Cite As

Morgan Sarao, James Adams, Briana Leone, Andrew Rosenthal, and Ali Kenner. "Media Brief - December 2020." Energy in COVID-19. The Energy Rights Project. Platform for Experimental and Collaborative Ethnography.

COVID-19 Energy Policy

A reoccurring theme in our monthly media briefs has been tracing energy policy that has been induced by or developed alongside the COVID-19 pandemic. On December 27th 2020, Trump signed the combination spending bill and COVID-19 relief package into law, and although the relief package does not include specific funding for LIHEAP, the nation’s largest utility assistance program, the spending bill reauthorized 3.75 billion allocated to LIHEAP. The relief package does include $35.2 billion allocated for energy initiatives, with aims to strengthen the United State’s renewable energy research and development portfolio.  Additionally, the option for utility assistance remains part of the $25 billion that will be shared with the rental assistance portion of the relief package. In Philadelphia, the free PHLConnectED program, which originally provided no cost internet access to families who did not have internet access, only accessed the internet through cell phones, or were experiencing homelessness or had students completing remote learning in spots without internet access, has been extended to families receiving special education services or are English-language learners, and those who participate in public benefit programs with income qualifications.

New Stimulus Includes $35.2 Billion for New Energy Initiatives

This article discusses the approximate $35.2 billion allocated for energy initiatives in the new COVID-19 Economic Stimulus Package, which is split between the Energy Act of 2020 and the Energy for the Environment Act. “[The Energy Act of 2020] is a bipartisan, bicameral energy innovation package that authorizes over $35 billion in RD&D activities across DOE’s portfolio and strengthens or creates programs crucial to advancing new technologies into the market,” a summary document for the legislation reads. 

There’s $1.5 billion for new solar technologies including modules, concentrating solar technology, new photovoltaic technologies and initiatives to expand solar manufacturing and recycling technologies. $2.6 billion is set aside for transportation technologies. Finally, energy-efficiency and weatherization programs are continuing to be supported through a $1.7 billion reauthorization of the Weatherization Assistance Program. Energy-grid technologies get a $3.44 billion boost through $1.08 billion in support for short-term, long-term, seasonal and transportation energy storage technologies and $2.36 billion for smart utility and energy distribution technologies. Another $625 million is dedicated to new research, development and commercialization for both onshore and offshore wind technologies. $850 million is being set aside for geothermal technology development and $933 million for marine energy and hydropower tech. Finally, there’s $160 million earmarked for hydropower generator upgrades, and upgrades to existing federal infrastructure through $180 million earmarked to the Federal Energy Management Program. Nuclear technologies are also getting their day in the sun thanks to $6.6 billion in funding for the modernization of existing nuclear power plants and the development of advanced reactors.  In an attempt to ensure that the money and innovation is used in the industries where decarbonization is the most technically challenging, there’s a $500 million pot for stakeholders in industries like iron, steel, aluminum, cement and chemicals as well as transportation businesses like shipping, aviation and long-distance transport that are looking to decarbonize. Congress is also approving a $447 million research and development program for large-scale commercial carbon dioxide removal projects — with a $100 million carve out grant for direct air capture competition at facilities that capture at least 50,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. To cap it off, the new energy bill includes a directive to the Department of the Interior to target the generation of 25 gigawatts of solar, wind and geothermal production on public lands by 2025.

COVID-19 Emergency Relief Package - Topline Summary for New Agreement

On December 21st, the House and Senate passed the Emergency Coronavirus Relief Act of 2020 after a weekend of high-level negotiating between leadership. Unfortunately, specific funding for LIHEAP is not expected to be included in the package. However, the option for utility assistance remains part of the $25 billion that will be shared with rental assistance. This document contains a topline summary which describes how most funding from this bill will be spent.

COVID-19 Relief Emergency Rental Assistance Summary

As stated in the previous article, there is no specific funding for LIHEAP in the second COVID-19 Relief Package; funding for rental assistance and utility assistance are shared. This document details how funds will be used in the Emergency Rental Assistance Section of the stimulus. 

"Grantees shall use funds to provide direct financial assistance or housing stability services to eligible households. Not less than 90 percent of funds shall be used for direct financial assistance, including rent, rental arrears, utilities and home energy costs, utilities and home energy costs arrears, and other expenses related to housing."

