Renewable energy beats coal for the first time (again)

As you read these words something incredible is happening throughout the United States: across the months of April and May, renewable energy is supplying more of the nation’s electricity than coal, according to estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Make no mistake: this is another major milestone in the country’s energy transition. And this time next year, we expect even more of the same: renewable energy beating coal by a wider margin and for a longer period of time.

Even as we celebrate this as a “first” for the U.S., it joins a growing list of other, similar “firsts” that we’re hearing more and more.

Renewable energy keeps surpassing coal

The storyline has become increasingly common in recent years: renewables beating coal. This latest first—it turns out—is just the latest of many domestic and global examples:

In what feels like the ancient past of 2011, utility Xcel Energy—whose Colorado generation portfolio today still includes 44% coal, despite a sweeping shift in progress toward wind and solar—set a one-hour wind generation record, supplying 55.6% of demand with wind. Four years later, in 2015, Xcel set another record, supplying 54% wind power for an entire day.

Also in 2015, in Q2 the UK saw renewables overtake coal for the first time. The renewables-beating-coal motif has only strengthened there as the former gains momentum while the latter continues its drastic decline. In fact, in 2018 environmentalists and renewable energy advocates celebrated when the UK went 1,000 hours completely coal-free that year. And this year, the UK set a new record of 159+ continuous hours (6 days and counting) coal-free.

Meanwhile, in 2017 the entire EU—28 member countries—saw renewable generation surpass coal for the first time. While last year, Germany specifically saw renewables overtake coal for the first time.

As you might surmise, many other examples abound: from states such as Hawaii and California (where solar is leading the charge), to RTOs and ISOs like the Southwest Power Pool (where wind has begun to overtake coal).

With Automated Emissions Reduction, renewables can overtake coal faster and more often

Two key variables differentiate the various aforementioned renewables-beat-coal examples: a) the geographic extent (e.g., state, RTO/ISO, country, continent) and b) the duration of the time frame (e.g., an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year).

With some of these examples—and especially the U.S. EIA April-May numbers—there’s seasonal variation to take into account. For example, renewable generation tends to surge during spring (thanks to a seasonal bump from big hydro) while coal generation tends to sag during spring and fall (and rise during high-demand summer and winter periods).

This just goes to underscore the importance—sometimes significant—of timing.

Throughout the country, the electricity generation mix is constantly fluctuating. Solar ramps up during the day. Natural gas often ramps up in early evening as solar fades. Wind is often strongest overnight. In fact, the closer we look—with WattTime’s insights, all the way down to 5-minute increments—the more variation we see.

Inherent in that variation is the power to help renewable energy win vs. coal more often and by wider margins … if only we can harness that power.

How? By using software solutions such as Automated Emissions Reduction (AER) to shift flexible energy demand. AER allows any smart, energy-using device—from thermostats and HVAC systems, to refrigerators and electric water heaters, to batteries and electric vehicles—to sync their energy demand with times of clean energy while avoiding times of dirty energy.

Imagine the implications for the renewables-beating-coal storyline. Instead of surplus renewable energy being wasted through curtailment, we can shift our individual and collective energy demand to suck up that clean power, thus boosting renewable’s numbers. Conversely, we can actively avoid times when the dirtiest power plants (i.e., coal-fired) would run, further shrinking their numbers.

This is not a hypothetical scenario. The technology exists today. At a time when WattTime and partners are embarking on an exciting, bold project to monitor emissions from the world’s power plants, we can also leverage other WattTime technology to reduce those emissions and accelerate the renewable energy revolution.

Renewable energy is winning. So now what do we do?

All this week, people the world over are celebrating Earth Week. Media headlines and social media feeds alike have been awash in coverage—what has changed since Earth Day 2018; things you can do to reduce your environmental footprint; urgent calls to action to do more, faster to avert the worst effects of climate change.

This year’s edition of Earth Week comes on the heels of sobering news. Late last month, the International Energy Agency (IEA) noted that in 2018 global energy demand rose 2.3% and worldwide energy-related carbon emissions rose 1.7%, the latter to their highest level ever. It’d be easy to despair and conclude doomsday climate scenarios are now inevitable. But at WattTime, the more deeply we look at the data, the more we’re starting to see an entirely different story emerging.

