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Clean Energy: Employment and Economic Impact

So, when we talk about someone employed in “clean energy”, what does that cover?  Like “manufacturing”, many things. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines and tracks employment by sector, but it’s not the most user-friendly resource.  So, while BLS notes that there were nearly 6,000 wind turbine service techs employed in May of 2020, it divides them among five different industries, ranging from utility construction to consulting to local government.  Sadly, a BLS plan to categorize and track clean energy jobs begun in 2010 was abandoned in 2013 during a federal budget shutdown, and has never resumed.

More generally, clean energy jobs fall into four broad categories – energy efficiency (home upgrades or commercial building retrofits); renewables (solar, wind, biogas, or geothermal energy); grid and storage (electrical engineering, battery tech, and charging stations); and cleaner vehicles and fuels (hybrid and electric vehicle manufacturing or biofuel production).  Altogether, more than 3.3 million Americans work in one of these fields, and it’s worth noting that energy efficiency alone employed more than twice as many people as all fossil energy sectors combined.

Like nearly everybody else, clean energy workers have taken a hit in this economy.  About 147,000 jobs were eliminated in March, and April totals nearly tripled that.  More than 590,000 jobs in the sector evaporated by April 30th, two months ahead of projections by BW Research.  The same analysts now expect around ¼ of all green energy jobs to be gone by June 30th, some 850,000 in all.

Under the circumstances, this isn’t surprising.  Homeowners are unlikely to invite insulation crews into their homes in the midst of a pandemic.  Financial chaos means that banks are less likely to lend on large-scale clean energy deployments.  Cities facing budgets collapsing under tax shortfalls are going to emphasize essential services before clean energy buildouts.  And utilities are facing tumbling energy demand.  IEA estimates that from February through April, global demand for energy dropped 6%, the equivalent of all of India.  American energy demand is set to drop 9%, according to the same report.

Whatever the course of economic contraction and recovery, there are certain irreducible advantages to jobs in these industries.  To begin with, they tend to be site-specific.  Many renewable energy jobs are unlikely to be outsourced – those building and maintaining a thermal solar plant in Arizona, for example, are going to build and maintain it in that location for its useful life.  The same holds true for energy efficiency professionals – the homes and buildings in the United States aren’t going to offshore themselves.

Many skilled green energy jobs pay relatively well, can boost stressed economies and don’t require four-year degrees.  Wind turbine techs, for example, exemplify this beneficial clustering.  Wind turbines require regular service and maintenance, and wind farms are located largely in rural areas in the Midwest and southern Plains.  Technicians tend to live in smaller cities or towns near these sites, supporting the local tax base.  Median income for a turbine technician in 2019 was $52,910, which could go a long way in Russell County, Kansas or Alliance, Nebraska.  And training for the field takes one or two years, depending on program and specialization. Median income for solar installers was lower, but in 2019 stood at $44,890 per year, and for insulation crews, median income in 2019 was $44,180,

The issue, at least for now, is that the three specific categories mentioned above don’t employ very many Americans – about 75,000 in all in 2018 and 2019, according to BLS.  But broaden the focus, and green energy’s economic becomes clearer – and bigger.  Wind energy’s total economic footprint alone is already substantial.  In 2018, 530 plants in 43 states produced components – blades, nacelles, turbines, gearing and digital control systems. Outsourcing of some of this manufacturing is possible, but given the size and weight of components as turbines grow taller, is likely to remain largely here at home.  Moreover, the Department of Energy estimates as many as 600,000 jobs in all subsectors of wind energy in less than 30 years.

This kind of job generation potential is what makes remaking America’s energy system so important to inclusive economic recovery.  Utilities, states and cities are already beginning to implement plans to change how we generate and distribute energy in a carbon-constrained world.  These efforts have been patchy and slow, and to date unlikely to meet even minimal Paris Agreement standards.  But under the right circumstances, policy changes, like technological changes, can happen quickly.  Emphasizing the very real benefits of more clean energy jobs may help speed that vital process.

Renewable Energy From 30,000 Feet

So where, as COVID redefines economies and politics, is the renewable energy sector?  What happens over the next few years – to technologies, investments, deployments and incentives – will determine multiple trajectories.  These include the jobs of millions of people, how quickly carbon accumulates in the atmosphere and oceans, and the possibility of stranded assets hampering any rapid, substantive switch from old to new.