President Signs Joint Spending Bill and COVID-19 Relief

This policy update published by NEUAC discusses utility-related funding within the combination spending bill and COVID-19 relief package that has been passed by Congress, and signed by President Trump. $3.75 billion is allocated to LIHEAP in the spending package, however no specific funding was appropriated for LIHEAP in the relief portion of the bill.

Free internet access available for some now struggling to afford it, city says

Philadelphia is extending it's free PHLConnectED program, which provides no cost internet connections to families who have children receiving special education services or are English-language learners, and those who participate in public benefit programs with income qualifications. City officials announced the change on Monday, November 14th, and the $17 million program which is mostly paid for by philanthropy will last through June 2022, though many organizers hope to see it last far beyond that date. 

PHLConnectED has money to connect up to 35,000 families. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. estimates 18,000 families are still not connected to the internet, but city officials have since backed away from that number. They stated such a number cannot be accurately calculated.

Artifact List

David Roberts, "Getting to 100% renewables requires cheap energy storage. But how cheap?", contributed by James Adams, Disaster STS Network, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 27 July 2020, accessed 3 June 2022.

Graham, Kristen, 14 December 2020, "Free internet access available for some now struggling to afford it, city says", contributed by Andrew Rosenthal, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 21 December 2020, accessed 1 June 2022.

Herman, Trabish, "Utility customers owe up to $40B in COVID-19 debt, but who will pay it?", contributed by Alison Kenner, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 4 January 2021, accessed 1 June 2022.

Hollister, Sean, 19 December 2020, "Cable companies can no longer ‘rent’ you the router you already own", contributed by Andrew Rosenthal, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 21 December 2020, accessed 1 June 2022.‘rent’-you-router-you-already-own

Katz, Cheryl, "In Boost for Renewables, Grid-Scale Battery Storage is on the Rise", contributed by James Adams, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 4 January 2021, accessed 1 June 2022.

Maykuth, Andrew "Peco plans hourly rates to encourage customers to shift energy use to off-peak periods", contributed by Alison Kenner, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 31 December 2020, accessed 1 June 2022.

Moss, Rebecca, "Reform of secrecy law for Pa. utilities faces long odds despite agreement that it’s a problem", contributed by Alison Kenner, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 27 December 2020, accessed 1 June 2022.’s-problem

NEUAC, "President Signs Joint Spending Bill and COVID-19 Relief", contributed by Morgan Sarao, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 4 January 2021, accessed 1 June 2022.

Olson, D, "North Dakota, Minnesota at opposite ends of energy efficiency scorecard ", contributed by Briana Leone, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 10 January 2021, accessed 1 June 2022.

Safran, Ben, and Burgin, Terry, "Peco should step up on solar to make the Philly region healthier", contributed by Alison Kenner, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 31 December 2020, accessed 1 June 2022.

Shieber, Jonathan, "New Stimulus Includes $35.2 Billion for New Energy Initiatives", contributed by Morgan Sarao, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 4 January 2021, accessed 1 June 2022.

Smith, Joshua, "San Diego continues to tout greenhouse-gas reductions that never happened", contributed by James Adams, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 13 January 2021, accessed 1 June 2022.

St. John, Jeff, "What Renewable Energy and Energy Storage Did, and Didn’t, Get from Congress This Week", contributed by Briana Leone, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 4 January 2021, accessed 1 June 2022.’t-get-congress-week

 US Department of Energy, "Department of Energy Releases Energy Storage Grand Challenge Roadmap", contributed by Briana Leone, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 4 January 2021, accessed 1 June 2022.


The articles collected for the December media brief reflect topics of discussion unfolding in headlines within the past month. Previous media briefs have traced the ways in which COVID-19 is shaping energy policy on local, national, and global scales. In this media brief,  as the pandemic surges in the United States, we continue to discuss COVID-19 energy relief policy, along with national energy policy regarding energy security and energy efficiency. Discussions of green energy transitions have also been present in previous media briefs, and this month we focus on the topic of energy storage specifically for renewable energy sources. Finally, articles in this month’s brief analyze shortcomings in energy governance, and more specifically energy governance that is short-sighted in face of a shifting energy terrain, and is reflective of colonial logics of extraction, exploitation, and sacrifice that is rationalized by white supremacist, capitalist, and individualist ideologies. 