The game has changed—renewable energy is winning

It’s true that 2018’s numbers backslide slightly. But looking back in hindsight from a few year’s hence, we’ll likely soon conclude that 2018 was a minor speed bump in a larger story of rapid, powerful progress. We sit today on the precipice of a paradigm shift for the world’s electricity systems. Today, renewable energy accounts for over a third of global power capacity, per the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). But it’s changing fast—both last year and the one before it, two-thirds of new electric generating capacity built worldwide was renewable, led by solar and wind.

The tides of the global energy system have already turned. Now we’re amidst the rush of its flowing waters, even if it hasn’t finished yet. It’s much like the camera market in the early 2000s. Digital cameras had just arrived on the scene. And while analog cameras still enjoyed majority market share and briefly looked strong, in reality they were just a few short years away from near-total extinction.

Granted, power plants don’t turn over as fast as consumer goods like cameras. But similar writing is on the wall. If you look at the power generation mix forecast from Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s New Energy Outlook 2018it’s plain to see that we’re right at the threshold of a tidal shift that’s already begun. Coal, oil, and to a lesser extent natural gas are the analog camera equivalent; renewables are the shiny, new digital camera taking over the global market with impressive speed.

So what happens next?

The second renewable energy revolution: from generation hardware to timing software

In places where the renewable energy tides have advanced the furthest the fastest, we’re already seeing the need for new ways of thinking. Consider the case of California, which has more than 22.5 GW of installed renewable generating capacity. Over the past 3+ years, California has begun having moments of too much renewable energy, more and more frequently. In March 2019, California had to throw out or “curtail” a record 122,225 MWh of surplus solar and wind energy. Comparing Q1 2016 v2. Q1 2019 saw an incredible growth of 190% in California curtailment—all driven by a mismatch in timing, if people weren’t using energy at the same exact moments the wind was blowing or the sun was shining.

The world should and will continue installing more and more renewable energy generation—mostly solar panels and wind turbines. But scenarios like California’s strongly suggest that a second renewable energy revolution is on our doorstep. If the first revolution was about deployment of generation hardware, we’d argue the second revolution will be defined by the deployment of timing software.

Energy storage isn’t the (only) answer

Renewable oversupply like California is experiencing is generally—and rightly—considered a success story. We’ve deployed enough clean energy generation that at least in certain places, times, and/or seasons, we have even more renewable energy than we can use. But, obviously, if we are to continue adding more clean energy at the furious clip we need to stop climate change, the next step has to preventing that waste from growing and growing.

A common assumption is that energy storage (often, but not necessarily, batteries) is the solution. And, when deployed properly, storage can definitely help. But Earth neither has the time, nor even the need, for us to go out and buy billions of new batteries. Turns out, they’ve already been built! Literally tens of billions of smart devices in our buildings and on our roads—from thermostats to electric vehicles—are already deployed and have the physical hardware capable of soaking up excess renewable generation through smarter timing. As Rocky Mountain Institute and others have shown, flexible demand is a key, not-so-secret weapon. All it takes to give these devices such planet-saving capability is a software update.

Making ‘smart’ smarter with Automated Emissions Reduction

The final part of the equation is hidden in that word ‘smart.’ It’s used to describe everything from the latest generation of thermostats to grid-interactive water heaters to common appliances. But what does ‘smart’ really mean?

Here at WattTime, the definition is simple. A smart device is one that can be updated, now or later, to time its own energy consumption to run on clean energy. It’s capable of what we call Automated Emissions Reduction.So the next time you’re buying a smart light or a smart coffee machine that brews your cappuccinos on time, think about what else you’re really buying. Today, we think of that physical piece of hardware as a glorified toy. But this Earth Week, pause and appreciate that the massive proliferation of billions of such devices has also created the physical infrastructure for a global system to massively accelerate the growth of renewable energy and, before much longer, eliminate the need to ever use fossil fuels again.

It’s easy to see one bad year of news and get lost in despair. But if we want them to be, the days of fossil fuels are as numbered as analog cameras were not long ago.