If you’re thinking purely in terms of dollars and cents, the latest issue of Forbes has a fascinating article.  A joint study by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and Imperial College London reviewed returns on energy investments starting in 2009.  Combining German and French stock market data, the past five years showed returns of 178% for renewables and -20.7% for fossil energy.  UK renewable stocks returned over 75%, legacy energy 8.8%.  Here at home, where utility-scale renewable buildouts began later than in Europe, renewable returns were north of 200%, while oil, gas and coal stocks didn’t quite double.  Renewable investments proved more stable over the same periods measured.  But the same article notes that the biggest fossil energy shareholders – pension funds – are reluctant to disinvest from dividend-rich stocks.

Beyond that, an ostensible renewable energy transition is up against multiple countervailing factors – for starters $900 billion or more in potential “stranded assets” of global fossil energy companies.  The oil majors have talked a good game for years now, but the numbers don’t bear out their proclaimed commitments to renewables.  Exxon is now in court for, among other things, bragging on its green energy tech while spending less than ½ of 1% of revenues on renewable energy.  In 2019, BP projected spending between 3% and 8% (at best) of capex on renewables, and in February the company dumped an advertising campaign highlighting renewables.  And so on.

American utilities face the same kinds of stranded asset risks, though only 18% of utility employees view sunk costs in infrastructure as a top worry.  But power plants can be ferociously expensive to build.  Evergy’s Iatan 2 project, which went online nearly 10 years ago, came in at nearly $2 billion, with state-of-the-art environmental retrofits of the Iatan 1 plant adding to costs.  It can take large projects like this decades to pay for themselves; securitizing early retirement of fossil fuel plants can blunt risks to utilities, but so far has only been tried in three states.

Even bigger picture – there’s a substantial inertia built into an energy economy created more than 100 years ago – a vast, complex system that works remarkably well to meet the needs of its customers.  To date, renewables are still a small slice of total US electricity output.  In 2018, natural gas generated about 35% of our electricity, coal about 27%, nuclear a bit over 19% and all renewables, including hydroelectric, not quite 17%, with niche sources making up the rest.

To be clear, renewable energy’s recent eclipse of coal in the US has been remarkable.  In fact, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) announced the very day this was written that in 2019 consumption of energy produced from renewables passed that produced by coal, the first time per EIA that this has happened since before 1885.  But a decarbonized energy economy is still decades away.  The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that to even approach climate goals, renewables must increase to around 65% of global Total Primary Energy Supply by 2050 – and we’re nowhere close to that yet.  More on all of the above, COVID impacts and the state of play in our next renewable installment.

COVID-19 Impacts: Ethanol and Its Discontents

Carnage in the conventional energy sector has drawn a lot of attention in the past few weeks.  But the collapse of recent months was presaged by mediocre performance stretching back literally years.  Total returns for the Standard & Poor Energy Sector for 2019, including dividends, were a paltry 6%.  And for the entire decade of 2010-2019, the same sector was up 34%, by far the worst performance of the 11 sectors S&P tracks.  The fracking revolution, it turns out, created a world awash in oil and gas, but didn’t do much to help the industry that created it.

Which brings us to a related question – if oil & gas are in trouble from COVID-19 and from a decade of overproduction and low prices, what has the ongoing turmoil done to alternative fuels?  In particular, since KC Clean Cities operates in the biofueled, beating heart of the Midwest, what’s happened to biodiesel and (particularly) ethanol?

A bit of backstory:   more than 95% of vehicle gasoline sold in the US is a 10% ethanol blend.  There are several reasons for this.  Until about 15 years ago, a compound known as MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) was blended with gasoline to add oxygen.  As a result, gasoline burned cleaner, and cut smog-forming chemicals and toxins like benzene in exhaust.  But there were problems – MTBE leaked into groundwater from gas station tanks, creating water quality problems.  Moreover, it’s listed as a potential carcinogen.  Enter ethanol, exit MTBE with the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Like MTBE, ethanol adds oxygen to gasoline and cuts smog-forming emissions.  Unlike MTBE, it’s also a way for America to deal with its massive agricultural surpluses by distilling a value-added product from corn. (It’s worth noting that ethanol now accounts for 40% of all the corn we grow.)

With the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007, Congress created a mandate that steadily increasing amounts of renewables would be blended into America’s fuel supply – 36 billion gallons by 2022.  This is the Renewable Fuels Standard, which has been hotly debated over the last few years in Washington and elsewhere.

