Combined UCS Blogs

New Study Shows How Solar Can Enhance Grid Reliability

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

President Obama’s publication in Science is just the most recent reiteration of how far we have come with clean energy development in the last decade. The question now is not whether we should transition to cleaner sources of energy, but rather how do we do so in the most reliable and cost-effective way?

In California, where we are planning to satisfy at least 50% of our electricity needs with renewables by 2030, we are working on accelerating the solutions that will enable us to integrate large quantities of clean energy onto the grid. One of the most exciting strategies—using renewables to provide the grid reliability services traditionally provided by natural gas—just got a little closer to reality.

A new study released by the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) (aka the grid operator for most of the state) finds that large-scale solar plants, with the right type of inverter technology, can provide many of the essential grid reliability services the grid needs. The study concludes that “It may in this way mitigate the impact of its variability on the grid, and contribute to important system requirements more like traditional generators.”

In a nutshell, the CAISO is saying it has found a strategy for operating renewables in a way that supports further integration of renewables onto the system. Renewables can now be part of the integration solution.

The test was conducted in August on one of First Solar’s 300 MW PV plants. According to the CAISO, the data demonstrates the capability of PV plants to provide various grid services. From the report: “This data showed how the development of advanced power controls can leverage PV’s value from being simply an intermittent energy resource to providing services that range from spinning reserves, load following, voltage support, ramping, frequency response, variability smoothing and frequency regulation to power quality.”

This finding is a real-world validation of research we completed last year which found that enabling renewables to provide grid reserves, especially in the downward direction, could be a particularly useful and cost-effective way to reduce grid management issues and greenhouse gas emissions. After all, gas plants have to be running to provide these services, which means they are emitting carbon, and potentially crowding out renewable generation.

At the time we published this report, the CAISO was skeptical. This pilot project has been very helpful to help them seriously consider renewables as part of the integration solution. I am beyond thrilled with the results and will be working with my clean energy colleagues to identify the economic and contractual incentives that will encourage large-scale solar plants to provide more of these grid services in the future. If we are serious about dramatically ramping up renewables and ramping down natural gas, we will need these grid services to come from carbon-free technologies, including large-scale solar plants.

Embracing new ways of thinking about the services that solar provides on the grid will improve the value of installations by easing integration challenges and reducing the risk of generation curtailment. Generators and grid operators have begun to explore ways in which this can be done, but new strategies are not yet widely accepted or adopted.

What Will US Energy Leadership Look Like at Rick Perry’s Department of Energy?

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

There’s a clear trend in the president-elect’s cabinet appointments—many of them are opposed to the agencies they would lead.

Some have demonstrated opposition to the particular agency and/or its mission in a professional capacity. Others have stated a desire to see the agency disappear altogether, suggesting the institution has no value.

Rick Perry’s appointment to head the Department of Energy (DOE) is certainly consistent with this trend; in a 2011 presidential debate he famously forgot the name of the agency he would abolish. And now he’s been nominated to lead it.

Why does it matter, and what should we expect?

One of DOE's most important responsibilities is making sure things like this (nuclear weapon handling) happen safely.

One of DOE’s most important responsibilities is making sure things like this (handling nuclear weapons) happen safely. Photo: Wikimedia

Is Governor Perry the right fit?

The DOE has important national security responsibilities. It’s primarily a weapons and environmental management agency, and the secretary position requires strong management skills.

The DOE is also a science agency. While it’s not essential that the secretary be a scientist, it’s important that the secretary understands and values science and the scientific process.

Governor Perry can certainly make a credible case that he’s a good manager, and he even has some experience with spent nuclear fuel policy in Texas. But he’s also made numerous inaccurate and misleading scientific statements, and rejects the scientific consensus on things like climate change. If Rick Perry is truly “very intent on doing a good job,” he’ll need to hit the reset button on his approach to science and science policy, start talking to the experts, and stop making irresponsible statements.

As governor, though, he was savvy enough to see the economic and jobs potential of renewable energy, garnering a reputation as a pragmatist. The Texas wind industry, much of it under Perry’s governorship, has provided $33 billion in capital investment to the state and supports over 24,000 jobs and 38 manufacturing facilities, all while generating an incredible 18,531 megawatts of clean, renewable electricity.

How much credit Governor Perry deserves is debatable, but his record should provide clean energy advocates some cautious optimism. One can work with a pragmatist; it’s the ideologues you have to watch out for.

What the Department of Energy Does

Most of DOE’s focus is nuclear weapons-related. The agency includes the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), with the vast majority of the agency’s budget allocated to maintaining our nuclear arsenal and managing the cleanup of radioactive waste, much of it from the legacy of the Cold War.

DOE also does a lot of basic science research. DOE manages our 17 national labs, which employ roughly 110,000 people, are supported by Republicans and Democrats, and have helped the US remain at the forefront of science and technology innovation since WWII.

 Sandia National Laboratories

DOE invests in basic scientific research. Photo: Sandia National Laboratories

The national labs continue to produce breakthroughs that aid our national security and economic competitiveness, as well as increasing our understanding of everything from automotive engineering, to environmental health, to computer science, to the origins of our universe.

Only about 15-20% of DOE’s budget is actually spent on what most people think of as “energy” initiatives, and within that small capacity DOE does some very important work:

Unless President-elect Trump dramatically reorganizes the agency, the vast majority of DOE’s day-to-day work will not change—but the agency’s budget probably will.

DOE will no doubt continue to be fully funded to carry out its national security responsibilities. But with the new congress focused on shrinking the size of government and reducing non-discretionary, non-defense spending, DOE’s “energy” work could be targeted for big cuts. That would be a big mistake.

DOE refused the Trump transition team’s request for employee names involved in climate-related work.

DOE refused the Trump transition team’s request for employee names involved in climate-related work. Photo: Wikimedia

Trump’s DOE, or Perry’s?

It remains to be seen how President-elect Trump will run the executive branch. Will he micromanage, or will he stand back and let his cabinet secretaries run their agencies? If Trump’s business history is any indication, there’s a good chance he’ll micromanage, and that’s bad news for DOE’s climate and clean energy initiatives.

We’ve already seen ominous communications from the transition team in an attempt to root out specific employees and climate-related work the agency is pursuing, with Trump later disavowing the communication.

The transition team has also signaled it believes that the EIA is lowballing oil and gas development in their projections, and underestimating the cost of renewable energy development (even though the problem has historically been data in the other direction, underestimating renewables’ potential and overestimating its costs).

These communications are certainly cause for concern as they indicate a potential interest in undermining scientific integrity, independent analysis, and intimidating government employees of the agency. Any good DOE secretary will want to protect good science and good people under his/her leadership.

Perry’s record a sign of what’s to come?

The majority of DOE’s activities likely won’t change much, given the agency’s primary focus on nuclear weapons and waste. But when it comes to energy activities, there’s reason to expect a pretty big change of direction, with more of a focus on fossil fuel development, and a lot less on clean air and climate change mitigation.

Rick Perry’s DOE is likely to be a big cheerleader for interim storage and spent nuclear fuel management as an economic opportunity for communities. The agency is also likely to delegate to the states more under his leadership, and be less prescriptive in pushing specific types of energy technologies.

Despite this, a Perry-run DOE shouldn’t be hostile towards clean energy. This is supposed to be a pro-business administration, and when Perry was governor of Texas, he saw that clean energy is good business. That’s why he backed the “Competitive Renewable Energy Zone” (CREZ) Initiative, which included large transmission to bring mostly rural wind energy to markets in other parts of the state. It’s also why he directed state funds to wind energy R&D, and signed into law an increase in Texas’ Renewable Portfolio Standard.

wind power, Texas, Gulf coast

Wind turbines on the Texas Gulf coast. Texas is the national leader in wind power.

But deservedly there is some skepticism about how much should be made of the governor’s record on clean energy. According to some, it’s more accurate to say that Governor Perry didn’t stand in the way of wind development, rather than crediting him as a champion for clean energy. On the fossil side Perry supported subsidies and exemptions for natural gas development, and fast-tracked the permitting of 11 conventional coal plants that would have been disastrous for the climate and to ratepayers.

When it comes to energy development Perry has generally shown very little concern for public health, safety, and the environment. That’s a red flag. But regardless of where you come down on what he’s done, Governor Perry’s energy legacy in Texas can most accurately be described as “all-of-the-above.” And if anything, he’s seen first-hand that clean energy can be profitable, create jobs, and increases energy security—something that so far seems to have escaped the President-elect.

The real question is will Perry have the liberty to run DOE on his terms? Will he pursue a balanced, pragmatic approach like he did as governor? And even if he’s so inclined, will the budget congress hands him allow him to continue the critical work currently underway at the agency on things like energy efficiency, grid modernization, and clean energy finance and innovation?

For the sake of American jobs, American energy security, American leadership, and the climate, the answers better be “yes.”


The Department of Energy Just Created a Powerful Tool to Protect its Scientists

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

It’s harder to create good science, and to follow the evidence where it leads, when your work can be easily corrupted by political meddling. The Department of Energy has significantly expanded protections for its scientific workforce, the majority of which work in America’s great national laboratories, by finalizing a significantly improved scientific integrity policy.

The policy was announced today in a post on Medium and at a National Press Club speech by Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz.

What the policy says

The policy forbids employees from censoring or altering scientific documents or directing scientists to change scientific findings or conclusions. It commits the DOE to complying with federal whistleblower protections for scientists. And it designates a Scientific Integrity Official to serve as an ombudsperson for scientific integrity complaints. In addition, the policy:

  • encourages scientists to participate in scientific conferences and publish in scientific journals;
  • explicitly protects the ability of scientists to share personal opinions as private citizens, including on social media; and
  • gives scientists the right to review and correct public materials that rely on their work, both before and after release.

The language is strong and precise, giving scientists and science advocates a solid platform to stand on in pushing back against the manipulation and suppression of science and the harassment of scientists. Notably, the new policy extends protections to contractors in addition to DOE employees—essential because nearly all of the national labs are run by contractors.

Why do DOE scientists need protections?

The department has been working on this policy for more than two years. Previously, DOE had a “policy statement” that was short on details and provided little meaningful protection from political interference in their work.

In 2014, a veteran DOE scientist working at Los Alamos National Laboratory appeared to have been fired for an academic article he wrote on his own time. My colleague Gretchen Goldman pointed out at the time how the whole embarrassing episode could have been prevented if the department had a better scientific integrity policy. At many federal agencies, these policies stop problems before they start.

In the wake of the firing, UCS met with senior DOE officials to provide specific advice on how to improve protections for DOE scientists. It’s great to see that they took our concerns seriously.

What comes next at DOE

Now that the policy is in place, it will be up to the next energy secretary to implement it. The new policy could not have come at a better time, just days after Congress claimed authority to slash the pay of federal scientists who produce politically unpopular research and amidst enormous uncertainty over what the Trump administration means for scientific independence.

 NRCgov via Flickr

Senators will have the opportunity through the confirmation process to get Energy Secretary nominee Rick Perry to make firm commitments to implementing the new scientific integrity policy. Photo: NRCgov via Flickr

Rick Perry now has a road map. The Senate should use the confirmation process to ensure he commits to following it. Senators should prioritize asking Governor Perry for details on how he plans to implement the new scientific integrity standards. And then they should hold him to those commitments through continued oversight.

A few questions I’d ask Governor Perry: Are there any parts of the scientific integrity policy that he would change? What plans does he have to train DOE employees about how to use the new policy? Will he give the ombudsperson the authority to investigate allegations of political interference in science? What kind of public reporting will the department do?

This last point is important. Scrutiny will be essential for the policy to be meaningfully implemented. Currently, for example, the EPA and Department of Interior publicly report information about allegations of political interference in science and how they were resolved. How will the DOE follow their lead?

Scientific integrity policies across the government

All modern presidents have politicized science—including President Obama. But the Obama administration has simultaneously taken steps to make federal government science and scientists more resilient to such activity. It began with the president’s inaugural pledge to restore science to its rightful place, followed by a presidential memorandum and a directive from the White House science advisor instructing federal agencies and departments to develop scientific integrity policies.

While there are still some laggards, most large federal agencies and departments—including the EPA, NOAA, NASA, the Department of Interior, USDA, and now DOE—now have policies in place that set high expectations for ensuring that independent science and scientists can fully inform government decisions. It’s our responsibility to ensure that these expectations are met. We’ll have more to say on this topic next week.

What Electric Vehicle Sales in 2016 Mean for the Future of Transportation

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

I’m a fan of electric vehicles. As I’ve noted, they can be a smart and flexible option to help the grid accommodate variable energy resources like wind and solar. And EVs are the option likely to have the most success at decarbonizing transportation.

I’ve noted that the claim “The only way to do X is Y” is probably incorrect. I expect EVs to become the best way to get transportation CO2 emissions to zero for most applications, but not the only way. Hydrogen fuel cells, cellulosic biofuels, and liquid fuels produced by renewable electricity also exist. Maybe we will use some of these technologies for specific applications. But it is my estimate that EVs will achieve the greatest reductions in transportation carbon emissions.