Governance Gone Wrong

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the ways in which energy systems and stakeholders who govern these systems, amongst other networks and systems that constitute the neoliberal status quo, perform for profit margins rather than working with and for the masses that they service. The articles below provide a glimpse of this reality, touching on energy governance that is short-sighted, inefficacious, misleading, and often inhumane. COVID-19 incesantness and contingent utility moratoria has led to utility customers in the United States owing up to $40B in COVID-19 debt, as the moratoria was instated as emergency policy and did not include plans for repaying the debt that would inevitably accumulate as Americans face unprecedented hardships. In Pennsylvania a secrecy law for PA utilities is being contested, although reform is deemed unlikely, as it’s purpose of preventing criminals from getting sensitive details about Pennsylvania’s utility infrastructure has consequently led to exploitation of the law, with large swaths of public information being kept confidential. These cases demonstrate short sighted energy governance, where intent to protect members of the public is negated overtime. In San Diego, we see an example of inefficacious policy, as plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions fall short due to inflated baseline GHG emission calculations. Annual energy efficiency scorecards have been calculated for all states and Washington D.C.  in the United States, and we see how states that aren’t taking energy efficiency measures beyond what is required by federal law have the lowest scores, further demonstrating how federal policy as it currently stands is insufficient to reverse or reduce some of the climate damages. In Philadelphia, we see examples of energy governance that aren’t forward moving in terms of sustainability and accessibility, as PECO, Philadelphia’s primary electricity supplier, does not have a long-term sustainability plan, and implements time-of-use rates, which will incentivize customers to shift electricity use to off-peak hours to save money, however these rates do not apply to low-income customers on PECO’s customer assistance program.

Utility Customers Owe Up To $40B in COVID-19 Debt, but Who Will Pay It?

Starting in March, many states and utilities suspended power shutoffs for nonpayment for residential and small business customers in response  to COVID-19. As of this writing, state-mandated or voluntary utility shut-off moratoria are now in place for 51% of the U.S. population (167 million people) across the country through Jan. 31, 2021. Subsequently, utilities are seeing diminishing revenues, and it’s estimated that residential and small business customers could owe "$35 billion to $40 billion dollars” to their utilities by March 2021. This has begged the question: Who will pay for the debt that utilities are facing? Policymakers and regulators' choices include requiring payment from indebted customers, shifting the debt to

utilities and their ratepayers, imposing it on taxpayers, or some combination of these alternatives. Regulators have increasingly been interested in securitization of various ratepayer obligations, which limits the impact on rates and allows the debt to be "recovered over time”. To do that, the utility creates and sells AAA-rated bonds, said Joseph Fichera, CEO at financial advisory firm Saber Partners. Secured by ratepayers, they would obtain favorable interest rates to limit rate impacts. With the capital from bondholders attracted by the low risk offering, the utility could pay off customers' COVID debt and spread it over time to limit rate impacts without involving shareholders or threatening utility balance sheets. Financial strategies like securitization are "gaining traction" because they spread the cost across all ratepayers and over time, Fichera said. But regulators would have to decide how to implement those strategies because the law is not specific about how that is to be done, and regulators might be reluctant to take that on. Although there was little impact analysis of utility moratoria, as it was an emergency response, hopefully this process will inform the use of moratoria and securitization in future emergencies. 

Cable companies can no longer ‘rent’ you the router you already own

Energy insecurity can stem from an almost infinite amount of variables. Small fees can accumulate overtime, and such fees can eventually push energy vulnerable individuals into a position of energy insecurity, where they are no longer able to afford their utility bills. That is why the Television Viewer Protection Act, passed by Congress on June 20th, 2020, is deemed a win for consumers. Prior to the passage of this act, internet service providers (ISPs) oftentimes charged rental fees for routers, even if a consumer was not using it and was rather using a router purchased from a third party. The ISP Frontier became infamous for this, charging a $10 monthly fee for their equipment "whether you use it or not”. Under this new legislation, ISPs require that people ship the router back to their ISP in order to avoid charges. This means that it is now more affordable for a customer not to use the router provided to them by their ISP and purchase their own from a third party provider. This law is going into effect as of December 2020, although it was passed in June, because the FCC delayed it’s enactment by arguing that ISPs would fail if they were unable to charge this fee.


As with many other controversial political arenas, environmental discourses are rife with claims of deceit, distrust, cynicism, and misunderstanding (Mühlhaüser and Peace 2006). The legacy of decades of greenwashing and brownlashing, or manipulating and purveying misinformation to persuade the public that policy is environmentally sound, is such that accusations of poorly conducted science and data analysis still abound. Take, for example, the claim that the City of San Diego, California, a beacon of sustainability transitions, had successfully cut their tail-pipe emissions by 25% in the last decade alone. In a recent report on their climate action plan, the city published a climate report update that included the following chart documenting its progress on greenhouse gas reductions across different sectors.

