Combined UCS Blogs

The Regulatory Accountability Act Subverts Science and Must Be Stopped

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Today, just four days after hundreds of thousands of people marched for science, the Senate introduced a bill that would substitute politics for scientific judgment in every decision the government makes about public health and the environment. If enacted, the legislation would cripple the government’s ability to effectively carry out laws that protect us, putting everyone at more risk, especially communities of color and low-income communities that are more exposed to threats.

The Regulatory Accountability Act would prevent scientists at EPA, OSHA, and many other agencies from protecting public health and the environment. It must be stopped.

The ill-named Regulatory Accountability Act (House version here with coverage) does nothing more than stack the deck in favor of private companies at the public’s expense. It would paralyze agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, drowning them in red tape and compromising their public service missions. It is way more dangerous than other legislation that grabs headlines (such as the bill to eliminate the EPA) because, in this political environment, it actually has a chance.

Senators who support this legislation will be turning their backs on the role of science in making all kinds of decisions. Safety standards for the food we eat. Rules that protect construction workers on job sites. Limits on work hours of pilots and air traffic controllers. Protections for children from toys laden with harmful chemicals.

“This bill is a weapon aimed right at public health and safety protections,” said UCS’s Andrew Rosenberg in a statement. “This bill doesn’t support accountability—it removes accountability from the industries subject to regulation.”

The Regulatory Accountability Act is a bad idea. It is also not a new idea. The legislation was introduced in the last Congress, and the Congress before that. In 2015, my former colleague Celia Wexler called the Regulatory Accountability Act a “zombie bill,” legislation that has failed repeatedly in the past but keeps getting resurrected. She continued:

This bill is deliberately complicated. You have to be a regulatory lawyer to perceive all the traps, and even then you might miss some. Essentially what the RAA would do is hamstring federal agencies with additional procedural burdens when they try to carry out their mandates using the best available science.

The latest iteration of this legislation is no different. But now, it is more likely to pass and be signed into law by an administration that is committed to the “deconstruction of the administrative state” and the rolling back of public health, consumer, and environmental protections.

The Regulatory Accountability Act eviscerates the role of science in policymaking. Science, not politics, should guide decisions about public health and the environment.

We do not live in a world where you can give people forty acres of farmland, wish them luck, and send them on their way. Our world is incredibly and increasingly complex. We must rely on experts to set standards that give us equal ability to pursue our dreams.

Freedom includes protection from products and environmental contaminants that can cause us harm. Freedom includes requiring companies to pay for the pollution they create without passing the burden on to the taxpayer. We empower federal agencies to make decisions based on independent analysis and not political dealmaking precisely because it gives us these freedoms.

The Regulatory Accountability Act was rushed through the House of Representatives before the dozens of newly-elected representatives had hired staff to even read it. The Senate version offers little improvement. The current political reality requires us to fight like hell to defeat legislation that would normally be laughed out of Congress.

But fight like hell we must. A committee hearing is expected soon. So today, and every day, call both of your senators and tell them that the Regulatory Accountability Act is bad for all of us.

Arbor Day and Agroforestry: Green Infrastructure for Agriculture

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Growing up I remember looking forward to Arbor Day as a time when we celebrated planting trees in school, a tradition I came to enjoy in April. As an adult—and as an agricultural scientist interested in how we diversify farms—Arbor Day is an opportune reminder of the benefits that trees and crops have when used together (much more than turning carbon dioxide into oxygen, which was the major selling point I learned as a kid). This has an official name: agroforestry. In the spirit of Arbor Day, I want to celebrate the diverse benefits of agroforestry, and share more about how we might increase trees in agricultural settings.

An illustration of the multiple benefits offered by diverse agroforestry systems. Source: USDA National Agroforestry Center. Illustrator: Gary Bentrup/CC-BY-2.0.

Green infrastructure for agriculture

Green infrastructure is something that we often hear about in the urban context as a way to reduce stormwater and increase green spaces through things like increased permeable surfaces and plant vegetation. Outside of the urban environment, agricultural regions can similarly benefit from using trees as green infrastructure, or more green living cover on farms. Agroforestry itself is not a monolith, but rather the term encompasses a diverse set of crop and tree arrangements offering many environmental benefits, including:

Ginseng grows in the understory of trees, an example of forest farming. Source: USDA National Agroforestry Center

  • Windbreaks are rows of trees used primarily to reduce winds and in turn protect people, plants and animals. Windbreaks can increase crop yields, control erosion, lessen snowdrift, shelter pollinators or reduce odors.
  • Forest farming is the practice of growing specialty crops under a forest canopy (ginseng and ramps are examples). This requires managing forests to assure that the right amount of shade is provided for understory crops to thrive.
  • Riparian forest buffers are intentionally designed regions with trees, shrubs, and/or other perennial plants near rivers, often for water quality and quantity management.
  • Alley cropping is mixing crops with trees that can be harvested (nuts, fruits, timber, etc.).
  • Silvopasture is the combination of trees and grazing lands. Trees in this setting can provide shelter for livestock, and when properly managed, can benefit the plants growing underneath (they might even be used for additional income, depending on the varieties selected).