UCS has shown under the current electricity system, EVs reduce emissions compared to the average gasoline car in all parts of the country, even when considering manufacturing impacts. In most of the country they beat the best gasoline cars. That analysis uses the 2015 version of EPA’s eGRID database, which actually only includes data through 2012. The grid has gotten considerably cleaner even in the past few years.

The grid impact

So, theoretically, what would happen if all light-duty vehicles were EVs?

As a back-of-the-envelope calculation, that would be about a 25% increase in electricity demand. Light-duty vehicles account for about 3 trillion vehicle-miles per year in the United States. EVs get roughly 3 miles per kilowatt-hour. We would need an additional 1 trillion kWh of electricity. The U.S. currently uses about 4 trillion kilowatt-hours per year; an additional 1 trillion kWh represents a 25% increase.

US cars and light trucks produced just over one billion metric tons of CO2 in 2014, or about 20% of all U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions. In 2015, US power plants produced 1,925 million metric tons of CO2 while producing 3,931 billion kWh, for an emissions rate of about 0.5 tons per thousand kWh. The additional trillion kWh for the EVs would result in 500 million tons of emissions, or about half of what light-duty vehicles emit today, for a 10% reduction in energy-related CO2 emissions. That estimate applies if EVs are charged by the grid of today. It does not account for the fact that the grid is getting cleaner through existing market forces and policy actions, nor the ways that EVs can specifically help the grid accommodate greater use of variable renewables, nor actions such as buying green power or using a “green charging” algorithm.

Scenarios of EV market growth

It will be a while before EVs represent even 10% of vehicles, let alone 100%. EV sales were about 0.9% of new car sales in the US in 2016, up from about 0.7% in 2015. With somewhat over half a million sold during the period 2012-2016, EVs are currently about 0.3% of cars on the road.

Sounds small?  Well, compound growth is an amazing thing.  Continuing the 2012-2016 growth rate of 32% per year would put EVs at 10% of all new car sales by 2025, and about 40% by 2030.

Now, that might be a stretch.  It’s too short a time to extrapolate from, and technology diffusion tends to follow an S-shaped “logistic function” rather than a constant growth rate. Still, even with lower growth rates, existing targets are achievable.

The eight states that have signed the Zero Emission Vehicle Memorandum have a combined goal of 3.3 million vehicles on the road by 2025 (and all new vehicles being zero-emission by 2050). I expect that most of these will be EVs, although some may be other technologies. These states represent about a quarter of the US population. If the ZEV states meet their goal, and the other states with three times as many people deploy only half as many EVs, that would be 5 million EVs by 2025.  This would represent roughly 2% of all vehicles on the road in the US, and possibly 5% of new car sales in that year.

US EV sales would need to grow at a rate of 25% per year over 2016-2025 to hit 5 million cumulative sales in 2025 (sales in that year would be 1 million). As shown below, 2016 represented a 37% increase in EV sales over 2015 (the 2012-2016 period saw 32% annual growth).


EV sales in 2016 were up 37% over 2015. Source: Inside EVs.

Two paths

Assuming we hit 2025’s targets, what would happen next? One of two things.

Maybe the market keeps growing. In UCS’s “Half the Oil” report, we present a scenario in which California meets its Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) requirements, with 16% of new vehicles being ZEV by 2025. With further growth beyond that, ZEVs would reach 28-36% of light-duty vehicles in California in 2030. This Hawaii-specific study similarly forecasts a “high” case of about 33% of new car sales being EVs by 2030. Other studies feature even faster diffusion.

Or, vehicle sales might fall dramatically. If shared autonomous vehicles become the norm, far fewer vehicles would be needed. At any one time, no more than about 13% of cars are on the road. You might think you still need one car per person for rush hour, but 1) our number of commuters is less than half our number of vehicles; and, 2) these commutes are spread around a fairly broad time and are typically under half an hour. So one vehicle can support several commutes, even before you consider ridesharing. EVs could be grabbing a larger share of a shrinking market – at least in the countries that currently feature widespread car ownership.

Which way will the future take us? Photos from Mercedes-Benz and Wikimedia.

Which way will the future take us? Photos from Mercedes-Benz and Wikimedia.

Considering the progress from Google, Tesla, Apple, and others, full autonomy may be technologically possible by 2020. Regulations would take another few years to catch up. Granted, autonomous vehicles could be privately owned; the degree to which people choose to switch from owning vehicles to buying “transportation as a service” is uncertain. Still, the prospect of shared autonomous vehicles is why I think projections beyond 2030 are especially difficult.

Our transportation system might look much, much different.

Rex Tillerson and “We’ll Adapt” to Climate Change: Millionaire Oilmen Say the Darndest Things

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

People tell me that Rex Tillerson stands a good chance of being confirmed as Secretary of State this month. In the spirit of not going quietly, Senators should press him on many fronts, not least his statements about climate change adaptation. When Rex Tillerson says we’ll just have to adapt to climate change—whether it’s hubris, ignorance, or deception talking—it’s a dangerous view. It’s playing with other people’s lives.

When I first heard it—Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State—I thought, good one!  Wait, wait: Slender Man for Health and Human Services. Kanye for Dalai Lama. Willy Wonka to draft USDA Dietary Guidelines.

Rex Tillerson? The man who for 40 years served and eventually led Exxon Mobil? Who was there when the corporation came to understand the science and risks of climate change and worked, not to sound the alarm and contribute to solutions, but to ensure that doubt about the science became pervasive and that society wasted that time doing nothing? Who oversaw such activity?

And now that we can never get that time back, and Exxon Mobil has used that time to grow to be one of the world’s most profitable corporations, he talks about how our species thrives on adversity and should just adapt to climate change?  And he continues to undercut climate models, downplay climate impacts, and mock renewable energyThat guy?

I feel like I have irony poisoning.

It’s so late in the climate fight. The Paris Climate Agreement—on which hangs our last best hope for avoiding deep climate disruption—is taking its tottering first steps. In this moment, Americans have a deep obligation to ensure the solutions take root and succeed, at home and globally. The nomination of Rex Tillerson reflects us, as a nation, retreating to our self-interested corner, the future be damned.

But before we accept this man as our nation’s leading diplomat—as the person who will implement the Trump Administration’s foreign policy and help determine, among other things, the success or failure of the Paris Agreement—he should be made to clarify a few climate positions that are both dangerous and absurd.


Exxon-Mobil’s former chief, Rex Tillerson, could become a key person in determining the success or failure of international greenhouse gas reduction efforts. Henhouse, meet fox. Photo: William Munoz

Hubris, ignorance, or deception?

Tillerson has spoken a number of times about climate change, sometimes indicating support for the science and for solutions broadly, but also obscuring the urgency of climate mitigation, and downplaying the severity of climate risks. Indeed, he speaks in almost dreamily can-do terms about our ability to adapt to the changes. It’s all very sci-fi to watch.

Below are a few statements in the “we’ll adapt” family, with some commentary and questions. There are three basic themes worth calling out:

(1) his hands-in-the-air capitulation to the problem, and quick pivot to adaptation instead of  carbon emissions reduction,

(2) his I’m-just-a-passive-bystander stance, belying his company’s role in driving the climate crisis, and

(3) his absurdly optimistic notions of the kind of change that we can cope with.

Where do these positions come from? Is it a place of hubris? Ignorance? Or deception, to cover for callous self-interest? The Senate should want to know and should push him for answers.

“We’ll adapt to that” Part 1: Oh, really?

The notion that serious emission reductions through curtailment of fossil fuels is a step that can be skipped and we can just adapt is… well, crazy. We can’t adapt to unmitigated climate change—at least not while retaining a world we recognize today; the changes and the losses would to be too great. Does Rex Tillerson not get that, or is he choosing to ignore it? And which is worse in a Secretary of State?

For example, I quote: “Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around—we’ll adapt to that.”  Will we? Across large swaths of Southern and East Africa at this moment, severe, extended drought is leading to crop failure, hunger, malnutrition, and the growing threat of famine. The severity of this drought, according to a growing body of scientific evidence, has been driven by climate change.

The growing season has now begun, but many drought-stressed households are assumed to have no access to seeds. Emergency food shortages—i.e., worsening widespread hunger—are expected in several countries the coming months.

Now, imagine for a moment standing before an audience of these subsistence farmers—people whose hungry children now eat cactus at many meals—and telling them that your own personal actions have contributed to the climate conditions now preventing them from growing crops and feeding their families, and it’s going to get worse. Arguably, this is an exercise every person of privilege on earth should try. We have all made climate change. The impacts on the world’s most vulnerable people are on all the rest of us. What’s special about Rex Tillerson is that, in his position of power and influence, he goes on to say essentially, no big deal, everything will be fine, those crops can be grown elsewhere. We all need to adapt.

Areas of crop production will shift as climate conditions change and historically fertile areas become less so (and others potentially more so) or can no longer support the same crops. Our urgent duty is to cut emissions globally, so that such changes are more limited and gradual on the ground for those who must cope.

Ask him: What does the nominee for Secretary of State think will happen in countries where the economy is largely agricultural and many people are subsistence farmers? Doesn’t “we’ll adapt” in this case mean overturning ag-based economies and casting populations to the wind? Doesn’t it assume shocks to the global food system and the risks that ensue? Doesn’t it require risking famine? And other people’s lives?

The war in Syria is seen by some experts to have certain roots in the extended drought that country faced in recent  years, and the upheaval and displacement this caused in the countryside. The trauma wrought by Syria should haunt us for decades. Unless, of course, we’re creating a world where it’s quickly eclipsed by the next one.

Tillerson continued: “It’s an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions.”

Climate change is clearly an emissions problem. And the engineering solutions are clean energy technologies, not the ones Tillerson has in mind. But since we know that Tillerson’s world view largely bypasses climate mitigation and jumps to adaptation, we can assume he means things like coastal engineering to adapt to sea level rise. Six feet of sea level rise in the United States, plausible by end of century, can be expected to flood nearly 2 million homes (or 2 percent of all US homes) force people in the US and around the world to relocate, destroy the coastal housing market, and rob many people of their single greatest asset.

I hope someone asks him: what is the engineering solution that gets us out of that?

Let’s stay by the coast with a related quote: “But when you predict things like sea level rise, you get numbers all over the map. If you take a—what I would call a reasonable scientific approach to that, we believe those consequences are manageable. They do require us to begin to exert—or spend more policy effort on adaptation. What do you want to do if we think the future has sea level rising four inches, six inches?”

What’s interesting here is not only Tillerson’s quixotic view of adaptation solutions, but what sounds like a willingness to sign the taxpayer up for a hefty (and without mitigation, unaffordable) adaptation bill. Those of us in rich nations who reaped nearly all the benefit of fossil fuel use do need to pay for the costs of that use—i.e., to manage and minimize impacts in poorer countries and here at home. But the industry itself, which has profited wildly for years, also needs to pay. Exxon-Mobil wants us to bear all the costs while the industry continues selling their polluting product and reaping the profits. See also: gall.

Across such statements there is also a consistent downplaying of the threat. Yes, we do expect four or six inches of sea level rise in the future—but just in the next 20 or so years. We’ve already seen 6 inches just since 1970 in places like Boston and Charleston and more elsewhere.  And in the last few days, we’ve learned of the accelerating break-up of the Larsen C ice shelf, a single event that is expected to trigger four inches of sea level rise all by itself. By end of century, current projections are in the 4 to 6 foot range.

So, Mr. Tillerson should tell us: with more than 120 million Americans living in coastal counties; with large areas of Louisiana and Bangladesh, for example, at elevations less than 3 feet. And with hundreds of millions of people living in coastal mega cities…. What’s manageable about this situation?


Rex Tillerson has consistently downplayed climate risks. Photo: Center for Strategic & International Studies

“We’ll adapt to that” Part 2: Who’s “we”?

When Rex Tillerson says “we’ll adapt,” who exactly does he mean? The more than 700 million people who subsist on <$2 per day, whose lives generally hang in the balance, and who can in no way cope with the stress, disruption, and chaos that climate change will drive, and increasingly is driving? He cannot realistically mean those people. But given the price tag and complexity of dealing with unmitigated climate change, I don’t think he means you, me, and most everyone else, either. Perhaps “we” is the global .0001%, the ones who can simply pay to insulate themselves from harm.

“There are more people’s health being dramatically affected because they could—they don’t even have access to fossil fuels to burn. They’d love to burn fossil fuels because their quality of life would rise immeasurably, and their quality of health and the health of their children and their future would rise immeasurably.”

Human development, health, and quality of life benefit enormously from access to energy, and people without access want and need it. The wealthy countries of the world should be doing more to ensure they get it. But developing countries, as captured in this Climate Vulnerable Forum Declaration, want clean, affordable energy.

So, someone ask him: At this moment in history, when renewable energy sources like wind and solar show the potential to eclipse fossil fuel sources, why should poor countries sign up for a future of dirty, costly fuels and corporate dependency? Who does that benefit? And given the changes in store with accelerating climate change, how is greater fossil fuel-dependency NOT the cure that will kill you?

“Mankind has this enormous capacity to deal with adversity,” said Rex Tillerson, having played his outsized role creating a future of climate change the world will be dealing with for hundreds if not thousands of years. A future that a lot of things we hold dear—places, ways of life, species, whole ecosystems—won’t survive. “And so I don’t—the fear factor that people want to throw out there to say we just have to stop this, I do not accept.”  I wonder what he doesn’t accept. The fear people feel? Or the need to stop climate change? Or the need to stop using his product?