According to the information presented here, one would expect that San Diego was making significant strides in shifting away from a primarily fossil-fueled, single-occupancy vehicle transportation system. However, as attested by Joshua Emerseon Smith of the San Diego Union-Tribune (2020), this is simply not the case. According to Smith, the city has been able to show meager reductions in tail-pipe emissions (4% between 2016-2019), but nothing close to the magnitude claimed in their report. The discrepancy lies in the way San Diego’s emissions baselines were calculated. 

Back in December of 2015, when San Diego first adopted its climate plan, the city chose to set 2010 as a baseline year, against which they would track their GHG reduction progress. However, at the time, the city simply did not have adequate data on vehicle miles traveled  (VMT) for this particular year. Thus, in lieu of conducting a new traffic analysis, climate protection planners used an old economic and demographic projection produced by San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) that had estimated what the VMT would be in 2010. 

While deferring to a projection may at first seem reasonable, given the circumstances, this particular projection was produced before the economic downturn of 2008, and therefore grossly overestimated the number of cars on the road. It calculated city-wide VMT at 13.7 billion for 2010, against which the 2016 data showed a drop of about one billion. If true, this would be an impressive feat, but these numbers simply do not add up. Such a dramatic drop should coincide with either a huge uptake of public transportation or a significant loss of jobs, neither of which took place during this time. Furthermore, a more recent SANDAG report states that the city’s freeway VMT increased from 6.7 billion to 7.5 billion during the same 2010-2016 time frame (Smith 2020). 

In sum, all signs indicate that the 2010 baseline is vastly inflated, a conclusion that even the city itself has admitted, after being called out (Smith 2017). Despite this fact, however, the City of San Diego continues to use this inflated data to publish its climate reports and tout their climate victories, claiming to have reduced a whopping 1.5 million metric tons of carbon emissions from its transportation system between 2010 and 2019. What is more, this highly dubious number amounts to nearly half of the city’s purported total reduction of 3.3 million tons. 

When pressed, Ashley Rosia-Tremonti, sustainability manager at the city of San Diego, was quoted as saying, “We’ve been very clear in the reporting that those reductions in the baseline year are … not a result of any specific actions that either the state, our region or the city has taken to reduce (vehicle miles traveled)” (quoted in Smith 2020). That may be so, but it is still extremely misleading to report on such problematic data at all. Furthermore, as of yet, no action has been taken to update the 2010 baseline or correct the discrepancies in the City’s reported emission reductions. 

Climate planning marks an important discursive domain, one that mediates the relationship between a city’s popular representation, its legal apparatus, and its materiality. In her study of Ecuador’s resource radicalisms, Riofrancos takes a similar position insisting that much of the political struggle she witnessed took place in and through language. Taking aim at political science, her ethnography denies claims of language’s epiphenomenal status, arguing instead that the materiality of all semiotic artifacts both enable and limit their political efficacy. She concludes, “whether through its performative function or as a medium of political justification and critique, governance, and resistance” the world is shaped by language (Riofrancos 2020, 19). And as such, both climate plans and their surrounding discourses mark important sites for ethnographic inquiry, as they continue to shape the future of life in cities across the US and beyond. 

North Dakota, Minnesota at opposite ends of energy efficiency scorecard

The article shows how, after evaluating the fifty states and their implementation of energy efficiency and zero emissions policy and goals, North Dakota comes in second-to-last, whereas Minnesota's scorecard comes in at the top 10. The 2020 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard analyzes the energy efficiency efforts of all 50 U.S. states and Washington, DC. It tracks their policies and programs to reduce energy use, such as adopting or advancing energy-saving targets, vehicle rules, or appliance standards. It is the most comprehensive national measuring stick for energy efficiency—reviewing states on 32 metrics—and provides a roadmap for future improvements. 

 Still leading the country in energy efficiency and energy policy is California. Minnesota owes its scorecard to the fact it has mirrored California's energy conservation and zero-emissions plans, as well as fuel-producing vehicles. Additionally, Minnesota was able to secure a top-10 position because of the  additional  time it had been allowed to implement said policies thanks to the 2007 Next Generation Energy ACT.  North Dakota, on the other hand, has not made any efforts to change the minimum requirements set by the federal government, which goes to show that federal policy as it currently stands is insufficient to reverse or reduce some of the climate damages. 

