Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Solar-powered cars on the EV horizon

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Today is Friday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.   

Electric vehicles powered by solar energy may not be just a technological fantasy of the future, with a string of startups planning to unleash commercial solar-assisted vehicles in the next two years, The Wall Street Journal reported.

These models can still be plugged in when it’s cloudy. How much charge the cars get from the panels would depend on things like the weather and what angle the sun is hitting them, Journal video correspondent George Downs noted.

But even though solar energy is more efficient than it was a decade ago, Downs cautioned that some of that efficiency is lost when integrated into a traditionally structured vehicle — necessitating the complete redesign of cars as we know them. 

Today we’ll take a look at solar energy from another angle — the rooftops of big-box stores and their potential to store panels — as well as a packaging loophole that independent ranchers say is making them compete with “Made in USA” beef that may be anything but.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin.  

Let’s get to it. 

 

Retail rooftops boast big energy potential 

If America’s big-box retail and grocery stores all covered their roofs with solar panels, they could cover half of their own electricity needs and generate enough clean electricity to power more than 7.9 million U.S. homes, a new report has found.  

First words: “Rooftop solar is the best electricity source for the moment we’re in,” Susan Rakov, chair of Environment America Research & Policy Center’s clean energy program, said in a statement.   

“Big-box store rooftops are right in the middle of most American communities, and they’re big, flat and panel-ready,” she added.  

More solar means less gas: Such a transformation would also cut greenhouse gas emissions in an amount equivalent to eliminating 11.3 million cars from the road, according to the report, published by the Environment America advocacy group.    

The U.S. has more than 100,000 such stores and malls, with a cumulative total of nearly 7.2 billion square feet of rooftop space, according to the report.    

Which store has the biggest potential? Walmart has three times as much annual rooftop solar potential as its closest competitor, Target, according to the report.  

The average size of a Walmart rooftop is 180,000 square feet — equivalent to about three football fields and capable of powering nearly 200 homes, the authors noted.    

LEADING THE WAY

“If Walmart rises to the opportunity, that will set a standard for other big-box stores to dedicate their rooftops to solar too,” Wade Wilson, an Environment America Research & Policy Center associate, said in a statement.   

Walmart was already among the four companies — alongside Apple, Amazon and Target — with the most solar installed as of 2019, the Environment America report acknowledged, citing data from the Solar Energy Industries Association.  

What does Walmart have to say? A spokeswoman said in a statement that the company aims to achieve zero emissions across its global operations by 2040, including a goal of sourcing 100 percent of its power from renewable energy by 2035. 

“As of 2020, 36 percent of our global electricity needs were supplied by renewable sources,” she said. 

Californians clash over residential solar

With hopes of expediting solar energy adoption, a report from Environment America recommended several public policy changes — such as expanded federal and state tax incentives, the ability to sell excess energy back to the grid and streamlined permitting. 

The authors offered these suggestions amid an ongoing controversy in California over a public utilities commission proposal to slash incentives for residential solar rooftop customers.    

Golden State pushback: Through the Net Energy Metering program, some 1.3 million Californians receive credit for the excess power they send back to the grid — credit that is significantly downsized in the proposal, which also includes a “grid participation” fee, according to the San Diego Tribune.    

The proposal argues that today’s tariff “negatively impacts non-participating customers” and “disproportionately harms low-income ratepayers.”    

Environmental groups and a stream of celebrities have been rallying against the changes, calling upon Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to step in. While the CPUC had planned to vote on the issue on Jan. 27, that vote was postponed on Thursday.

Concerns that solar could plummet: Laura Deehan, state director for Environment California, compared the proposed changes to a 2016 situation in Nevada, which imposed both a monthly tax and a sizable drop in how much credit consumers earned for selling solar electricity back to the grid.    

“As a result, the number of people adopting rooftop solar plummeted,” Deehan said, at a Thursday virtual press conference hosted by the Environmental Working Group.    

‘JUST GOING TO KILL MORE PEOPLE’

Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University professor for civil and environmental engineering, argued that by reducing the capacity of rooftop solar, the state will only end up increasing pollution from biomass and gas combustion.    

“So we’re just going to kill more people with this policy,” Jacobson told panelists.   

Challenging the “rhetoric”: Esperanza Vielma, executive director for the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, argued that despite the “rhetoric” of the commission, the proposed changes would be “very unfavorable” to low-income and underrepresented communities.  

“Public health impacts are going to be the real cost of California policy that slows the adoption of on-site solar energy statewide,” Vielma said.    