In Tillerson’s world view, the rest of us can move heaven and earth in an effort to cope with climate change, but the oil industry can keep doing exactly what it’s doing to drive climate change. Because anything else would be too disruptive.

The wrong man for the moment

Rex Tillerson has spoken, sometimes passionately, about global poverty and American youth. As Secretary of State, he could arguably have no greater, more positive impact on each than by becoming a climate champion and lending his support to the world’s emissions reduction efforts. But that’s not what’s set to play out here. Rex Tillerson’s appointment looks more than anything like a power play by an industry that knows that, in a world of climate action, it is on the ropes; and in a world of climate inaction, it gets a second wind. The industry may eventually fail (or reinvent itself to become part of the solution─one can dream!), but for now its plan appears to be to extend its business model another five, maybe ten years, make all the money it can, and if it takes us all down with it, so be it. We have our work cut out, folks.

In the best of futures, climate adaptation will be difficult and in some cases impossible, forcing hard choices and perhaps terrible impacts and losses. When millionaire oilman Rex Tillerson talks about “we’ll adapt” as an approach to climate change in coming years, it’s a modern, global equivalent of “let them eat cake.” It was absurd when the French aristocracy said it. It’s absurd today, coming from the recently retired head of a mammoth fossil fuel company, and only more so if that same person becomes U.S. Secretary of State.

New Year, New Clean Energy Analysis: New Study Finds Lots of Benefits, Few Costs

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Last year was a tough one in some ways, though a great one for those of us tracking wind and solar progress. Now a new report from two of our nation’s premier national energy laboratories analyzes the power of a lot more strong growth in clean energy sources like those.

What they find is just about everything you could want in smart energy evolution: lots of likely upside, not much downside.

The report, from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, models a particular policy in place in a majority of US states, known as renewable electricity standards (or renewable portfolio standards). Their model assesses what different levels of renewable energy might mean for the future.

A prospective analysis of the costs, benefits, and impacts of U.S. renewable portfolio standards examines two renewables-centric scenarios. One, the “Existing RPS” scenario, assumes that state policies in place by mid-2016 stay on track. The other, a “High RE [Renewable Energy]” one, assumes that almost all states adopt RPSs with “relatively aggressive targets,” as some already have. It compares each of those scenarios to a “No RPS” one that assumes that those policies stopped driving renewables after 2015—not a likely scenario, given the clean energy sector’s incredible momentum, but a useful foil (since the incoming administration’s commitment to clean energy is still… uncertain).

The analysis uses those scenarios to look at a range of outputs, different metrics by which to judge whether we’re likely to be making progress, or not, on these paths.

The upshot is that the analysis shows a lot of up-arrows for things we’d want more of, and down-arrows for things we’d want to cut. Here are four important charts from the report, and what they mean:

1. More renewable energy means less air and water pollution, less water use.

The summary chart below shows what higher levels of renewables penetration under the two first scenarios could mean relative to the third.

 Mai et al. 2016)

(Source: Mai et al. 2016)

The benefits stats in orange in the chart are notable, particularly under the “High RE” scenario:

  • Potential reductions of almost a third in emissions of SO2, NOx, and particulate matter, three important pollutants with regard to human health
  • Almost a quarter fewer CO2 emissions, with its strong implications for climate change and all the bad stuff that comes along with it
  • 18% less water use by power plants, through replacement of big water users like coal plants with water-free sources like solar panels and wind turbines

Those levels of reduction aren’t everything we need, and it’s also important to understand where those reductions are taking place, in the case of the ones with most direct impact on local health—in which parts of the country (maps in the report usefully show what regions the reductions might be in—think Midwest and Mid-Atlantic) but also in which areas, what types of communities.

But it’s also important to note that those drops are versus the “No RPS” scenario, meaning that the reductions from current levels would be considerably greater if viewed against a scenario with truly no growth in renewables. (For a taste of that, check out the considerable benefits from RPSs to date neatly covered in an earlier Department of Energy report; this write-up by Vox’s David Roberts is also useful.)

These stats also don’t take into account the broad range of other policies that could (and should) be brought to bear to deal with continuing health impacts from our nation’s power plants, particularly in lower-income communities and communities of color.

2. Renewable energy means jobs.

Job creation is a really strong point in renewables’ favor. And when you add up all the jobs created over all the years under these projections, you get some pretty-hard-to-ignore gains.

 Mai et al. 2016)

(Source: Mai et al. 2016)

Here’s how the authors put it in the text:

In terms of total cumulative job-years over the entire 2015–2050 period, the Existing RPS scenario yields 4.7 million additional job-years compared to the No RPS scenario, a 19% increase in RE-related employment required. This is equivalent to the renewable energy sector needing approximately 134,000 more workers annually, on average, in comparison to the No RPS scenario. The High RE scenario, meanwhile, is estimated to require 11.5 million additional job-years, again relative to the No RPS baseline, a 47% boost.

Jobs. Lots of them.

The report is careful to point out that these are gross figures, not net. Some renewable energy jobs come at the expense of employment in the fossil fuel sector. But studies, including from UCS, have consistently shown that renewables produce far more jobs than fossils lose, meaning that the net figures are likely to be really impressive, too.

3. Renewable energy’s public health and climate benefits way exceed any costs.

The jobs figures alone should be enough for any administration in Washington, D.C., that professes to be focused on economic development. But the jobs numbers don’t have to make the case all by themselves.

 Mai et al. 2016)

(Source: Mai et al. 2016)

As the graph above shows, the costs-vs.-benefits equations are likely to be quite favorable under renewables-heavier futures.

  • The direct financial costs or savings in terms of electricity rates under these projections are minimal, particularly under the “Existing RPS” scenario. As the authors put it, for that scenario, “…the net effect (whether positive or negative) is quite small as a share of overall system costs.”
  • The likely health and climate benefits are much larger, with savings potentially on the scale of the average electricity rate that American households currently face.
  • As to who pays the costs or gets the benefits: Any costs (or savings) would be felt by electricity ratepayers, but those overlap a lot with those who would benefit from the reduced air pollution—most of us pay electricity bills, and all of us breathe. The beneficiaries in terms of climate change mitigation (from “GHG”, or greenhouse gas, reduction) would be broader.

And all this, as the sub-note calls out, doesn’t consider some of the other effects studied, like the water savings and job benefits noted above.

The numbers above also don’t include the benefits of lower natural gas prices that can result when renewables displace gas generation and take pressure off natural gas supplies. That natural gas price suppression, as UCS has found in lots of its own studies, can be considerable across the economy—from people and businesses that heat their homes with gas, to industries that use it as a feedstock.

4. Even stronger policies could get a lot more renewable energy built quickly.

The graph below shows how quickly the modeling assumed renewable energy (wind, solar, and other, plus hydro) would grow, as a piece of the electricity pie. The green line is particularly noteworthy, showing how, under the High RE scenario, renewables could be a third of our generation by the middle of the next decade, and fully half of electricity supply by mid-century.

 Mai et al. 2016)

(Source: Mai et al. 2016)

The authors make a point of calling out the fact that, while RPSs can provide a floor for renewables development, they don’t provide a ceiling:

…important to note… that RE generation is allowed to exceed RPS requirements, thus some additional “economic RE” is generated.

That is, the model, in trying to optimize our electricity future based on cost, picks more renewable energy than policies ask for. That’s in part because of tax credits and other policies that improve the economics of renewables, but also because of the impressive progress in recent years on costs and performance. RPSs, the authors note, while important, aren’t the only things driving renewables.

It’s also important to note that we can do even better than this—considerably better. Many studies have looked at the potential to get to 80% renewables by 2050, or even 100%. So just as the modeled policies shouldn’t be a ceiling, neither should the modeled renewable energy growth projections.

Still, these are useful levels of growth to consider.

What it all adds up to

This handy new study shows the far-reaching, positive implications of stronger investment in renewables, of ramping up policies that have proven themselves over many year, with “…benefits exceed[ing] the costs, even when considering the highest cost and lowest benefit outcomes.” Along with plenty of other studies, both retrospective and forward-looking, the analysis shows clearly that more renewables means less air and water pollution, more water savings, potential economic savings across the economy, and lots of jobs.

All that makes renewable energy well worth paying attention to. Credit: J. Rogers

The Inquisition Congress, Abetted by Trump, Has Begun

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The increasingly reckless House of Representatives, caught up in a public mutiny, may have walked back its abandonment of congressional ethics. But it simultaneously took several other steps that will enable corruption and greatly expand political influence over the work of experts at NASA, NOAA, EPA, and other science agencies, compromising their ability to serve the public interest.

The House rules assault

This week, the House made significant changes to the rules under which it operates. First and foremost is the Holman rule, resurrected from the 1870s, just at the end of Reconstruction. This rule allows Congress, through spending bills, to target specific initiatives and reduce the salaries of individual federal employees whose work they find irksome to $1.

Does your research suggest a chemical company that happens to be located in the district of a powerful member of Congress is responsible for environmental contamination? You could be on that list.

Remember Dr. Tom Karl, the NOAA scientist who published a climate change paper in Science and was rewarded by a subpoena from House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith? Never mind that the chairman’s actions were widely repudiated by scientific organizations. He can now just dispense with the subpoenas and retaliate against Dr. Karl by effectively eliminating his salary (or even threatening to do so).

But don’t think those baseless, political subpoenas are going away. Another change in the House rules suggests they’re going to get worse. Previously, in most committees a member of Congress needed to be present for a formal deposition under a subpoena to move forward. Now, depositions can be done by staff, whether or not members are present or Congress is in session.

In yet another rules change, the House determined that it is no longer necessary for committee chairs to affirm that subpoenas are “material and relevant,” calling that move “redundant,” perhaps attempting to set precedent that committees can go after whatever they want—a potential threat to civil liberties of all who question government.

In sum, the House now claims the authority to cut any employee’s salary without justification, and to depose anyone whenever it wants about whatever topic it wants. Even Joseph McCarthy would have been shocked.

The legislative assault

There are 52 new members of Congress who have barely found their offices, much less had time to read, analyze, and discuss legislation. But that didn’t stop the House leadership from ramming through, with little discussion or debate, legislation that would greatly increase political control over the scientists who are charged with implementing our nation’s public health and environmental laws.

The radical REINS Act passed yesterday in a mostly party-line vote. It would substitute political judgement for scientific judgement by requiring Congress to approve every significant public protection developed by federal agency scientists. This means politics could further prevent the government from protecting communities from unsafe drinking water or chemical plant explosions. The Midnight Rules bill also passed this week. It would enable Congress to roll back rules finalized last year that took years and many thousands of scientist-hours to develop—such as the standard that would improve fuel efficiency for heavy duty trucks, saving truck owners money and cutting carbon pollution.

Hey, freshman member of Congress. Are your phone lines working yet? Are you fully staffed?

Next week comes the Regulatory Accountability Act, sponsored by Bob Goodlatte, the same member of Congress who moved to gut the congressional ethics office. It’s a radical bill that would make laws like the Clean Air Act and Safe Water Drinking Act unenforceable, putting millions of Americans at risk. This bill, too, will likely pass the House with votes by members who have little understanding of its potential impact.

A strategy of sabotage

It is clear that many in Congress have little interest in government working. They aim to destroy faith in government by sabotaging its ability to function and protect the American people. And they see in the president-elect someone who may help them achieve this objective.

Donald Trump is so far sympathetic to attempts to undermine the federal scientific workforce. His transition team has targeted employees at the Departments of Energy and State. He has nominated people who have made careers of compromising the missions of the agencies they are being asked to lead. In this sense, it really doesn’t matter if Trump has a clear vision for where he wants to take the country. What matters is that those are filling the ranks of his administration know exactly what they want to do and are ready to take advantage of the commander in chief.

It is up to us to stop those in Congress and the administration who prioritize private interests over the public good. They dress up their attacks in arguments about bureaucracy run amok. They exaggerate the costs of science-based government rules while ignoring the massive benefits.

We need to see through this smokescreen. The American people did not vote to give politicians more control over the scientists who have dedicated their lives to protect them, or to shift the burden of environmental and public health threats away from those who create them.

It’s time to be calling Congress every time one of the bricks of democracy is smashed. Express your displeasure about the Regulatory Accountability Act—expected on the floor next week—and the legislation that has already passed. And let them know we will continue to watch and they will be held accountable.

How Will the National Park Service Protect America’s Heritage from Climate Change?

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Marcy Rockman, an archaeologist with the National Park Service (NPS) likes to say that “Every place has a climate story.” And telling those stories, as well as effectively responding to the growing risks, is central to an ambitious new strategy to manage the nation’s cultural resources in a rapidly changing climate.

The Cultural Resources Climate Change Strategy (CRCCS) was just published on January 6; Rockman was the lead author. It addresses climate change across the National Park System and is aimed at helping park managers and scientists plan and implement responses, and not least, communicate the scale of the problem to the public.