So far so good.  Refineries and fuel importers had a choice – they could blend steadily increasing amounts of renewable fuels.  Or, if they didn’t want to, they could use RINs – Renewable Inventory Numbers – attached to each gallon of renewable fuel produced.  Pecos Pete’s refinery has already hit their required volume of ethanol blended with gasoline for the year, but they keep on blending.  Why?  Because Brownsville Bob’s refinery hasn’t blended any ethanol into their gasoline.  However, Bob can stay in compliance by buying RINs from Pecos Pete, with the price set by the RIN market.

There’s also been a safety valve built into the system, called the Small Refinery Exemption or SRE.  “Small” is relative, but refineries with less than 75,000 barrels per day as of 2006 qualify, and can petition EPA to be excused from renewable fuel blending.  And this is where the fur begins to fly.  Between 2016 and 2018, the EPA granted a total of 85 small refinery exemptions, a big jump that removed a total of 4 billion gallons of mandated demand from the market.  This has been a sore spot with farmers, but hardly the only one.  The ongoing trade war with China has dried up what was a major market for ethanol, corn and distiller’s grain, a byproduct of the ethanol production process used as animal feed.  Allowing year-round sales of E-15 – that is, gasoline that is 15% ethanol by volume hasn’t made much of a dent, since relatively few gas stations sell it even though all light-duty gasoline vehicles 2001 or newer are approved to use E15.

And now, COVID.  Just as Texas and Oklahoma oil producers and refineries don’t have any place left to store their crude and refined products as consumer demand collapses, ethanol producers are running out of storage.  Federal Reserve research shows US ethanol production down nearly 50% since the beginning of 2020.  73 out of 200 total plants nationwide are shut down, while another 71 are on reduced production schedules.  At least two dozen ethanol plants are now producing alcohol for hand sanitizer, but at low volume, much of which will be donated anyway.

For the time being, the sector seems to be shaking its way into stasis.  Whatever shape the ethanol industry takes in 2021 and beyond will depend for now on what the virus does– and how we respond – in 2020.

For additional details on why this matters, please check out our guest blog posting by David VanderGriend of the Urban Air Institute.  Fuel blending standards can sound arcane, and the details of ethanol and corn and agriculture seem like something taking place in distant, rural counties.  They’re not.  They impact the lives of residents of metro Kansas City every day, and at the fundamental level of our own health.

Case Study: School District’s Propane Buses Go Beyond Cost Savings

District: Grain Valley School District
Industry: Education
Location: Grain Valley, Missouri
Vehicles: (14) 2018 IC Bus CE Series propane autogas-fueled buses
Fueling: On-site propane autogas station

Challenge
With aging diesel buses to replace, a Missouri school district looked to alternative fuel options that would save money on fuel and maintenance.

Result
The Grain Valley School District purchased 14 propane school buses. The new buses joined a 49-bus fleet that transports 2,800 students to school from suburban and exurban neighborhoods.

Focus on Cost-Cutting
Over the years Missouri state reimbursements for school transportation have dropped from 75 percent to 16 to 20 percent. School districts in the state have had to tap their own general school funds to make up the shortfall.

To help save money, the Grain Valley district considered alternative fuels for its new school buses and comparing compressed natural gas (CNG) and propane autogas. District representatives attended an alternative fuels workshop hosted by Kansas City Regional Clean Cities, a Metropolitan Energy Center program. The district considered various fuels but “the vehicle costs and fueling station costs for CNG were much higher versus propane,” said Shawn Brady, director of transportation.

The district decided to purchase 14 propane buses in 2018 to replace diesel buses of 2001 and 2002 model years. Brady researched and applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy through Kansas City Regional Clean Cities to assist with the purchase costs of the buses.

Preparing for Propane Autogas
To fuel the new buses, the district entered into a contract with their local propane provider, Ferrellgas. A fueling station with two 1,000-gallon tanks was built in the school district’s bus parking lot in April 2018. “It saves time not to have to travel to refuel,” Brady noted.

Infrastructure costs for propane are the lowest of any fuel; alternative or conventional. For Grain Valley schools, the start-up cost for the fueling station totaled $16,500. “We received a 45 percent grant from Metropolitan Energy Center for the installation of our propane fueling station,” Brady said. The center’s grant amounted to $7,425. “The fueling station cost us only $9,075 after the grant.”