You may find North Dakota's energy scorecard here.

You may find Minnesota's energy scorecard here.

Reform of Secrecy Law for PA Utilities Face Long Odds Despite Agreement…

More than a decade ago, the Public Utility Commission passed anti-terrorism legislation, formally known as the Public Utility Condentiality Security Information Disclosure Protection, or CSI, Act in an effort to prevent criminals from getting sensitive details about Pennsylvania’s utility infrastructure that could be used to perpetrate mass crimes. However in 2008, critics argued that the commission should have a system to ensure that powerful utility companies do not exploit the law to keep large swaths of public information condential without consequence. And a recent decision by Commonwealth Court could make the law stronger than ever— and make it even harder and more expensive for residents to challenge what gets kept a secret. Responders and emergency planners have said the law has at times prevented them from getting the safety information they need to draft detailed emergency plans should a disaster strike from the Mariner East system, a system of pipelines spanning through 17 south-central PA counties.

In October, Commonwealth Court Judge Andrew Crompton overturned a public records decision by the Office of Open Records that determined the Public Utility Commission, citing the CSI Act, inappropriately withheld certain information sought by Delaware County resident Eric Friedman. But, ruling on an appeal led by the utility commission and Energy Transfer, Crompton said the office had no authority to determine what records should be released under the act. He also ruled that authority rests solely within the commission or Commonwealth Court itself. The case has been appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, with support from state Senate Democrats. The parties argue that the Commonwealth Court wrongly interpreted the role of the Office of Open Records, which was created in order to independently determine what records belong in the public domain. If the decision is upheld, lawyers argue, people who challenge the CSI Act will not be able to use the Office of Open Records as an arbiter, but will have to undergo the legal cost and complexity of retaining counsel and appealing these public records denials by the PUC directly to Commonwealth Court. Here, they will often face not only the utility commission, but also deep-pocketed energy companies. 

In the past, the OCE has made several findings that agencies have too broadly applied the CSI Act. In a handful of cases, these decisions led the agency to turn over records to the public; other decisions in favor of the public, such as the Friedman case, were appealed by the agency and records have, in turn, spent years entangled in litigation. This case highlights the ways in which lack of reform for legislation overtime can lead to legislation that was created to protect the public being used to exacerbate inequitable power structures, thereby working against the public.

Peco should step up on solar to make the region more competitive

This opinion piece highlights the Philadelphia region's, and PECO's, lack of a long term sustainability plan. PECO, the region’s privately owned energy provider, lacks a comprehensive climate plan, and is thus lacking any sort of formal plan which prioritizes the region’s collective health. At a time when so many citizens are facing unemployment and increased medical risk, PECO has the chance to lead the region away from crisis by creating thousands of green energy jobs to usher in an era of clean air and collective prosperity. However, PECO has responded to this moment by doubling down on its old, fossil fuel-based energy model that has been damaging respiratory health and accelerating climate change for decades, and is therefore continuing to harm public health and exacerbate structural racism. Neighboring states including Maryland and New Jersey, by contrast, have invested substantially more in renewable energy. 

This piece is authored by individuals from several local organizations that campaign for green jobs and sustainable energy, and provides an important perspective on PECO as a major player in the regional energy ecology. With COVID-19 forcing energy policy and governance to transform, it’s important that we take a close look at how big energy players are capitalizing on this unprecedented moment, and whether they choose to make strides towards creating humane and ecologically respectful energy systems, or continue “business as usual”, as PECO has done. 

Peco plans hourly rates to encourage customers to shift energy use to off-peak Periods

Pennsylvania regulators have approved PECO’s plan to implement time-of-use rates for its customers, including both residential and commercial consumers. The hope is that some will shift electricity use to off-peak hours, during which rates of use will be discounted. The system has three price tiers associated with times: the cheapest tier is between midnight and 6am; the most expensive tier is between 2-6pm, which is considered peak use; and the middle tier covers morning and evening hours. Curiously, the new policy will not be available to customers on PECO’s CAP (customer assistance program), for reasons not specified in the article. 

The plan to move away from flat-rate pricing satisfies part of Act 129, the state’s sweeping 2008 energy efficiency law. While many assumed that time-of-use pricing would be enabled by smart meters, these have been slow to adopt among PA residential customers. The PA PUC unanimously adopted the proposal. This article leaves us with the question of why PECO’s policy wouldn’t include customers on their CAP, who are low-income and are most in need of discounted energy rates.