Not all renewables are created equal: quantifying the emissions benefits of institutional renewable energy purchasing options

By Gavin McCormick and Chiel Borenstein, in partnership with Jaclyn Olsen and Caroleen Verly from the Harvard University Office for Sustainability and Chad Laurent from Meister Consultants Group (A Cadmus Company)

In recent years, institutional climate action targets, renewable energy subsidies, and the rapidly falling costs of wind and solar have led more and more large institutions to begin purchasing significant quantities of off-site renewable energy. The practice has grown rapidly, from 70 megawatts purchased in 2012 to over 2,780 megawatts, as of February 2018. Naturally, all these new renewables are reducing pollution. But…exactly how much pollution?

The Boston Green Ribbon Commission Higher Education Working Group, an alliance of leading sustainability-minded institutions, aimed to find out. The Working Group’s chair, Harvard University, partnered with Meister Consultants Group (a Cadmus Company), and RMI subsidiary WattTime to conduct a study exploring methods for quantifying the actual emissions impacts of institutional renewable energy purchases. The results were intriguing.

Notably, the study, entitled Institutional Renewable Energy Procurement: Quantitative Impacts Addendum, found that the answers may be less straightforward than they initially appear. Evidently, not all renewable energy projects are equally effective at reducing emissions. (Currently, the most common emissions accounting framework treats all renewable energy projects as equally reducing emissions.) Better measuring this variation of impact between projects could soon create new opportunities for renewable energy buyers to begin reducing emissions even faster, more cheaply, more reliably, and more credibly due to the new evidence-based approach.

The Higher Education Working Group—consisting of Boston College, Boston University, Harvard University, MIT, Northeastern University, Tufts University, and the University of Massachusetts, Boston—had already been active in illuminating and streamlining institutional renewable energy purchasing. In 2016, the group authored a report in partnership with Meister Consultants Group offering detailed background information on renewable energy procurement options, as well as guidance on impact claims for institutions already making or looking to make renewable energy purchases.

While attending an RMI Business Renewables Center (BRC) member event, Jaclyn Olsen, Associate Director of Harvard’s Office for Sustainability (OFS), met Gavin McCormick, co-founder and Executive Director of Watt Time, and became intrigued by the work WattTime was doing on quantifying carbon impacts of renewable purchases. Jaclyn proposed a partnership to build on the research that the Working Group had already done on the topic, and the result was a collaboration between OFS, WattTime and Meister Consultants Group to create a report for the Working Group members that brought this new way of assessing emissions reduction impacts from renewable purchases to potential purchasers.

Three Ways to Count Emissions

Most institutions today report their greenhouse gas emissions using the carbon footprinting approach, as laid out in the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHGP). While the process involves multiple methods, hierarchies of emissions factors, and other complexities, at a high level it’s a simple approach: Organizations count how much regular electricity they purchase from the grid, subtract off the amount of renewable energy they purchase, and multiply the remainder by the average emissions intensity of the local grid. This framework allows for straightforward comparison of renewable energy commitments across institutions; however it does not differentiate between varying carbon impacts of different renewable energy projects.

Before we describe the study’s findings, it is important to note that carbon footprinting is not the only way to measure emissions. The Quantitative Impacts Addendum study identifies three different ways institutions can measure the emissions impacts of renewable energy purchases: (1) the status quo, carbon footprinting; (2) avoided emissions; and (3) quantification through the generation of carbon offsets. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks.

The study’s primary goal was to uncover the implications of these differences, so that institutions making renewable energy purchasing decisions will have a broader and deeper understanding of the emissions impacts of the projects they are considering.

1) The Status Quo: Counting Megawatt-hours, Not Emissions

The simplicity of carbon footprinting comes at a cost. The GHGP is very explicit that this approach measures the change in emissions that an institution “owns” in an abstract accounting sense, not necessarily the actual real-world emissions reductions caused by renewable energy purchases.

The reason this distinction matters is that the real-world emissions reductions can vary widely. After all, adding renewable energy to the grid only reduces emissions if it displaces existing power plants. But which power plants are displaced? A renewable energy project that displaces mostly coal will reduce considerably more emissions than one that displaces natural gas, or even other emissions-free resources like hydropower.