Before putting the new buses on the district’s routes, drivers received training in propane bus operation. “Our bus vendor provided training on how to properly operate the buses and maximize fuel efficiency,” Brady said. The district’s technicians traveled to the bus manufacturer’s factory in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a complimentary week-long training course on maintenance. The district didn’t need to make changes to its bus repair facility. Requirements for a propane vehicle service facility are generally the same as those for conventionally fueled vehicles.

Financial Benefits
After tapping grants for purchase assistance, each new bus cost about $250 more than a comparable diesel bus. District officials say that the higher initial cost can be quickly recouped in fuel savings.

In fact, by adding propane buses to its fleet, Grain Valley School District has noted savings on both fuel and maintenance. On average, propane autogas costs up to 50 percent less than diesel. As part of its Grain Valley Schools propane bus and fueling setupnegotiated contract, Grain Valley paid a locked-in rate of $1.20 per gallon of propane in 2018-1019. For the 2019-2020 school year, the district pays $1.15 per gallon. For comparison, the district pays $2.31 per gallon on average for diesel.

Each bus in the district runs about 9,000 miles per year. For the 2018-2019 school year, fuel savings amounted to about $14,500. “The district’s increased savings year after year will allow the transportation department to serve as a better steward of taxpayer money,” said Brady.

Additional savings come from the reduced maintenance. With propane autogas, no exhaust after-treatment or diesel emissions fluids are required like with diesel to meet today’s strict emissions regulations. Propane vehicles don’t need particulate trap systems, turbochargers and intercoolers. Plus, propane uses less engine oil. All these factors contribute to the overall savings of time and money. The district’s technicians like the propane buses, Brady reports. “There are fewer parts and systems to have to maintain.”

However, Brady explained that “warranty work is challenging with no established shop in Kansas City.” He noted that IC does provide a traveling technician who assists his staff when they encounter maintenance issues. Kansas City Regional Clean Cities recommends fleet managers ensure that there is a local service shop to do warranty and continuing work on buses before purchasing.

Even more saving shows up for the district in the winter. Due to the chemical properties of propane autogas, the propane buses warm up faster and have no cold start issues. Unlike diesel vehicles, these buses can start up in temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit. School districts report lower electric costs because the propane buses don’t rely on block heaters. “Our propane buses warmed up faster this past winter than the diesel buses,” Brady said.

Beyond the Bottom Line 

Grain Valley’s propane buses are helping the community’s air quality. Unlike diesel buses, propane vehicles emit virtually no particulate matter and, with substantially less nitrogen oxides (NOx). Buses fueled by propane also emit fewer greenhouse gases and total hydrocarbon emissions when compared to diesel buses. Propane’s quiet operation makes riding the bus more pleasant for passengers and safer for drivers, who are less distracted by engine noise. “We’ve benefitted from much cleaner air and much quieter buses running through neighborhoods,” said Brady.

Drivers also report that the propane dispenser pumps are just as fast or faster than the diesel fuel pump when it’s time to fill the tank. The district notes that it will be sure to order buses with 100-gallon fuel tanks going forward. “These were not available from IC when we placed our first order,” Brady said.

The district’s leadership in adopting an alternative fuel earned it a 2018 Agent of Change Award from the Metropolitan Energy Center, a Kansas City nonprofit catalyst for energy efficiency, economic development and environmental vitality.

The district’s plan to purchase seven more propane buses this year, and eventually move to an all-propane fleet, speaks to the administration’s belief in the benefits of this alternative fuel for their students, drivers and overall community.

“Our district made the decision on propane buses to save money. The environmental impact is an added benefit. There’s no reason to not make the move into propane now,” Brady said.

 

About MOPERC: The Missouri Propane Education & Research Council is a not-for-profit organization authorized by the Missouri Legislature. Dedicated to propane education and public awareness, MOPERC provides industry training, consumer safety, appliance rebates and market development programs. The council is composed of 15 volunteer directors and adm inistered by an executive staff. Visit PropaneMissouri.com.

Missouri VW Settlement Funding Announcement!

For fiscal year 2019 (July 2018 through June 2019), the Missouri Department of Natural Resources will fund $2.75 million in government truck repower and replacement projects.

Implementation Guidelines

Deadline:  Monday Dec. 31, 2018 at 5 p.m. CST.