Climate is now the greatest threat to national parks

NPS Director Jon Jarvis, who retired this week, called climate change “fundamentally the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced.” During his tenure he positioned the park service as a leader and innovator among US agencies in responding to the climate challenge.

The NPS has established climate monitoring and impact assessment programs and in 2009 established a multi-disciplinary Climate Change Response Program. In 2010, the NPS published its first Climate Change Response Strategy, laying out the four pillars of a comprehensive approach: science, adaptation, mitigation, and communication.


San Francisco’s Embarcadero district, which includes the Beaux Arts style Ferry Building, is at risk from sea level rise and flooding. Photo: JaGa

The publication of the CRCCS builds on the goals of the 2010 strategy and provides practical follow-up to a 2014 policy memorandum in which Jarvis noted that “Climate change poses an especially acute problem for managing cultural resources because they are unique and irreplaceable — once lost, they are lost forever.

The NPS is the lead cultural resource agency for the federal government. In addition to the National Park system it holds responsibility for programs including the National Register of Historic Places (including more than 1.4 million buildings, sites, monuments, and structures), National Scenic and Historic Trails, National Heritage Areas, and the American Battlefield Protection Program. It also administers the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program.

Cultural resources covered in the new strategy include archaeological sites, buildings and structures, museum collections, ethnographic resources (heritage traditionally important to diverse cultural groups), museum collections and cultural landscapes. The NPS recognizes not only the threat to cultural resources from climate, but also that these resources can provide vital information and data regarding human responses to climatic and environmental changes in the past, and in this way potentially contribute to adaptation and resilience strategies for the future.

We can learn from the past, to become more resilient in the future

Archaeological evidence from Wupatki National Monument in northern Arizona shows that the local Sinagua people responded to a volcanic eruption and subsequent decades long shift to a drier climate by moving to the plains below the crater where they began to farm using volcanic cinder mulch to maintain soil moisture and increase crop productivity.

At San Juan National Historic site in Puerto Rico, modern technology has been combined with 18th-century water engineering to restore seven underground cisterns in Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristóbal to support sustainable water use.

And in Mount Rainier, in response to increased flooding driven by climate change, engineers have turned away from the modern use of riprap (boulder embankments) which was proving ineffective and begun using engineered log-jams and log structure techniques reminiscent of those used in the early 20th century to repair roads and control erosion.

The new CRCCS notes with some understatement that “it is difficult to learn from cultural resources, develop adaptation strategies for them, or incorporate them into mitigation plans if they have been damaged or destroyed.” And they are being damaged and destroyed—from Fort Jefferson in Florida’s Dry Tortugas National Park to the eroding 4,000-year-old Inupiat Eskimo sites at Cape Krusenstern National Monument in Alaska.

The CRCCS identifies 21 categories of direct and indirect climate change interactions that are already or will in the future affect cultural resources, including:

  • Increased temperature
  • Changed freeze/thaw cycles
  • Permafrost thawing
  • Higher relative humidity
  • Increased wildfires
  • Changes in seasonality and phenology
  • Species shift
  • Changes in precipitation patterns and extreme weather events
  • Increased flooding, inundation and coastal erosion
  • Higher water tables
  • Salt water intrusion

Examples of impacts identified by the NPS include sea level rise and damage to the wooden foundation of the Cockspur Lighthouse at Fort Pulaski National Monument in Georgia, erosion of Native American shell mound sites at Canaveral National Seashore in Florida, and risk of increasing wildfire damage to archaeological resources in Yosemite and Mesa Verde National Parks. Changing rainfall patterns and more intense downpours have already severely damaged the more than 200-year-old adobe Franciscan church in Tumacácori National Historic Park in southern Arizona.

Stephanie Meeks, president and CEO at the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP, a close UCS partner in launching the Climate Heritage Coalition) applauded the launch of the report saying,  “At a time when more and more of our nation’s irreplaceable historic resources are experiencing the impacts of climate change…This report provides timely and essential guidance to both NPS managers and historic preservation partners to anticipate, plan for, and respond to the effects of a changing climate on our shared cultural heritage.”


The CRCCS includes a focus on species that are culturally significant to diverse communities. Pine nuts harvested from Piñon pines have been traditionally important for Native American tribes in the Southwest for centuries. Photo: NPS

Cultural heritage in every national park is at risk

The consequences of climate change for cultural resources identified in the new report are quite staggering in their diversity and comprehensiveness. So much so that it is hard to escape the conclusion the NPS makes that “it is likely that cultural resources in all park units are or will be affected by climate change in some way.”

Whilst the impacts of sea level rise, coastal erosion, storm surge, and increasing wildfires have been well documented in reports such as UCS’s National Landmarks at Risk, the CCRS highlights many lesser-known impacts too. A small sampling of those described in the report includes:

  • Damage to foundations and stone-work because of increased frost heaving, waterlogging, thawing permafrost, or drought
  • Cracking, spalling, warping, and cracking of masonry and other building materials
  • Historic building drainage systems unable to cope with increased extreme rainfall events
  • Collapse of caves and bedrock alcoves
  • Flaking and abrasion of petroglyphs and pictoglyphs
  • Accelerated deterioration of organic material such as paper, wood, paintings, fabric, and animal skins
  • Increased mold, especially in enclosed sites such as vaults, tumuli, and caves
  • Loss or shifting range of culturally important species (e.g. walrus, salmon, piñon pine)
  • Reduction or loss of medicinal and ceremonial plants used during particular times of the year
  • Altered appearance of important ceremonial sites
  • Changes in view-sheds
  • Spread of destructive plats and insects such as termites and kudzu to threaten structures
  • Submerged sites exposed due to lower water levels
  • Increased risk of looting from exposure (as with eroding coastal sites, lowering lake levels and melting ice patches)
  • Inundation and submersion of traditional homelands and consequent loss of social connections and interactions
  • Disassociation of historic districts and settings due to pressure to relocate or elevate structures
  • Increased erosion of limestone and mortar structures, and lime or shell cliffs resulting from ocean acidification
  • Increased risk of damage to shipwrecks due to loss of protective concretions and or coral reefs (resulting from ocean acidification and warming)

Given the huge array of potential impacts and the sheer number of resources under the care of the NPS, the CRCCS lays out some guidelines for addressing the scale of the problem. For example, it notes that there is now a clear need to integrate global and local climate change data and projections into all cultural resource management and planning. This is being done, for example, at Tumacácori. Having seen the unexpected damage to the church from extreme rainfall, NPS cultural resource managers, material scientists and climate researchers are now working closely together to understand fine-scale local climate patterns and their implications for the historic structures in the park.

In addition to site-specific guidance, the CRCCS provides some important broad-scale policy recommendations, including:

  • Take urgent steps to target survey and documentation programs to evaluate resources, assess their vulnerabilities, and prioritize options to respond before they are lost
  • Develop guidance to relate historic preservation legislation and programs to climate change adaptation
  • Integrate cultural resources into Disaster Preparedness and Response (noting that climate change will unfold as a long string of disasters of varying rates and intensities, and that good planning can assist in disaster recovery when such events and impacts occur)
  • Incorporate cultural resources in sustainability and climate change mitigation efforts by maximizing the energy efficiency of historic buildings through continued maintenance and continuing to add energy efficiency and renewable energy methods to historic buildings and landscapes (referencing the work of the NTHP Preservation Green Lab)
  • Consider contemporary significance of potential historic resources through consultation with diverse stakeholders.
We must prioritize because not everything can be saved

As noted above, the CRCCS explicitly recognizes that it will not be possible to save or protect all the cultural resources under the mandate of the NPS, and that a process of vulnerability assessment and prioritization will have to be undertaken, both nationally and at the individual site level.


Buildings on Officers’ Row at Fort Hancock undergo stabilization after Hurricane Sandy in November 2012. The fort is in the Sandy Hook unit of Gateway National Recreation Area, New York Harbor. Photo: NPS/Wickersty

Scenario planning has been adopted by the NPS to develop climate responses and strategies that are robust in the face of varying levels of uncertainty regarding the rate and scale of specific climate impacts and their interactions with each other, and with other environmental stressors.

Prioritization involves assessing climate vulnerability across resources in a park, assessing the level of importance or significance of each resource at risk, reviewing adaptation options, and then making implementation decisions.

Such a process had already begun at Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City and New Jersey when Hurricane Sandy struck. Gateway includes Fort Hancock, along with gun batteries, airfields, missile silos, nine historic districts, and more than 600 historic structures, and attracts nearly 10 million visitors annually. Prior to Sandy, the park authorities had used characteristics such as resource condition, public use potential, and uniqueness to identify three categories of cultural resource, those that should be preserved, those that should be stabilized to minimize impacts, and those that could be left to deteriorate or be lost. The pre-storm categorization was later updated and combined with data assessing Sandy’s damage patterns and new flood mapping to guide reconstruction after the storm and to form the basis for the park’s new General Management Plan.

Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Shenandoah National Parks, the National Capital Region of the NPS and Cape Lookout National Seashore, among others, are now also carrying out various prioritization processes for their cultural resources.

At Cape Lookout, where two historic villages on the barrier islands are at high risk from rising sea levels, NPS staff have partnered with researchers from North Carolina State University, Western Carolina University, the US Geological Survey Southeast Climate Science Center, the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office, and local community members to assess adaptation options. The range of potential options for action include no intervention, offsetting stress, relocation, and documentation in advance of permanent loss.

Climate stories can help push back against denialists in Washington D.C.

The NPS is at the forefront of climate vulnerability assessment and response internationally, as UCS documented in its recent joint report on climate change and World Heritage sites with UNESCO and UNEP.

The CRCCS identifies as a key strategy the importance of connecting with partners both in the US and globally to learn and share innovations in cultural resource management in the face of climate change. From the Oxford Rock Breakdown Laboratory in the UK (with its focus on climate impacts on historic stonework), to the Integrated History and Future of People on Earth (IHOPE) project which is dedicated to learning from the past to assist future resilience, the NPS is increasing its coordination with international projects wherever possible.

One of several innovations the NPS is bringing to the table which has not been developed elsewhere is climate change literacy and interpretation training programs for park managers and rangers.

With more than 300 million visitors annually, our national parks offer an unprecedented opportunity to bring the best available climate science directly to the American people in ways that that they can easily understand and in places that they care deeply about.

When all is said and done, the new communications goals that the CRCCS lays out for researching and writing climate stories for each national park and incorporating them in interpretation, outreach, and educational materials, may be among its most important contributions. It may be these stories that help to push back the current wave of climate denial in Washington by bringing home to Americans who love their national parks what we stand to lose if we don’t act decisively to slow climate change.


N.B. I would like to acknowledge advice and input for this blog from Anthony Veerkamp (Field Director, San Francisco Office) and Jeana Wiser (Senior Manager, Resilient Communities, Preservation Green Lab) of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. All opinions and any errors are my own.

California Snow Levels Below Normal Despite Heavy Rains

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Today the California Department of Water Resources conducted its snow survey, which found below normal snow levels for this time of year.

In California, 2016 was the third hot year in a row—with some areas of the state experiencing temperatures up to 5 degrees hotter over this time period than normal. Temperatures remained high during an extremely soggy end to the year—in fact 2016 is expected to break global heat records.

This means that even while we received more rain than average over the last few months, we haven’t seen as much snow—a major source of California’s water. What’s more, higher temperatures caused by climate change could keep the Sierra snowpack low for the foreseeable future, according to a new study from UCLA and Oregon State University.

Rain levels above average, snowpack below average ca_avg_temp_2014-2016

Warming temperatures across California from 1/2/2014-1/1/2017, as compared to historical record. Data available at

If we look at the Northern Sierra, which drain into some of the state’s largest water supply reservoirs, rain levels are well above average (164% of average), but today’s snow survey found snowpack to be well below average at only 53% of average snow water content.

This is because most of the storms this winter have been warm, according to Doug Carlson, a spokesman with the state Department of Water Resources. Carlson points out that when so much water falls as rain, officials often must release some of it, as they have already been forced to do at Lake Folsom.

Climate change means California’s current water system is becoming obsolete. plotesi

Northern Sierra 8 Station Precipitation Index reflects a very wet fall. Data available at

As a consequence of the heavy rain in Northern California, many of the state’s reservoirs have re-filled (at least temporarily). Unfortunately, many of these reservoirs are only allowed to fill to about 80% of their capacity before they are required to release stored water in order to avoid dam failure or flooding. That means that early, heavy rains often cannot be effectively captured for later use.

If this strikes you as odd, that’s because it is—it’s just one more piece of evidence that climate change is already having profound impacts on California’s water supply. As temperatures rise, our state’s current systems for storing and moving water are quickly becoming obsolete. The public should demand a climate-resilient water system, but it is difficult when many don’t understand what’s at risk.

Take action: Help connect the dots on climate change

You can write a letter to the editor to your local paper ensuring they connect the dots on how climate change is contributing to California’s water woes.

In particular, media coverage tends to focus almost exclusively on short-term weather events like drought, El Niño, and La Niña rather than the much larger impact of climate change on our water resources. That’s why we call climate change “La Madre” of California’s water system.

Today, many local papers are reporting on the annual snow survey — submit a letter to your local paper that highlights the importance of climate change in their coverage, especially when it comes to our water needs.