2) A Measurement Change: Avoided Emissions

The avoided emissions method is also defined under the GHGP, and is classified as an optional calculation. This method establishes a framework for measuring not megawatt-hours, but emissions. By measuring which existing or future power plants a renewable energy project displaces, it measures the actual emissions impacts of a project.

Employing this methodology, the differences in emissions impacts between renewable energy projects can be substantial. The report finds that renewable energy purchases by Boston area schools could reduce anywhere from 791 to 2,187 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour—nearly a 300% variation among projects of identical size—depending on the power plant being displaced.

It’s important to note that while the GHGP allows organizations to measure avoided emissions, the GHGP does not allow organizations to use these calculations in their main emissions inventory. So organizations that declare carbon targets and choose to voluntarily define them in terms of the emissions inventory cannot use the avoided emissions method. This could lead to a situation where the claimed emissions reduction is higher or lower than a more accurately calculated value.

3) Carbon Offsets: Counting Emissions Towards Declared Targets

Unlike the avoided emissions methods, projects measured using carbon offsets can be “counted” towards an institution’s official emission inventory. To ensure the integrity of that system, projects are only eligible for carbon offsets if they pass a series of tests that they are valid and additional (truly reducing emissions beyond what would have occurred in the project’s absence). While ensuring the highest levels of accuracy, the carbon offset process is also much more time-consuming and administratively burdensome than the avoided emissions approach. It is also very difficult to prove additionality for renewable energy projects, so many renewable energy projects will not be eligible.

Pros and Cons of Each Method

There are clearly pros and cons to each approach. In determining which method to use, key factors institutions could consider include the following:

Where Next?

The main reasons to measure emissions are 1) to ascertain as accurately as possible whether we are collectively moving towards the emissions reductions we all know are needed, and 2) to allow actors to make accurate comparisons of the impacts of different choices.

When some institutions are using one method and others are using a different method, it is difficult to accurately compare the impact of different individual actions, and to calculate the collective impact. There is a need for a clear and consistent way for institutions to accurately measure the impacts of renewable purchases. It would certainly be possible for the GRC Higher Education Working Group member institutions to collectively define a new standard that draws the best elements out of the three methods and discards the drawbacks. Regardless of the method schools select (or create), acting together maximizes transparency and reduces administrative costs. The report recommends that whatever the Working Group decides, the members collectively decide it together.

Do you really know where your electricity is coming from?

Four years ago, I was part of a group of graduate students from UC Berkeley and software engineers from Google and Climate Corporation who met at a hackathon. We unexpectedly discovered that by pooling combined skills, we could solve a problem that hadn’t been cracked. For the first time, we could know when we flip on a light switch exactly that power comes from.

We wanted to know this because with the rise of energy storage and smart devices, it was getting easier and easier for us to automatically set our equipment to use energy at any particular time we liked. But as environmentalists, we were struck that no one had ever answered this question: if I want to run a device when the grid is providing the cleanest energy, “watt time” is that?

We knew that, more and more often, power grids were experiencing brief moments of surplus clean energy. But when? To find out, we built our own software tool to determine—in real time—where our power was coming from. Soon, we had an app that could tell us specific times that we could use, say, our own laundry machines so that they would be running on surplus wind power. We were thrilled to become the first people on a modern power grid to not just passively consume energy, but to actively choose where and how our energy was being made.

Afterwards, we marveled that it had been so effortless to choose clean energy at the simple press of a button. But although the technology could let anyone just say no to polluting, it didn’t save any money. And as the economists well knew, no energy technology had ever scaled that didn’t save money. We assumed that was the end of it.

But the team couldn’t stop thinking about it, and more and more volunteers with deep technical expertise in the energy industry joined the effort. We started hearing from team members with day jobs at the World Resources Institute, the U.S. Department of Energy, Navigant, MIT, Stanford, PG&E, and countless other institutions. Two hundred and thirty volunteers and a lot of customer research later, we belatedly realized we had been wrong. People wanted this technology. A lot of people.