Eligibility:  Qualifying applicants include government agencies that own eligible trucks:  “Government” shall mean a State or local government agency.  This category includes a school district, municipality, city, county, special district, transit district, joint powers authority, or port authority, owning fleets purchased with government funds.  It also includes a tribal government or native village. The term “State” means the several States, the District of Columbia, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Key Program Requirements:

  • Eligible engine model years 1992-2009.
  • Eligible vehicles are Class 4-8 with GVWR greater than 14,000 pounds.
  • Older engine or vehicle must be permanently disabled.
  • New diesel, biodiesel, CNG, propane and all-electric engines are all eligible for funding.
  • The program provides up to 75% of the cost of an engine repower.
  • The program provides up to 50% of the cost of a new vehicle.
  • For this round, maximum request from a single applicant is $1 million.
  • Applications submitted through modnr.force.com.

Grant Workshop For New Federal Funding Opportunities

Wed, May 23 | 2:30 pm | Project Living Proof | 917 Emmanuel Cleaver II Blvd, KCMO

Kansas City Regional Clean Cities is hosting a grant workshop on three new funding opportunities totaling more than $140 million nationwide. These programs cover diesel emissions reduction, low- and zero-emission transit fleets, and infrastructure and super-fast charging, plus other projects. We’ll cover eligibility, the application process, financial and cost-share requirements, and much more in this free workshop.

All interested potential grant applicants are cordially invited to participate. This includes state and local governments, transit agencies, MPOs, non-profit organizations and school districts. Although for-profit companies are not eligible to apply directly for these grants, Clean Cities routinely works with our corporate fleet members to administer grants for their projects. Interested businesses are welcome to attend.

Join us in person at Project Living Proof, or attend virtually via GoToMeeting or telephone at (646)749-3122, Access Code: 448-679-701. If attending in person, please park at the Anita Gorman Discovery Center, 4750 Troost Avenue, Kansas City, MO, then follow the boardwalk north to PLP’s back door.

For questions or to RSVP for the workshop, email David Albrecht or call (816) 531-7283.

 

 

EV Collaborative Enjoys Quiet Ride With Columbia’s Electric Buses

The Missouri EV Collaborative held its second spring meeting on April 17th at City Hall in Columbia, MO. There was plenty of discussion among municipal fleet and Clean Cities representatives from Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois. The VW Settlement, clean fuel corridors and the nuts and bolts of EV charging were all hot topics.

Above – Transit Manager Drew Brooks Lays Out The Layout Of An EV Bus

The really fun part, though, came at the end of the day, when attendees headed out for a test ride on one of nine all-electric transit buses run by the city’s transit authority. GoCOMO now operates nine battery-powered buses, with four more ordered. The bus, California-built but designed by China’s BYD, provided a remarkably quiet ride around town as Parking & Transit Manager Drew Brooks talked about tech, testing and transitioning to EV bus service.

The City runs the buses under a lease-to-own agreement as part of GoCOMO’s budget. Along with local funding, a $1.7 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration is helping to cover the cost of electrical upgrades, consulting and three of the four EV buses still on order. The cost difference between all-electric buses and conventional models is still substantial, though EV prices are falling. This means that ROI in through fuel savings is very much a long-term proposition. However, there’s one area where the electric buses paid for themselves immediately – maintenance. Normal quarterly maintenance for a diesel bus runs in the neighborhood of $1,300. But an EV bus, without fuel or oil; in fact, lacking nearly all of the moving, greasy parts found in a diesel bus – runs about $300 per maintenance check.

According to Brooks, BYD’s support team engaged well before a single wheel turned in mid-Missouri. Along with background information on local weather and passenger counts, route mapping was vital to the rollout.   This included special attention to the maximum grades on each route. This information was then programmed into the computer on each bus before delivery to cut the odds of running out of juice. Although different drivers can and do make a difference with how many miles a given bus can run between charges, range hasn’t really been a serious issue.

Above – Drew takes questions on the road; on right, KCMO Sustainability Coordinator Gerry Shechter.

One notable physical difference during our drive around town – the lack of noise, something that’s made the EV buses popular among riders. Drew stood up front, taking questions in a voice just slightly louder than normal conversational tone, something that would be impossible in a diesel bus. There may have been 75 horses tied to each rear axle, but you couldn’t really tell from the passenger seat.

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