Local newspapers are a go-to source of information for the public and decision makers alike, and their coverage influences how many of us think about California’s most pressing issues. By urging better, more responsible climate and water coverage, we can help build a more sustainable water future for our state.

Join us by sending a letter to the editor of your local paper or contacting your local television news station, asking for more thorough coverage of California’s water issues.

Attacking Science in Week One: How Congress is Trying to Dismantle Public Protections

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You may have heard that Congress is back in session this week. The House of Representatives started off by trying to eviscerate their own independent ethics watchdog behind closed doors on a national holiday. The public noticed, raised hell, and forced the chamber to reverse course.

But the absurdity in the House continues. Over the next few days, votes are scheduled on two radical proposals designed to erode the ability of federal agencies to use science to protect public health, safety, and the environment.

Congress is trying its best to eviscerate science-based processes to ensure that we have access to things like clean water (Flickr user Joe Dyer).

Congress is trying its best to eviscerate science-based processes to ensure that we have access to things like clean water (Flickr user Joe Dyer).

We’ve successfully prevented these ridiculous ideas from becoming law in the past. However, as we enter a political era where President-elect Donald J. Trump wants to dismantle our public protections, there is a legitimate path for these reckless bills to become law. And just like we noticed the ethics overreach, we have to notice these radical bills and call them out for what they are: a wonky way to undermine, politicize, and dismantle science-based public health, safety, and environmental protections and weaken popular laws like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.


One proposal, called the Regulations From The Executive In Need of Scrutiny Act (REINS Act), would force Congress to approve science-based safeguards within a narrow timeframe. If they failed to do so, the federal government would not be allowed to implement that public protection.

The other proposal, called the Midnight Rules Relief Act, would make it even easier for Congress to dismantle a significant number of science-based safeguards finalized last year, including a new standard that would improve fuel efficiency for heavy duty trucks, simultaneously saving truck owners money and reducing carbon pollution.

Neither of these proposals are new ideas. You’re probably most familiar with the REINS Act, which my colleagues have written about here, here, and here. Like a cockroach, the idea just doesn’t die. It keeps getting reintroduced at the urging of highly-paid special interest lobbyists who apparently are more interested in evading science-based safety standards rather than ensuring access to clean air and safe drinking water.

We have to notice what is happening in Congress. We cannot allow legislators to gut public protections (Flickr user USCapitol).

We have to notice what is happening in Congress. We cannot allow legislators to gut public protections (Flickr user USCapitol).

The bill threatens the integrity of the federal regulatory process and foolishly injects politics into a process that should be rooted in science. If passed, federal agencies could be prevented from implementing potentially lifesaving public health safeguards, preventing millions of Americans, especially the most vulnerable populations who often face the gravest threats, from receiving the protection afforded to them by existing laws.

The “midnight rules” bill, which just passed the House last November, is the Congressional Review Act (another radical threat to science) on steroids. To put it even more bluntly, it’s a FASTPASS for Congress to undermine, politicize, and dismantle science-based public health protections. If it were to become law, Congress would easily use just one vote to undo important clean air, chemical safety, and nutrition standards. Worse, federal agencies would be prevented from working on similar protections in the future. So, if Congress blocks clean air protections finalized last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) couldn’t revisit the topic indefinitely.

What the “midnight rules” does do is give Congress sweeping authority to substitute political judgement for scientific judgement. It gives Congress permission to ignore all of the years of technical work and public comment used to develop public health, safety, and environmental protections, and simply dismantle all these vital safeguards in one fell swoop.

Both the REINS Act and the “midnight rules” bill ignore the fact that Congress can already undo regulations they don’t like (they just have to rewrite popular laws like the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, or the Endangered Species Act). Furthermore, it ignores the fact that federal agencies are doing their work at the behest of Congress. The EPA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Food and Drug Administration, are just some of the agencies that are charged by Congress to use science to protect the public.

Public protections matter

These wonky bills aren’t improving the federal government. They are an attack on our daily lives. These bills exist to “rein in” public health, safety, and environmental protections, and nothing more. They have been written and drafted by corporate lobbyists not to improve the federal regulatory process, but to stymy it, and add yet another roadblock for implementing sensible safeguards.

If these bills were to become law, they would override science, and hurt our democracy as well. Whether it’s to guarantee that our drinking water is safe, the air we breathe is clean, or to even prevent a chemical disaster in our community, we must not allow ideological and other special interests to rig the rules in their favor and gut our ability to have an informed dialogue about the decisions we need to make to address the complex challenges we face. Otherwise, we are just sacrificing the “public” part of public policymaking.

The REINS Act and the “midnight rules” bill are just the first in an avalanche of bills that will be used to gut our science-based public protections. Over the next few months, we’ll see many more proposals that we’ve seen before, and some we that we haven’t.

And while we’ve prevented almost all of the efforts to undermine our science-based rulemaking process over the last few years, the path for some of these radical ideas to become law gets easier on January 20. We must notice, remain vigilant, and frequently tell our elected officials why science-based public protections matter.

Scientists’ Letter to Trump Supporting Iran Nuclear Deal

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Donald Trump has made conflicting statements about how he views the Iranian nuclear deal and what he plans to do about it once he takes office. But the deal has now been in effect for a year and experience shows the agreement is working—and that it would be foolish to discard or undermine it.

I’m one of 37 scientists who signed a letter delivered to Mr. Trump’s team yesterday explaining the successes of the deal and the value of keeping it. The letter was organized by a group of scientists, including Richard Garwin, who was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Sig Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory—one of the two US labs that design nuclear weapons. The signers include six Nobel laureates in physics.

The goals of the Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), are to significantly lengthen the time it would take Iran to make nuclear weapons and to put in place a set of intrusive verification measures that would give the world confidence that Iran was abiding by the terms of the agreement—or unambiguous warning if it was not.

 US Dept. of State)

Diplomats announcing the framework of the JCPOA in 2015 (Source: US Dept. of State)

The past year has shown that the deal is working. Iran has taken important steps specified in the agreement, and human inspections and continuous monitoring by instruments are underway. We conclude, as we say in the letter, that the nuclear deal “has dramatically reduced the risk that Iran could suddenly produce significant quantities of nuclear-weapon materials.”

Our letter ends by telling Mr. Trump:

The JCPOA does not take any options off the table for you or any future president. Indeed it makes it much easier for you to know if and when Iran heads for a bomb. It provides both time and legitimacy for an effective response.

Our technical judgment is that the multilateral JCPOA provides a strong bulwark against an Iranian nuclear-weapons program. We urge you to preserve this critical U.S. strategic asset.

Watts Bar Hokey Pokey is Not Okey Dokey

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

Fission Stories #200

The Watts Bar Nuclear Plant near Spring City, Tennessee has two pressurized water reactors (PWRs) like that shown in Figure 1. Water flowing through the reactor core gets heated to over 500°F, but does not boil because pressure of over 2,000 pounds per square inch prevents it. The heated water flows through tubes inside the steam generators. Heat conducted through the thin metal walls of the tubes boils water surrounding the tubes. The steam flows through a turbine that spins a generator to make electricity.

Fig. 1(

Fig. 1(Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

PWRs feature emergency core cooling systems (see Figure 2) intended to provide makeup water should a pipe connected to the reactor vessel break and rapidly drain the pressurized water from the vessel. Accumulators located inside the containment building are metal tanks partially filled with water. The remaining space inside the accumulator above the water level is filled with nitrogen gas. The nitrogen gas is pressurized. If a pipe breaks, the pressure inside the reactor vessel will decrease as water jets out the broken pipe ends. When the reactor vessel pressure drops below about 600 pounds per square inch, the accumulator water will be “pushed” into the reactor vessel. The charging, safety injection, and residual heat removal pumps located outside containment will start up and supplement the water makeup function.

Fig. 2 (

Fig. 2 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

The emergency core cooling (ECC) accumulators and pumps are designed to maintain adequate cooling of the reactor core for breaks of small, medium, or large diameter pipes connected to the reactor vessel. As shown in Figure 3, the size of the break determines how quickly the transition from the high head injection (e.g., charging pumps) systems to the low pressure systems.

Fig. 3 (

Fig. 3 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Each PWR at Watts Bar has two charging pumps. Each charging pump is powered by an electric motor and is designed to provide 150 gallons per minute of makeup flow at the high pressure conditions. The charging pumps are located within the auxiliary building that is adjacent to the reactor containment building. Because it gets warm in Tennessee during the summer and the running motors on the charging pumps give off more heat, air conditioning units called room coolers are installed in the auxiliary building to protect the charging pumps from overheating damage. (The irony is duly noted—the components installed to protect the reactor core from overheating damage are vulnerable to overheating damage themselves.)

Each room cooler consists of a bladed fan that blows air across metal tubes filled with cooling water. The air gets cooled down as it flows past the tubes. The fan is spun by an electric motor. A belt wraps around the motor shaft and fan shaft so that when the former rotates, the latter rotates too.

Revisions and re-revisions

On November 3, 1995, the shaft for a fan on one of the charging pump room coolers for Watts Bar Unit 1 was discovered to be damaged. Workers determined that the fan belt had been tightened too much, causing the fan shaft’s damage. The maintenance procedure for the room coolers was revised to include more guidance for properly installing and tensioning the fan belt. The procedure revision was a CAPR—corrective action to prevent recurrence.

And it did prevent recurrence, at least until 2011. A revision to the maintenance procedure in 2011 removed the guidance on proper tensioning of the fan belt.

Charging pump room cooler 1B-B was found broken on December 4, 2015. Workers disassembled the unit, repaired or replaced its broken parts, and reassembled it.

Charging pump room cooler 1B-B was found broken on August 3, 2016. Workers determined that the fan belt had been tightened too much which put more strain on the fan bearing causing it to degrade.

The corrective action was to re-revise the maintenance procedure to reinsert the guidance about properly installing and tensioning the fan belt. Workers also checked all other coolers at Watts Bar that had their fan belts tensioned during the 2011 revision to the maintenance procedure to ensure they were properly tightened.

Report to the Commission

The charging pumps provide high pressure makeup to the reactor vessel should a broken pipe cause a loss of coolant accident. If the pipe has a large diameter, the reactor vessel pressure will quickly drop down to the range where the accumulators and the residual heat removal pumps can supply the necessary makeup water. Following breaks of smaller diameter pipes, the reactor pressure will also decrease, albeit at a slower rate. An evaluation by Westinghouse, the vendor for the PWRs at Watts Bar, concluded that the charging pumps might be needed for up to 7.5 days during an accident.

An engineering evaluation by the owner concluded that a charging pump running without its associated room cooler would fail in about 74 hours due to overheating of its electric motor. Because the faulty room cooler could have prevented the charging pump from operating for the entire duration of its safety mission, the owner reported the problem to the NRC.

Our Takeaway

Workers at Watts Bar danced the nuclear hokey pokey. They started with the fan belt guidance out of the procedure, then took the step of putting the guidance into the procedure, back-stepped to remove the guidance, and re-took the step of placing the guidance back into the procedure. When it was in the procedure, the fan belt guidance seemed to protect against room cooler failures. Perhaps it’s time to stop the hokey pokey now that the useful guidance is once again in the procedure.

Right now, the nuclear industry seeks to significantly reduce costs through its Delivering the Nuclear Promise initiative while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission seeks to downsize through its Project AIM efforts. The lesson of this Watts Bar episode should not be lost upon the promisers and projectors. The workers who removed the fan belt tensioning guidance in 2011 were likely unaware of the reason it had been added back in 1995. Before the promisers and projectors discontinue this practice or eliminate that activity, they need to make really sure they are not undoing past fixes. Perhaps it is no longer necessary to do that thing, or perhaps it can be done more efficiently. But the reasons why practices were started need to be fully understood before they can be safely discontinued or streamlined.

In other words, put on the thinking caps and take off those hokey pokey dancing shoes.

Fission Stories” is a column by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.

Frazzled at FitzPatrick

UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only) -

Fission Stories #199

The James A. FitzPatrick nuclear plant near Oswego, New York has one boiling water reactor (BWRs) with a Mark I containment design. Water flowing through BWR cores is heated to boiling with the steam flowing through turbine/generator to make electricity. Steam exits the turbines and flows past thousands of tubes within the condenser. Water from the lake flowing inside the tubes cools the steam and transforms it into water. The condensed steam is pumped to the reactor vessel to make more steam.

Fig. 1 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

The operators reduced the reactor power level on January 22, 2016, to 65 percent for scheduled maintenance. At 10:17 pm on January 23, the operators had increased the reactor power level to 89 percent on the way back to full power following completion of the maintenance. An alarm alerted them that the water level at the intake structure had dropped nearly two feet below normal. Environmental conditions formed chips of ice, called frazil ice, in the lake. Water being drawn into the plant caused ice to collect on the traveling screens at the intake structure. The traveling screens are metal mesh plates that rotate on rollers to prevent debris in the lake water from being drawn into the plant. Ice accumulating on the traveling screen partially blocked the incoming flow. As a result, the water level inboard of the traveling screens dropped lower than the lake’s level. If that level dropped too low, the circulating water pumps would pull in air instead of water (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 (

Fig. 2 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

By procedure, the operators responded to the alarm by reducing the reactor power level to 75 percent and turning off one of the three pumps that circulate lake water through the condenser (Fig. 3). Reducing the incoming water flow rate reduced the amount of ice drawn onto the traveling screens. But the water level at the intake structure continued dropping until it reached four feet below normal. Per procedure, the operators manually scrammed the reactor at 10:40 pm.