Energy Storage

Developments in energy storage research, funding, and planning signal a positive step towards a green energy transition in the United States. The mass deployment of storage could overcome one of the biggest obstacles to renewable energy, which is its cycling between oversupply when the sun shines or the wind blows, and shortage when the sun sets or the wind drops. By smoothing imbalances between supply and demand, proponents say, batteries can replace fossil fuel “peaker” plants that kick in for a few hours a day when energy demands soar. Experts say that widespread energy storage is key to expanding the reach of renewables and speeding the transition to a carbon-free power grid. The congressional spending bill that was signed into law on December 28th includes funding aimed at clean energy technologies, including $1.5 billion for solar power, $625 million for wind power and $1.08 billion for energy storage over the next five years. Beyond $500 million for energy storage research and development, the bill directs $71 million per year, amounting to $355 million over five years, to competitive solicitations for energy storage demonstration projects open to states, utilities and private companies. Those projects are meant to demonstrate “not only new technologies but [also] working out new applications and new business models. This is critical for an energy storage sector that’s focused not just on reducing battery costs but also on “making sure their full value to the grid can be realized”. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released the Energy Storage Grand Challenge Roadmap, the Department’s first comprehensive energy storage strategy. Alongside concerted research efforts, the Roadmap’s approach includes accelerating the transition of technologies from the lab to the marketplace, focusing on ways to competitively manufacture technologies at scale in the United States, and ensuring secure supply chains to enable domestic manufacturing.

In Boost for Renewables, Grid-Scale Battery Storage is on the Rise

Recent developments in energy storage are sure to impact the way that utility companies  plan to meet the energy demands of their client base both across the US and beyond. Given its potential to offset intermittent solar and wind resources, battery storage has long been considered the holy grail of cheap and resilient renewable energy. The major problem with renewables is that the energy isn’t dispatchable in the same way as it is for power plants powered by fossil fuels. That is, as solar power can only be produced when the sun is shining, you can’t simply switch it on or turn up to meet demand. Thus, the basic idea behind combining renewable assets with energy storage is simple: store the excess energy produced when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, and use that excess when they are not. The problem is bringing that idea to the grid scale in a way that is economical. 


When it comes to the economics of energy in Texas, batteries are still a wildcard. This is due in part to the fact that ERCOT, Texas’ Independent Systems Operator, has yet to develop the rules for integrating batteries into the Texas energy market. As a result, debate on the topic of when batteries will become safe and affordable rages on. 


This uncertainty surrounding emergent energy storage technology dominated much of the early conversation around energy resource planning in Austin, as the city’s 2019-2020 Resource Planning Working Group members tried to come to a consensus on which market projections should be trusted and how optimistic they should be. Throughout the working group meetings, utility representatives consistently advocated for what they considered to be a more cautious and hesitant approach to batteries. According to Cary Ferchill, who chaired the working group, the technology is just not there in terms of affordability, at least for the moment. 


Ferchill and others substantiated their hesitance by citing the recent studies conducted by Wood McKenzie, Austin Energy, and this Vox article, which tried to put the financial risks of renewables and energy storage in more common terms. However, other working group members disagreed with the utility’s position, claiming that they had been cherry-picking their sources. For instance, local environmental photographer and climate activist, Al Braden responded to Austin Energy’s numbers with confusion and skepticism: “I am confused because according to ERCOT, there are other studies on energy storage that are a lot cheaper than this. This seems a bit pessimistic based on the average… according to the studies I have seen.” Erika Bierschbach, VP of Market Operations and Resource Planning at Austin Energy, quickly interceded, explaining that while ERCOT does produce projections, its primary responsibility is to serve as an Independent Systems Operator for the Texas grid. Thus, the utility preferred to consult the data and projections produced by Wood McKenzie, which specializes in energy market forecasting. 

Disagreements over which sources to trust continued to flare up throughout the five months that the working group was in session. In the end, it was decided that a mandate on developing batteries would be left out of the 2030 recourse plan, as more information was needed before the utility could develop a firm plan on constructing or leasing energy storage. The plan did, however, include a caveat stating that by the end of 2022, the City’s Electric Utility Commission would assess whether or not to reconvene the working group in order to update the plan according to any significant developments in storage technology or prices. Given the massive uptake in energy storage projects in California, this is likely to be the case.

