Outspent and outgunned, Floridians for Solar Choice (the group actually for energy market disruption and evolution) was forced to retreat and refocus on the 2018 ballot initiative, while the utility-backed proposal remains on track for a potential November approval, with few seemingly bothered that the masquerade has been so successful.