Fig. 3 (

Fig. 3 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Scramming the reactor caused control rods to fully insert within seconds to terminate the nuclear chain reaction. The rapid power reduction significantly reduced the amount of steam flowing to the turbine/generator, leading to the turbine being turned off and the generator taken offline.

With the reactor operating, electricity produced by the generator flowed out through the switchyard to the offsite power grid. Electricity from the generator also flowed through a transformer to supply power to equipment throughout the plant.

The plant’s design called for the power supply to swiftly transfer from the generator’s output to the offsite power grid through two other transformers. But the cold weather hardened the lubricating oil for electrical breaker 10042 in the switchyard, causing it to open more slowly than desired. The slowed breaker prevented the swift transfer. Instead, supply was transferred about three seconds later by a backup logic circuit. That momentary power interruption caused non-essential equipment throughout the plant to stop running; most notably, the other two circulating water pumps at the intake structure.

Fig. 4 (

Fig. 4 (click to enlarge) (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

With no lake water flowing through the tubes inside the condenser, the operators manually closed the two isolation valves in the main steam lines between the reactor vessel and the turbine/generator. Steam continued to be produced by the reactor core’s decay heat. This steam had no place to go and caused the pressure inside the reactor vessel to rise. When the pressure rose about 10 percent above normal pressure, safety/relief valves (SRVs) automatically opened to discharge steam through a pipe into the water of the suppression chamber (also called the torus due to his donut shape.) When the pressure dropped sufficiently low, the SRVs automatically reclosed. The SRVs cycled opened and closed to control reactor pressure (Fig. 5)

Fig. 5 (

Fig. 5 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

HPCI Use and Misuse

By procedure, the operators started the High Pressure Coolant Injection (HPCI) system in pressure control mode. The HPCI system uses a turbine supplied with steam from the reactor vessel to spin a pump that transfers makeup water from the Condensate Storage Tank to the reactor vessel. The steam exiting the HPCI turbine flows into the suppression chamber water. HPCI system operation prevents the SRVs from cycling opened and closed. The SRVs have a nasty habit of sticking open, so minimizing the times they open lessens the chances they stay open.

The normal source of water for the HPCI system is the Condensate Storage Tank. But if this tank’s water level drops too low or the water level inside the suppression chamber rises too high, valves will automatically close and open to swap the supply from the Condensate Storage Tank to the suppression chamber.

More than an hour after the scram, the water level within the suppression chamber was approaching the swap-over setpoint. Procedures directed the operators to bypass the automatic swap-over for this plant condition. The control room supervisor recognized this need and directed the operators to take this step. But they failed to complete the task before the HPCI pump suction was automatically transferred over to the suppression chamber.

Procedures only permitted HPCI to be operated in pressure control mode when it took water from the Condensate Storage Tank. So, the operators had to shut down the HPCI system and revert back to the undesirable reliance on SRVs cycling to control reactor pressure.

The NRC issued a green finding, the least severe among its green, white, yellow, and red violation classification scheme, for the failure to properly implement procedures resulting in the avoidable need to rely on the unreliable SRVs for pressure control.

RHR Use and Misuse

More than twenty-four hours later, the operators sought to place the Residual Heat Removal (RHR) system in shutdown cooling mode. The RHR system is like a Swiss army knife—it can makeup water to the reactor vessel, cool water in the reactor vessel, cool the containment atmosphere, cool the torus water and airspace, and cool the spent fuel pool (Fig. 6).

 Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Fig. 6 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

The shutdown cooling mode uses one or two of the RHR pumps to take water from a recirculation system pipe connected to the reactor vessel, route it through heat exchangers where lake water cools it down, and return the cooled water to the recirculation system pipe so it flows into the reactor vessel (Fig. 7).

 Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Fig. 7 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

The procedure directed the operators to flush the RHR system piping before placing the system in shutdown cooling mode. The RHR system is normally in standby and stagnant water inside its pipes is “dirty” water compared to the nearly pure water circulating through the reactor vessel. Workers used the condensate transfer system to drain water from the RHR system pipes and replace it with “clean” water. Workers opened valve 10RHR-274 to perform this flushing activity.

The procedure directed operators to close 10RHR-274 before placing the RHR system into the shutdown cooling mode. But the operators failed to close this valve. When properly aligned, the RHR shutdown cooling mode merely circulates water from the reactor vessel through heat exchangers and back to the vessel, neither removing nor adding water inventory. With the improper alignment caused by the open valve, the RHR shutdown cooling mode added water to the reactor vessel. And not just a little bit of additional water.

The normal water level inside the reactor vessel is about 196 inches (16 1/3 feet) above the top of the reactor core. A rule-of-thumb is that about 200 gallons of water is needed to raise or lower the vessel level by one inch. So, nearly 40,000 gallons of water must drain out or boil off for the normal water level to drop to the reactor core’s level, even more to uncover the core.

Fig. 8 (

Fig. 8 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

By running RHR shutdown cooling mode with the valve mistakenly open, the operators added water to the reactor vessel at FitzPatrick until water poured into the main steam lines. The main steam lines are located about 86 inches (over 7 feet) above the normal water level. It took nearly 17,200 gallons of water to increase the vessel level to the point of sending water down the main steam pipes.

As shown in Fig. 8, the level of the main steam line nozzles is above the upper scales of the Narrow Range and Wide Range water level instruments—the gauges the operators are trained to monitor frequently. Even if distracted, an alarm sounds in the control room when the vessel level rises just a few inches (not feet) above normal.

Sending water through the main steam lines could have disabled the HPCI system, the Reactor Core Isolation Cooling (RCIC) system (a smaller version of HPCI), and the SRVs. These systems and components are designed for steam, not water. Overfilling the reactor vessel could have taken away all of the high pressure safety systems for the reactor.

The NRC issued a green finding, the least severe among its green, white, yellow, and red violation classification scheme, for the failure to follow procedures resulting in loss of vessel level and potential impairment of multiple safety systems.

Our Takeaway

The HPCI swap-over miscue is a reminder of the trap one can fall into when given plenty of time to accomplish a short-term task. It did not take very long to install the bypass on the automatic swap-over. The operators had many tasks to perform besides installing the bypass. It was tempting to undertake seemingly higher priority tasks during the ample time before the swap-over point was reached. But time expired before the bypass was installed.

The RHR shutdown cooling miscue is a reminder about the importance of follow-up. Operators must maintain situational awareness, especially after the situation changes. In this case, placing the RHR system in shutdown cooling mode should have been followed by close monitoring of reactor water parameters to confirm that the temperature began decreasing and the level remained constant. Early awareness that something was wrong would have enabled intervention to minimize the consequences.

This one event revealed problems with the operators planning and implementing tasks. If operator performance is deficient when ample time is available and stress levels are low, how would the operators perform during an accident? The NRC’s Green findings would likely become Yellow or Red as the consequences of miscues become more significant.

So, the proper response to NRC’s slaps on the wrists is not to purchase wrist guards to lessen the sting of future slaps, but to take steps necessary to avoid future slaps, or worse.

Fission Stories” is a column by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.

Peter Navarro: Trump’s “China Policy Czar” ?

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President-elect Trump named Peter Navarro to head the as-yet-uncreated White House National Trade Council. What does this portend?

Michael Wessel, a long-serving member of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), argued the United States government needs “to put somebody in charge” of US China policy “who looks at both the economic and national security implications of the US-China relationship and recognizes that they are inextricably intertwined.” Navarro definitely fits that description.

Navarro’s China: “The Planet’s Most Efficient Assassin”

It is not clear what this council will do or how it might influence US-China relations. What is clear is that Dr. Navarro believes that trade with China is a zero-sum game the United States is losing. Moreover, the Harvard-educated economist also believes that “an authoritarian and increasingly militaristic China” is using its supposed trade advantage to execute “a hegemonic agenda” that could lead to a nuclear war with the United States.


 Death by China.

Dr. Peter Navarro pictured next to a poster advertising a film based on his book: Death by China.

Dr. Navarro authored a trilogy of books that articulate his view of the “inextricably intertwined” relationship between the China trade and the possibility of nuclear war. In those books he argues that China is “the greatest single threat facing the United States” and that “every ‘Walmart dollar’ we Americans spend on artificially cheap Chinese imports” increases that threat. He describes China as a “budding colonial empire” with “lethal appetites” for energy and raw materials that are feeding “the extremely rapid and often chaotic industrialization of the most populous country on the planet.” Most importantly, he argues that China’s rapid modernization has “put it on a collision course with the rest of the world.”

Navarro writes that unless this course is altered the United States and China are “inexorably headed for conflict—and perhaps even a nuclear cliff.” He claims that China “now houses a rapidly growing arsenal of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles” that are aimed at the United States and most of China’s neighbors, including non-nuclear weapons states like the Philippines and Vietnam. He suggests China may already have thousands of such missiles hidden in an “underground great wall.” Alarmingly, Navarro seems convinced that China’s leaders would “opt for nuclear war” and “ride things out in China’s many bomb shelters” if they cannot prevail in a conventional conflict with the United States.

Few economists would agree that all the benefits of the global China trade accrue to one side, or, in Navarro’s words, that “China has boomed at the expense of much of the rest of the world.” To the contrary, many believe China’s economic development is now the single greatest contributing factor to global economic growth.

Similarly,  Navarro’s characterization of China’s nuclear capabilities draws on a discredited analysis based on questionable sources and methods that are not accepted by US intelligence agencies or security experts.

Nevertheless, his appointment suggests he has the confidence of President-elect Trump, who seems to be using the transition period to signal a dramatic shift in US China policy.

Implications for US China Policy

Navarro’s prescription for change is a policy of economic and military containment. It is based on the following diagnosis from University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer.

“What really makes China so scary today is the fact that it has so many people, and it’s also becoming an incredibly wealthy country so that our great fear is that China will turn into a giant Hong Kong. And if China has a per capita GNP that’s anywhere near Hong Kong’s GNP, it will be one formidable military power. So a much more attractive strategy would be to do whatever we can to slow down China’s economic growth – because if it doesn’t grow economically, it can’t turn that wealth into military might and become a potential hegemon in Asia.”

Navarro anticipates that US allies, and US consumers, will oppose containment because of the economic costs, which would be higher prices for US consumers and significant disruptions to Asia’s economy. But he believes he can eventually persuade the people of the United States and the policy-makers of Asia that trading with China is equivalent to “helping to finance a Chinese military buildup that may well mean to do us and our countries harm.”

Given this, it is not unreasonable to expect that Dr. Navarro will use the bully pulpit of the White House National Trade Council to make this case for an economic boycott of China.

On the military side Navarro imagines the United States can only keep the peace if it is able to work with its allies to “demonstrate a collective level of capabilities that, on the one hand, are not directly threatening to China, yet on the other hand are unassailable by any imaginable display of Chinese force.” He recommends “using attack submarines” to build an “undersea Great Wall” on China’s periphery. Navarro also supports the deployment of “substantially larger numbers” of “both the F-35 fifth generation fighter and the new Long-Rang Strike Bomber.” Most importantly, he argues that the Chinese leadership must be made to believe that the United States has the “will and resolve” to “use nuclear weapons if they must” to stop conventional Chinese aggression.

It is difficult to believe that China would not find these recommendations “directly threatening.” While the new trade council Navarro will lead is unlikely to deal with military issues, his views may still influence the thinking of others within the administration.

How Might China Respond?

Should the Trump administration act on Dr. Navarro’s recommendations for a policy of economic and military containment, it will most likely strengthen the credibility of China’s defense and foreign policy analysts who perceived the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia”  as a means of containment. To them, Navarro’s recommendations are a logical acceleration of an already well established anti-Chinese drift in US policy.

Chinese voices who argue for greater engagement with the United States—and greater accommodation of US concerns— are more likely to be marginalized.

US exporters, especially those in the technology sector,  are likely to be effected by increased Chinese efforts to make their economy less reliant on the United States. Already substantial Chinese domestic investment in indigenous technical development is likely to increase.

The Chinese space program offers an interesting guide to the potential consequences. Many of the same US China analysts Dr. Navarro cites in his books were associated with US congressional efforts in the late 1990s to block US contact with the Chinese space community. The restrictive policies they enacted grew more severe over the past two decades. Yet, during that time China made dramatic advances in space science, technology and applications. It also expanded its relationships with other international partners, such as the European Space Agency. US efforts to “contain” the Chinese space sector arguably made it stronger than it otherwise might have been by stimulating the development of domestic Chinese capabilities and alternative international partnerships.

China is unlikely to be overly concerned about Navarro’s recommendations on credible US nuclear threats. For the time being, at least, Chinese strategists assign one and only one purpose to China’s nuclear forces, which is to prevent a nuclear attack on China. Traditionally they have believed that the requirements for preventing such an attack are rather low. Retaliation with as little as a single Chinese nuclear strike against one US city is believed to be enough to deter any US president from attacking China with nuclear weapons.