Some optimism amid delay: With the postponement of the Jan. 27 commission hearing, the panel participants expressed some confidence that Newsom had heard their concerns. 

Last words: “What we’re hoping is for a dramatically revised decision — or an alternate decision that will actually allow us to have growing rooftop solar in the state,” Deehan said.   

Farmers raise concerns over ‘Made in USA’ beef 

America’s independent cattle ranchers say that big beef is squeezing them out — and that the Biden administration is letting it happen. 

The Biden administration passed a sweeping executive order in July 2021 directing federal agencies to address anti-competitive behavior by big meatpacking companies — four of whom control the bulk of the hog, cattle and chicken markets.  

First words: “We want to bring some semblance of competition back to the cattle market,” Tim Gibbons of Missouri Rural Crisis Center, which represents 5,600 farming families, told Equilibrium. “Missouri has 50,000 cattle producers, but 80 percent of beef packing is controlled by four companies.” 

But while President Biden has identified some of the largest problems, Gibbons said, “other than talk, nothing has changed.” 

Beef prices rose 20 percent between October 2020 and October 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Behind the quote: The ranchers particularly blame an Obama-era legal reform that allowed meatpackers to label any beef product processed in the U.S. as a “product of the U.S.” — regardless of where the cattle were raised.  

This allowed big meatpacking companies to bury them under an avalanche of cheap, foreign-raised beef, while labeling it as made-in-America, according to Missouri rancher Darvin Bentlage.  

“That pound of ground beef may say ‘Made in the USA,’ but it could be from five or six countries,” Bentlage said. 

Multiple issues: Concern over Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) is just one of a diverse set of anxieties that farmers are feeling around price.  

THE CASE OF THE FALLING PRICES

Bentlage, the Missouri rancher, made $518 a head when he sold his cows. Now it’s somewhere between $80 and $125.   

“That means a hundred cows would make you $51,000 in 2014. This year, they’re projecting it will be maybe $12,500,” he said.   

“That’s still at the poverty level,” Bentlage added, noting that he blames the competition from foreign beef.

What does the industry say? In a successful Obama-era campaign to overturn certificate of origin labeling, the North American Meat Institute argued that it “harms livestock producers and the industry and affords little benefit to consumers” — as well as being unconstitutional “compelled speech,” according to a 2014 statement.   

The meat industry also pushes back on the virtues of small ag: “The notion that smaller scale operations are more environmentally friendly and sustainable than larger scale is not supported by the data which suggests that efficiency is the most important factor,” reads one of the Meat Institute’s “Media Mythcrushers.” 

What is the government doing? The Biden executive order contains language closing the loophole that allows foreign-raised beef to be labeled a product of the U.S.   

And a number of bipartisan bills have been introduced to target what many small meat farmers see as the worst features of corporate controlled agriculture.

Keep an eye on The Hill’s Sustainability section this weekend for more on this story.

Follow-up Friday

Turning back to issues we’ve explored throughout the week. 

Sustainability of this year’s Winter Olympics comes into question in China 

  • On Tuesday we looked at a report exploring how climate change may threaten the future of the Winter Olympics. While China’s government has promised that nearly every aspect of this year’s games will be “green,” environmentalists are concerned about the country’s water scarcity and other challenges, according to The Washington Post. 
  • Although Beijing organizers have pledged to buy only renewable electricity for the venue, the surrounding Hebei province, where the co-host Zhangjiakou is located, relies mostly on fossil fuels for its power, the Post reported. 

Rising fertilizer prices mean rising food prices 

  • On Thursday we wrote about a proposal to re-use purified poop from office buildings as agricultural fertilizer. And with fertilizer costs on the rise across the developing world, we can expect prices of commodities from corn and coffee to chocolate and coconuts to keep rising, The Wall Street Journal reported.
  • The lack of fertilizer has left the coffee beans cultivated by Christina Ribeiro do Valle looking “like a child that’s malnourished,” she told the Journal. She talked about fertilizer orders like Americans might discuss their wait for a Ford F-150 EV. “This year, you pay, then put your name on a waiting list, and the supplier delivers it when he has it.”  

Tongans get some liquid relief 

  • Nearly a week after a volcanic eruption and tsunami, which we covered on Monday, spoiled all the water on Tonga’s main island, a New Zealand ship carrying 250,000 gallons of water — and desalinization equipment — docked on the island on Thursday, according to Reuters.
  • But even with trucks delivering water, Tongans are still struggling. “We are cleaning the ash and have been since Monday,” said charter boat owner Branko Sugar. “We only have the tap water, and it’s been contaminated.” 

 

Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Monday.

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