In recent years, California has become the world’s leader in high-capacity battery projects. Most recently, the former Moss Landing Power Plant (a natural gas plant) was converted into a 300MW energy storage facility, the largest facility of its kind in the state. Other energy storage projects are also being launched across the state, including 250MW up and running in San Diego and up and coming projects in San Francisco (150MW) Long Beach (100MW). Plus, an extra 282.5 MW of storage is scheduled to come online at the Moss Landing site by the end of 2021. 

While California may be the tip of the storage spear, so to speak, the work they’ve undertaken is also paving the way for other regions to develop their own ventures into grid-scale energy storage. Due to the recent and projected increase in market competition, “the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory sees mid-range costs for lithium-ion batteries falling an additional 45 percent between 2018 and 2030” (Katz 2020). As a result, such diverse locales as South Florida (409 MW), London, England (320 MW), Lithuania (200 MW), and Chile (112 MW) are all developing massive energy storage projects of their own. 

Though Texas may currently lag behind California and other regions in regard to its current energy storage portfolio, this is changing too. ERCOT’s Battery Energy Storage Task Force met throughout the year 2020, producing numerous policy recommendations that are painting a clearer picture of how energy storage will fit into Texas’ uniquely structured energy market. Furthermore, some energy storage developers have started to take note of the relative advantage of Texas’ lax permitting process, which enables hopeful storage companies to get the ball rolling faster than in heavily-regulated states like California. As a result, the ERCOT grid now has numerous energy storage projects in the que. Though they vary in sizes, some of the larger projects are planning for a whopping 500MW capacity, matching the scale of California’s biggest facilities (Spector 2020). 

Thus, the evidence is clear that in high-value energy markets like Texas and California, developers are headed decidedly towards the option of renewables-plus-storage. That being said, as of yet, batteries are still too expensive to become mainstream anytime soon. What remains to be seen is the degree to which the incoming Biden administration will be able to speed up this process and bolster this burgeoning industry. Either way, most experts agree that it’s just a matter of time: the future of energy has plenty of renewables in store. 

What Renewable Energy and Energy Storage Did, and Didn’t, Get from Congress This Week

This article documents the role the US government has played in the energy sector through this past year, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic violently hit the nation. Energy efficiency projects have been tumultuously put on hold by the pandemic and contingent economic crisis. Stepping in to save renewable energy projects is one billion dollars in investment tax credits (ITC), as well as the extensions awarded for the projects. For solar, this includes a two-year extension of the ITC at its current 26 percent through 2022 and at 22 percent through 2023, as well as an extended Jan. 1, 2026 deadline for completing projects that have claimed the credit based on when they started construction under "safe-harbor" provisions. Offshore wind also gained full 30 percent ITC credits for projects started by the end of 2025. That will bolster a nascent industry that’s seen delays in federal permitting that could have threatened the build-out of a massive new clean energy resource in the coming decade. Additionally there is $35 billion in DOE Research and Development funding, with $1.08 billion of said funding going towards energy storage over the next five years. 

However, the extensions and tax credits do not account for the loss of employment the pandemic has caused which will, inevitably, contribute to further delays for energy transition projects. This article puts into perspective the benefits of energy policies signed this year, as well as the drawbacks of these same policies, particularly onto the transitions to clean energy systems.

The Hornsdale Power Reserve, a 100-megawatt battery storage facility in South Australia.  TESLA:

Department of Energy Releases Energy Storage Grand Challenge Roadmap

Hand in hand with the order released on December 16th, the Department of Energy released the Energy Storage Grand Challenge Roadmap, the Department’s first comprehensive energy storage strategy. Announced in January 2020 by U.S. Secretary of Energy DanBrouillette, the Energy Storage Grand Challenge (ESGC) seeks to create and sustain American leadership in energy storage. The finalized energy storage plans are part of the United States' attempt to secure energy supply for the nation. In an effort to remain competitive in the energy market, the United States is trying to find innovative ways to both produce and store energy. From the plans and reports drawn by the Department of Energy, continued investment in energy innovation can and will reduce the costs of energy storage. Such a reduction in the prices of energy storage can mean a renewed trust in energy transitions, as well as the potential to rely on renewable energy storage even at peak demand hours. At a time when energy supply security is being threatened by souring US-China relations, plans from the energy roadmaps look more promising to anchor energy reliability.

Here you may find the roadmap mentioned in the article.