Navarro, and others around President-elect Trump, may put great stock in the strategic value of his unpredictably but this is unlikely to shake China’s faith in the deterrent effect of its potential to retaliate.

Chinese adaptations to any changes in the US nuclear posture will be focused on assuring the ability of its nuclear forces to survive a US first strike. That may include a modest increase in the size of Chinese nuclear force. But one of the more troubling proposals already under consideration is upgrading the alert status of China’s forces so they can be launched on warning on an incoming US attack. The early warning systems needed to implement such a policy are known to give false warning, especially in the early years of their operation.

Navarro’s recommendations, if acted upon, could cause Chinese leaders to expedite the development and deployment of an early warning system, increasing the risk of an accidental or mistaken Chinese nuclear launch against the United States.

Year in Review: How 8 States Made 2016 a Huge Year for Clean Energy

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With the Clean Power Plan’s future up in the air, and concerns about how science might fare given the recent election results, some may think 2016 wasn’t a great year for clean energy.  However, lots of great state level policies were passed — some with bipartisan support—and there’s even some good news on the national front. Looking back at the last year I see a lot of clear signs that the clean energy transition is moving forward in the US.  Here are eight states that really stepped up to become climate leaders:

1. California

In August, the California legislature passed remarkable climate change legislationSB 32 builds on Assembly Bill 32, the landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 that required California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.  SB 32 now sets the next target, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.  Another bill, AB 197 increases legislative oversight and transparency for the state’s climate change programs and emphasizes the state’s commitment to ensuring these policies help communities most impacted by climate change and air pollution.

California is on track to meet its emissions reductions goals, and its overall economy is growing.  UCS brought in our scientists, and passage of these two bills cemented the state’s commitment to leading the fight against climate change.

2. Illinois

On December 1, Illinois passed the Future Energy Jobs Bill (SB 2814).  The bill was passed with bipartisan support, and was signed into law by Republican Governor Bruce Rauner.  The Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition (which UCS is a member of) worked on the bill for nearly two years.  The bill includes several big wins for clean energy including a meaningful fix to the state’s existing Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) law that corrects flaws in the policy, new in-state renewable build requirements for wind and solar, the state’s first community solar program, and a new Illinois Solar for All program which is a comprehensive low-income solar deployment and job training initiative. The bill also increased the state’s energy efficiency policies; ComEd will achieve a 21.5% reduction and Ameren will achieve a 16% reduction in energy use by 2030.

3. Maryland

The state passed landmark legislation, the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act (SB 323), which was signed into law by Republican Governor Larry Hogan. The law requires Maryland to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 2006 levels by 2030.  This target was unanimously recommended by the state’s bipartisan Climate Change Commission in fall 2015. The legislation was supported by a diverse group of stakeholders and is expected to create and maintain thousands of jobs.

4. Massachusetts

This summer Massachusetts legislators passed an omnibus energy bill that will once again make Massachusetts a clean energy leader.  The bill includes a large scale clean energy procurement requirement for hydro, wind, solar and other renewable sources and the necessary transmission to power the state. The legislation also calls for Massachusetts utilities to solicit contracts for 1600 megawatts of offshore wind development by 2030.  That’s enough to meet 15 percent of Massachusetts’s electricity needs. In all, up to 40 percent of the state’s electricity could come from clean energy sources by 2030.

 Mark Jurrens (Wikimedia)

Photo: Mark Jurrens (Wikimedia)

5. Michigan

This month the state passed Senate bills 437 and 438, that make progress on Michigan’s clean energy future.  The legislation strengthens the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) from 10 percent by 2015, to 15 percent by 2021, and requires renewable energy resources to be built within the service territories of utilities that serve Michigan.  The strengthened RPS ensures a baseline level of diversity in Michigan’s energy mix.
For energy efficiency, the legislation changes the state’s current standard to a regulatory-focused process in 2021, but it will preserve current levels of energy efficiency by requiring utilities to regularly submit efficiency plans that must maintain efficiency investments deemed reasonable and prudent. The legislation also removes the existing cap on energy efficiency program spending, and provides a new incentive structure that could drive utilities to achieve annual savings of 1.5 percent.

6. New York

 The New York Public Service Commission (PSC) gave approval to Governor Cuomo’s plan for New York to obtain 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, through the state’s Clean Energy Standard.  The PSC order established an overall legally binding renewables target for 2030, and requires New York state utilities to ramp up long-term purchases of renewable energy credits to meet those targets.  This builds on the state’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by signing the Under 2 MOU in 2015, which sets a laudable target to reduce emissions 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

7. Oregon

In March, the Oregon Legislature passed the Clean Energy and Coal Transition Act (Senate Bill 1547) with bipartisan support.  The legislation doubles Oregon’s existing renewable portfolio standard (RPS) from 25 percent by 2025 to 50 percent by 2040, and requires the state’s two largest utilities (Portland General Electric and Pacific Power) to phase out coal generation imports by 2035. A huge advantage of Oregon’s coal phase out is that it creates room in the power supply for cleaner energy sources. The legislation had true consensus with support from environmental groups, the state’s consumer advocate, businesses, and the state’s two largest utilities.

8. Rhode Island

The state passed HB 7413 that will increase the state’s renewable energy standard by 1.5 percent each year, requiring 38.5 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewables by 2035.  Also, the state’s Block Island became the site of the first offshore wind project in the Western Hemisphere.  The project consists of five wind turbines adding up to 30 megawatts which became operational this year, and more offshore wind is coming!

Wait, there’s more!

Sometimes good news comes in the form of stuff that didn’t happen. Florida’s Solar Amendment 1, an anti-solar ballot initiative, didn’t pass.  The amendment was backed by utilities and fossil fuel interests, and was an attempt to deceive voters and limit solar development in the state.

 Peter Juvinall - NREL.

Source: Peter Juvinall – NREL.

National level

And on the national level, the five-year extension of federal tax credits for wind and solar signed into law late last year was a huge driver for clean energy development this year and in the coming years. One million solar installations are now turned on in the US.  Solar is being installed throughout the US  thanks to falling prices and a vast supply of sunshine.  And US wind generation set new records in 2016 as costs continue to fall.  More wind generation will be installed in 2017 due to the current administration approving the Plains & Eastern Clean Line transmission project.  The project is one of the biggest renewable energy projects in the country and will allow construction of approximately 4,000 megawatts of wind power. This project will expand the reach of large scale renewables from the Plains into the Southeast.

Job growth occurred in both the wind and solar sectors this year. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) U.S. Wind Industry Annual Market Report, Year Ending 2015 American wind power supported 88,000 jobs at the start of 2016, which is a 20 percent increase from the previous year. And nearly 209,000 Americans work in solar, and that number is expected to rise to 420,000 workers by 2020 according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

Next steps

These victories – many of them bipartisan – across the country give me hope for 2017. Our work isn’t done.  We must continue to fight for clean energy polices to create new jobs and curb the harmful effects of climate change.  And we must continue to fight anti-science rhetoric. But for now, let’s celebrate our 2016 victories! Photo: Mark Jurrens (Wikimedia)

Breaking News From the Arctic: It Is not Santa, It Is Global Warming

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As we gear into the holidays in full force, we often think of family gatherings and dinners and gifts. So, it is not surprising that the North Pole is a big news item around this time of the year. Or is it? In fact, the image of Santa coming from the North Pole on his sleigh pulled by reindeer is being replaced by one of the Arctic with very little sea ice, and temperatures predicted to be above average by as much as 50°F by Christmas eve 2016.


The news is not what one would expect this time of the year

It is winter in the Arctic right now. Temperatures there average -30°F for most of this dark season, when sea ice starts to recover from summer melting, which usually reaches its extreme in September. Usually in March, sea ice has recovered enough to once again cover much of the Arctic Sea.

However, that is not what we have been seeing in the past two years. In March 2016, for the second time ever and second year in a row, sea ice extent hit a record low. Instead of expanding during the winter, sea ice was having a hard time recovering from a very low summer extent. And now that we had its second lowest summer extent in September 2016, sea ice will have a hard time recovering again.

Something fishy is happening in the Arctic

A recent study linked its abnormally high temperatures to human-caused climate change. Global warming is messing with it, and the result is not good. As my colleague explains well here, what happens in the Arctic affects the whole globe in more ways than one would think. And to make things worse, the World Meteorological Organization just released a statement, saying 2016 is on track to be the warmest year on record. The consequences can be many, and severe.


The cascading effects of a warmer Arctic go beyond the ice

As another colleague well stated here, a warming of the Arctic can have not only very significant biological and environmental consequences, but also cultural and historical ones. It is not just the sea ice that is disappearing. Whole cultures stand to lose critical information that has been passed on for generations, but with the loss of the regular cycles of sea ice, traditions are amiss.

Things are not looking too good for Santa either: not only there may not be enough ice for his sleigh to go on, his reindeer may not be big and strong enough to pull it anymore. Dire times indeed. It is therefore imperative that nations around the globe keep their emissions reductions targets pledged at the Paris agreement, so that this pattern of warming can be slowed and hopefully reversed. Santa – along with real-life Arctic communities, and indeed, the rest of the world – thank you in advance.

Mr. Pruitt, the EPA’s Job Is to Protect Our Health and Safety. Will You?

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President-elect Trump’s nominee to serve as the head of the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is well known for his attacks on the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the Clean Power Plan. But the EPA has a much broader responsibility to protect the health and safety of Americans. EPA was given the responsibility by Congress to reduce the threat of industrial pollution that impacts us all, which runs the gamut from air and water pollution to solid and radioactive waste disposal.  If he is confirmed, that will become Mr. Pruitt’s mission. But frankly, after looking into his history in Oklahoma, I am worried that he is fundamentally opposed to carrying out the agency’s charge to defend environmental and public health.

With regard to the ongoing effects of global warming, his approach so far has been to deny it is a problem through the courts and in public statements with complete disrespect for science and scientists. He has led the charge in suing the EPA on the Clean Power Plan, filing suit four times against the plan itself. Three of these were unsuccessful suits filed before the plan was even final. The fourth is pending. He has also filed suit against rules for new or modified plants to meet higher CO2 standards, as well as, unsuccessfully, against the finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health. The latter “endangerment finding” was upheld by the US Supreme Court, though Mr. Pruitt continues to refer to it as “unlawful”. I guess he puts himself above the Court. All this seems to pass for “action” in Mr. Pruitt’s view and those of his principal supporters—the oil and gas industry companies who are primarily responsible for the pollution in the first place. In fact, it seems those supporters even write some of Mr. Pruitt’s opinions for him to hasten his “action”.

But what about other issues that the EPA must confront on behalf of us all? What about other air or water pollution issues? Or enforcing the laws to hold accountable those who violate the rules? Perhaps one can argue the attorney general is not the primary public health, safety and environmental protection officer for the state. But as the highest-ranking law enforcement official, surely prosecuting bad actors that threaten the public is part of his job description (as it will be at the EPA)?

Map of EPA air quality ratings for Oklahoma

A map of EPA air quality ratings for Oklahoma shows how badly we need the agency to carry out its mission. Unfortunately, Scott Pruitt’s record doesn’t offer much hope.

Mr. Pruitt’s office has clearly been busy protecting the health and safety of Oklahomans by, you guessed it, filing lawsuits against the EPA for their rules to reduce ozone, mercury and other air toxic contaminants, regional haze, cross-state air pollution and Clean Water Act protections. Clearly, to the Attorney General, filing suit is far more important than enforcing environmental laws, because while in office he closed the environmental law enforcement unit in the Oklahoma AG’s office, and opened a Federalism unit. His spokesman stated that environmental enforcement is now handled by the solicitor general. E&E News reports that in the Solicitor General’s office, the Federalism Unit, in the first year of Mr. Pruitt’s leadership, went from a budget of zero in 2010, to over half a million dollars in  2014. At the same time the budget for environmental law fell from just under half a million dollars in 2010, to zero in 2014. Not surprisingly, a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry commented that Mr. Pruitt had found a good balance in addressing environmental concerns. That balance? Sue the EPA to reduce protections and stop enforcing them at home.

What about within the state of Oklahoma—has Mr. Pruitt been front and center on any public health and safety issues? Among many others, a huge spike in earthquakes associated with fracking and wastewater disposal from fracking operations is a major concern. Has the Attorney General been prominent on this issue that affects so many Oklahomans? Well, no. But then again, his 2013 campaign chairman and now strong supporter for his nomination to head the EPA, Harold Hamm, tried to have scientists researching the link between fracking and earthquakes fired from the University of Oklahoma.

Another major health and safety issue in Oklahoma is coal ash disposal. And this is an issue ready-made for the Attorney General. After all, he has spent much of his term suing the EPA for “overreach”, and lauding the role of the state in managing environmental and public health problems. But with coal ash, EPA regulations are acknowledged to be too weak.  So what has the state done to protect citizens, with the strong arm of the AG to back them up? Umm, nothing really.