They showed us just how many thermostats, appliances, batteries, lighting systems, and other types of commercial devices23 billion of them worldwidewere connecting to the internet in order to make smart choices. Nearly every one of those devices could be “WattTime-enabled” to effortlessly, instantly allow its owner to choose energy that fit the owner’s values. And because it ran in the cloud, our solution was fully capable of cutting the carbon footprint of a million-device fleet in minutes.

Stunned by the potential impact, we decided to build a system we call automated emissions reduction (AER). AER distills the massively complex problem of identifying where your power comes from into receiving a simple data feed that can be read by a smart device with the addition of two lines of code. With AER, WattTime is making consuming cleaner energy simple, effortless, cheap, and automatic.

Our earliest AER implementations automatically reduced emissions from humble electric golf carts for the UC Merced sustainability team. We steadily progressed to automatically reducing emissions from refrigerators, then air handlers, and soon, entire building energy management systems for UC Berkeley.

Over time, we began working more and more with one of the most respected institutions in sustainability, Rocky Mountain Institute. RMI carefully validated our algorithms, examined our code and our potential impact, and helped us workshop the fledgling AER industry with 60 interested organizations in Chicago in spring 2017.

Today we are thrilled to announce that, after thoroughly vetting the tech, RMI has both validated our work and decided to bet big on it. This week, RMI is formally incorporating WattTime as a subsidiary organizationWe’ve gone from a team of volunteers to a nonprofit tech startup with a mission to allow the most accurate and credible measurement possible of emissions reductions. And we will benefit from the resources, the network, and the objectivity of the RMI team.

This partnership is a match made in heaven. RMI’s high-level vision of a next-generation, customer-centric electricity system aligns perfectly with WattTime’s dogged pursuit of a disruptive technology solution that gives anyone who uses energyfrom people to large corporationsthe right and the tools to choose for themselves how their energy should be made.

A concept launched by a small team of committed volunteers has become a reality and a movement around a common-sense idea: electricity users need the freedom to choose their power. Microsoft has joined our efforts, as have sustainability leaders from Kaiser Permanente to the City of Austin. Will you join us?

Email us today at

Gavin McCormick is cofounder and executive director of WattTime.

Energate Inc launches first WattTime-enabled thermostat

Happy Earth Day from WattTime! We’re delighted to celebrate it this year by launching our new partnership with Energate Inc, creator of the HōlHōm smart thermostat.

A select few of Energate’s HōlHōm smart thermostat owners in the Chicago area will soon be offered a new feature – to enable “Clean Power Mode” by WattTime. Those of you already familiar with WattTime can guess how it works: in Clean Power Mode, these thermostats will actively prioritize electricity from environmentally-friendly power plants by shifting electricity consumption to moments when those power plants have surplus energy.

As usual with WattTime, we’ve also bent over backwards to ensure that enabling this feature will be free, effortless, and will not affect how comfortable anyone’s home or office is. That’s possible because air conditioners and heaters work by continuously cycling on and off anyway, so they can easily deploy WattTime’s timing-based technology just by making those cycles happen intelligently, not at random times.

It really is environmentalism, made effortless. Sound pretty good? We know that in surveys, the vast majority of people agree, telling us that they would choose a smart thermostat with a feature like that.

But, as any good social scientist knows, it's easy to say something in a survey. You have to also check what people really do in practice. So, as part of the work we’re doing supported by the Great Lakes Protection Fund, our wonderful partner Delta Institute is helping us conduct this pilot with Energate as a careful, scientifically rigorous test. What Delta is measuring is, if two smart devices are sold side by side and only one of them offers Clean Power Mode, does it make buyers choose that one more often? If it turns out the answer is yes, we think other companies who sell smart devices will quickly get the message that choosing to go green is just plain good business. Since 40% of thermostat sales nationwide are now smart thermostats, that could add up to a lot of devices, pretty fast.

Because this pilot is a science experiment as much as a product release, not just anyone can sign up for a WattTime-enabled smart thermostat from Energate today. But if the pilot does find that Clean Power Mode is indeed popular, we’ll be expanding to other regions soon. If you’d be interested in trying the world’s first smart thermostat that automatically prioritizes clean energy, you can sign up on our mailing list here.