We need an EPA Administrator who takes the mission of the agency as their own—to protect the public health and safety of all Americans. Mr. Pruitt has shown repeatedly that his mission is to protect industry from owning up to the impacts they are having on the public’s health. He has spent his public service career fighting against needed protections. He is quite clearly the wrong choice to lead the EPA. Map:

Self-Driving Cars in 2017: Navigating the Promises and Pitfalls

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I’ve been thinking a lot about self-driving cars lately—and I’m not the only one. Predictions abound about when the technology will be fully ready, but these vehicles are already out there being tested on public roads. In fact, I’m lucky if a week goes by and I don’t see a car with a spinning roof top sensor—even my first-grader is pretty good at spotting them. I live in San Francisco and have already seen a couple of Uber’s self-driving Volvos plying the streets over the past week. I’ve been seeing Chevy Bolts too—presumably being tested by Cruise Automotive. The race for self-driving cars amongst the tech and auto industry is clearly game on and is likely to heat up in 2017.

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2017) is the first week in January in Las Vegas and will set the stage for 2017. Once again it appears that self-driving tech is going to be a hot topic with both major and upstart automakers as well as technology providers looking to reveal new products. Fiat Chrysler of America—a laggard in recent EV market analysis—is expected to announce a full electric vehicle at CES, building on the recent release of the plug-in hybrid Pacific minivan.  They’ve also partnered with Google’s self-driving business Waymo and are reportedly delivering 100 Pacificas for autonomous vehicle testing. Nissan CEO Carlo Ghosn is giving a keynote, Hyundai is expected to give rides in a self-driving Ioniq, and Faraday Future has been building anticipation around its CES announcement with numerous teasers. I’m taking the trip to Vegas this year to see what all the hype is about.

image002And no doubt there is a lot of hype. Personally, I’m hopeful about the potential for self-driving technology. I’m lucky enough to do a lot of my daily trips by bicycle with my kids in tow. And I’ve seen enough close calls to always expect the unexpected—but we all know even extra vigilance can’t guarantee 100 percent safety. So wouldn’t it be great if every car actually used their turn signal, or gave 3 feet when passing bicyclists that the law requires, or eliminated the dangers of distracted driving?

But I’m also leery about how these vehicles might cause confusion and disruption. Will their behavior be predictable in the same way as a driver’s? When I get to a stop sign in a car or on a bike, all it takes is a head nod or a hand wave and everyone can pass smoothly through a four-way stop. What happens when some vehicles don’t have drivers? When I walk across the street, I always tell my kids to make eye contact with the driver before they cross to make sure they see them. Now what? With driverless cars, the rules of the road might not change, but the norms will.  Once these vehicles truly hit the streets it’s going to be important to make sure not only that the vehicles operate safely but that those they interact with—from pedestrians, to cyclists, to other motorists and any other public road users—adapt to this new technology as well. And as Brian Wiedenmeier of the SF bicycle Coalition pointed out after a self-driving Uber twice made an illegal right hand turn across a bike lane, just following the rules of the road at this point seems to be a challenge.

Self-driving car technology may be able to make our roads safer, but building the public’s trust in the technology will be important to its acceptance. Uber’s decision this past week to defy an order to comply with self-driving car registration requirements was disappointing, to say the least. In its statement Uber seemed to argue that California’s registration requirements, which 20 companies have already complied with, are too onerous and would stall innovation. Instead of complying with this public safety law (and paying the $150 application fee) in exchange for allowing the company to use public roadways as a laboratory to test their technology, Uber chose to lawyer up. This doesn’t bode well for building trust. And if Uber does succeed in skirting the law, transparency will also be undermined, as reporting on incidents related to the safe operation of the vehicle would no longer be required.

Cooperation between government and industry in deploying self-driving cars is going to be hugely important to build confidence in the technology both by policy makers and the public. And the technology isn’t just about the safety of our roads—though that would be enough of a reason for cooperation. Other areas where these vehicles could have profound impacts include energy, pollution, impacts on public transit, congestion, and labor and workforce concerns—and whether the impacts are positive or negative is yet to be seen. On climate emissions alone, various studies show a wide range of possible outcomes as a result of deploying self-driving cars, from doubling of emissions to cutting them by 50 percent or more. There’s a lot at stake.

These issues are sure to heat up in 2017, as more vehicles are tested on public roads, new research points to the positive and negative outcomes possible with self-driving cars, and policy makers at the local, state and federal level start to consider the actions they can take to ensure companies advance this technology responsibly and steer outcomes toward societal good. Additional accidents involving self-driving cars are sure to bring more scrutiny to the technology as well as the protocols and protections being in put into place by companies and government agencies. UCS will also be taking a closer look at the implications of wide-spread deployment of AVs and ways to ensure they deliver on the promises and avoid the pitfalls.  So stay tuned.

When will self-driving cars be ready for prime-time? Not sure, but 2017 will no doubt be a year for  increased attention, debate, research—and yes—hype around cars that can drive themselves.


‘Little’ errors add up: What an electric vehicles study gets right, and what it gets wrong

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A new study by consulting firm Arthur D. Little (ADL) claims that the benefits of electric cars, both environmental and economic, are lower than others, including UCS, have shown. However, the differences are largely due to questionable assumptions about battery replacements and the use of electric vehicles as a gasoline car replacement.

What they get right

EVs on average have lower overall greenhouse gas emissions and lower costs to fuel than gasoline cars now, and these benefits are likely to increase over time. This is the conclusion of our report and also the ADL analysis. In our report, “Cleaner Cars from Cradle to Grave”, we found that the average electric vehicle results in about half the climate changing emissions than a comparable gasoline car, even when the manufacturing emissions are included. The ADL study finds a lower benefit, about 20 percent, due to assumptions discussed below. However, they also note that the emissions savings will likely grow over time as electricity generation becomes cleaner, consistent with our findings.

What they get wrong about emissions

The ADL analysis and the UCS analysis of greenhouse gas emissions is largely the same except for two factors: battery replacement and the need for a replacement gasoline car to accompany the electric car. These two factors account for nearly 40 percent of the ADL estimate of emissions from a battery electric car and therefore are critical to understanding the benefits of electric vehicles.

The ADL study assumes that all EVs will need a replacement battery after seven to ten years of use. The study cites the fact that “this is consistent with the warranty that BEV manufacturers offer on their vehicles’ battery packs” to bolster this claim. However, by analogy, gasoline cars would be expected to need a new engine and/or transmission after the expiration of a five-year powertrain warranty. We don’t know what the true lifetime and failure rate for electric car batteries are, especially for today’s second generation battery systems since they’ve only been on the market for a few years. But assuming a battery replacement at 7-10 years is a 100 percent failure rate for the battery system. Making this assumption would require some proof, and yet there’s no evidence that this is the case for battery lifetime.

The largest factor inflating the ADL estimates of emissions is the assertion that drivers of electric vehicles would require a replacement gasoline car for about a quarter of all miles driven, because electric vehicles are driven fewer miles per year than gasoline cars. This questionable assumption is critical to the lower electric car benefits seen in the ADL report: it increases their emission estimates from an electric vehicle like the Nissan LEAF by 28 tons, while the baseline estimate of  LEAF manufacturing and electricity use only totals 69 tons.

The ADL study chooses an unlikely scenario — that an EV buyer would purchase a vehicle that covers only 75 percent of their trips — to arrive at their emissions estimate, rather than doing a straight up mile for mile comparison. This argument is based primarily on early electric vehicle use data from Idaho National Laboratory that showed Nissan LEAF drivers drove on average 9,700 miles per year, while gasoline cars average around 12,000 miles per year. But since that data was collected, charging infrastructure has improved and electric car drivers are going farther. Per California Air Resources Board data, drivers of 2013 and 2014 Nissan LEAFs are going an average of 11,000 miles per year. But perhaps more important, it looks like at least some of the lower mileage in electric cars is not due to the technology, but instead the lease terms that many electric car buyers choose. Auto companies have offered very attractive low-mileage lease terms for electric vehicles, with 10,000 – 12,000 miles per year included in the lease contract. Nissan LEAF drivers that chose a 12,000 mile or lower lease drove on average 9,000 miles per year, while those on a 15,000 mile lease drove over 12,000 miles per year on average. If the lower annual driving for an electric vehicle is not due to technical limitations, then there is no basis for adding gasoline vehicle use to the emissions analysis of electric cars.

However, even if electric cars were being driven fewer miles, the assumption that additional gasoline miles would be needed is biased. Drivers will choose electric cars with a range and capability that meets their travel needs. Someone who requires the ability to regularly drive long distances without refueling is unlikely to choose a short-range battery electric car as a replacement for a gasoline car. That’s not to say that they couldn’t drive electric; however, they would likely choose a longer-range electric vehicle. The comparison chosen in the ADL study overestimates emissions from assumptions about the behavior of the drivers, not the actual emissions from making or using the vehicles.

What they get wrong about costs

While our report focused on the climate-changing emissions from cars, the ADL study also attempts to estimate the difference in costs between electric and gasoline cars. The same choices (100% battery replacement rate and the need for a rental gasoline car) that inflated the emissions estimates also have a large impact on the economic estimates. For example, the cost of the rental gasoline car to make up for miles driven below the national average adds over $10,000 to the ADL estimate of the lifetime electric car cost and adds over 15 percent to the cost estimate. As noted above, these costs are unlikely to occur because a consumer who needs to rent a car 25 percent of the time is not likely to choose a short range EV to begin with.

The next generation of electric cars will be even better

The next generation of electric cars are already starting to show up on dealership lots. Starting with the Chevy Bolt, there are likely to be several battery electric cars that combine longer range, the ability to quickly recharge, and at a more affordable price. These features will make it cheaper to use an electric car and also allow displacement of even more miles that are currently driven using gasoline. Combined with cleaner sources of power, electric cars will likely show even more benefits in the future compared to gasoline vehicles.

Four Economic Errors that Cause Environmental Problems (and How to Correct Them)

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Our dependence on nature runs deep. There is no denying that a pristine environment improves our health, lengthens our lives, and makes us more productive. Yet in our lifetimes catastrophic environmental change will occur because of four basic, correctable errors in the design of our economic systems.

As an economist and entrepreneur, I’ve studied these errors from both a theoretical and a practical perspective, and as a naturalist I’ve regretted the destruction of the natural world we see every day.

comms-blog-endangered-economies-coverIn my new book, Endangered Economies: How the Neglect of Nature is Threatening Our Prosperity, I argue that we can fix each of the most egregious flaws in the system to correct our neglect of nature and allow the economy and the environment to coexist and nurture one other. We can end these threats to our prosperity.

  • External costs pose the biggest threat to the environment by preventing nature and the economy from working together. External costs occur when a third party must pick up the tab for the negative consequences of a transaction. A transaction that occurs every day is a good example: let’s say I buy gasoline, burn it in my car, and harm people who inhale the exhaust fumes or whose climate is altered by greenhouse gases generated. The people who are injured did not purchase the gas. Yet the purchaser does not pay for the harm done. There are many ways of solving problems like this—problems that involve a social cost.  We can levy a charge to reflect the costs to third parties, we can give damaged parties the right to sue, we can regulate activities that affect third parties, and more. What we can’t afford is to continue to ignore this harmful error in our economic policies.
  • The second most important problem with our economic policies is that property rights are not always clearly defined. The consequence here is dire. Valuable capital is actually destroyed or harmed. No one owns the fish in the sea: they only become property once they are dead in the marketplace. This lack of ownership leads to overexploitation because no one has any incentive to conserve or manage the population. As a result, many fish stocks have plummeted by 90% in the last half century. It’s not just that the number of fish has fallen. Small fish tend to mature faster and have a better chance to breed before being caught; they also have a better chance of escaping capture. Thus, natural selection has determined that we now have a diminished population of diminished fish. We are just beginning to fix this problem through systems of tradable quotas introduced in many fisheries, which are working well.
  • A third problem is that the natural world provides services that are essential to our prosperity, but we don’t value it. Natural assets provide a stream of services over time, just as physical or intellectual capital goods provide a flow of benefits, which makes the natural world a form of capital. Some of our most important and valuable assets are in fact natural capital, yet we generally don’t include them in our accounts or on our balance sheets, which means in particular that our accounts don’t reflect their depletion. Take the case of fish stocks: these are an asset we are depleting, yet we don’t see this in any of our accounts. Accounts should warn you when you are running down your capital—but ours don’t. We have to change this, and it’s easy to do.
  • The fourth and final error in the way we run the economy concerns how we evaluate our economic performance. This is an area in which economists worship false gods. We use Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the standard, but it’s the wrong measure of economic performance.  GDP can go up when bad things happen, such as a hurricane or flood that necessitates rebuilding,  and down as a result of good ones, such as the introduction of long-lasting light bulbs, which means that fewer are sold  We shouldn’t be rating ourselves by GDP growth, but by sustainable increases in human wellbeing. Sophisticated ways of measuring GDP are under development. We need to implement them and evaluate our performance ourselves by the results.

The world faces serious environmental problems. Maps are already being redrawn to reflect loss of landmass to rising seas, and nations are beginning to fail because of water shortages. The natural world is critically threatened by mismanaged human activity, imperiling not only human populations but thousands of other species that call the forests and oceans home.

Now is the time to use the tools readily at hand to manage wisely. We need to use these tools broadly and boldly to rebuild a prosperous and sustainable world and end the threats to our prosperity engendered by our neglect of nature.


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