Experts suggest that maximizing the benefit of agroforestry is really a matter of finding the right tree for the right purpose, and there are lots of things that trees can help achieve. Agroforestry is known to promote aspects of climate mitigation, through additional carbon stored in trees and soil. It can also promote climate adaptation, including reducing the impacts of heavy rainfall events (by decreasing stormwater runoff through increasing water infiltration and intercepting peak flows). Other benefits of agroforestry include creating corridors for wildlife as well as educational environments to reconnect communities with agricultural production.

Another aspect of agroforestry infrastructure that’s green: dollars! There are many diversified business prospects afforded by agroforestry. In the case of shiitake mushroom cultivation, orchards for beginner farmers, or Native tribes reconnecting indigenous knowledge of diverse agriculture to support local food production, agroforestry can offer opportunities for beginning or underserved farmers to break into agriculture.

Trees might not solve all problems (in fact, trees can be invasive and lead to more problems) so it is important to think first about landowner goals, and then select the most appropriate orientation and species to help achieve them.

How we can help make agroforestry grow

The million-dollar question with environmentally friendly agriculture is why don’t we see more of it? With agroforestry, it’s not just as simple as planting a tree.

Livestock graze on a silvopasture field in Florida. Photo source: USDA National Agroforestry Center, Jim Robinson USDA-NRCS.

Trees require a longer time frame for landowners to plan around compared to crops. So, it’s more complicated than buying seed for one season and harvesting it several months later. A survey of landowners and agricultural professionals in the Southeast found that competing demands (such as for time or finances) with other aspects of crop and livestock operations was a major obstacle to agroforestry. Another hurdle identified was a lack of familiarity with the practice as well as limited demonstration fields. More research could help overcome these obstacles.

At the Union of Concerned Scientists we’re working to increase the public research dollars that go to practices such as agroforestry. For example, our recent analysis found that the overall portion of USDA competitive grant dollars going to projects that including any element of agroecology was less than 15%, with only a tiny fraction of this (less than 1%) going to projects that investigated agroforestry. Small investments in research can support those hoping to generate economic opportunities through practices such as agroforestry, and we will continue to work for a greater portion of the pie for this type of research.

We can call the idea of agroforestry as green infrastructure lots of things: productive conservation, ecobelts or even ecological buffers. Regardless, there’s no getting around the benefits of trees and crops combined. Trees don’t have to be just for ornamentation. They can work for us for in many ways, especially with agriculture.

What Will It Take for Automakers to Meet California’s EV Requirements? Not as Much as You Might Think.

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California’s Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) regulation has been instrumental in catalyzing the EV market, and has also long been a source of complaint for automakers.

When the ZEV rule covering the 2018 through 2025 time period was initially adopted in 2012, California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) estimated it would require over 15 percent of new cars in 2025 to be electric drive vehicles – a figure still cited in media stories about the rules. However, that number is no longer accurate.

The ZEV program will require less than 8 percent EV sales by 2025 and recent sales figures show that several automakers are already well on their way to meeting this target in California.

Last month, the ZEV regulation, along with the rest of California’s Advanced Clean Cars program was reevaluated to check whether this standard was still achievable through 2025. As part of the Advanced Clean Cars review, the CARB updated its estimate of the ZEV sales required to meet the regulation. The state now estimates that the ZEV standards would require new EV sales in 2025 to be less than 8 percent, roughly half of the previous estimate of 15 percent.

The reduction in the estimated effect of the standard is primarily due to two factors: the range of EVs has increased far faster than anticipated (increasing the ZEV credits earned per vehicle), and the current stockpile of ZEV credits from early compliance with the regulation which can be used in place of future ZEV sales.

The unanimous decision of the board was to continue the current regulations through 2025, due to the progress that automakers have already made in selling EVs and also the dramatic improvements in EV technologies that have occurred over the last five years. For example, General Motors last year’s EV sales in California reached 7 percent, well in excess of the current ZEV rules requirements and has increased the range of its battery electric car from 82 miles to well over 200 miles.

The updated estimates of the ZEV regulation’s requirements in California are much lower than initially thought. Several automakers are selling significantly more EVs in California than the rule requires. Note: not all BMW EV models are certified as ZEV-compliant vehicles.

EV leaders hit new highs in 2016

EV sales in California increased 18 percent from 2015 and 3.5 percent of all new cars in the state were plug-in electric, up from 3.1 percent last year.

But the story is more impressive when you consider several major automakers were absent from the market in 2016.  If we exclude the 2 major automakers without a plug-in EV in 2016 (Honda and Toyota), EV sales would have exceeded 5 percent of new car sales in California.


Several automakers were well above 5% EV sales in California in 2016. Tesla not shown, as 100% of its sales are electric. Data source: California New Car Dealers Association, IHS Markit

BMW remained the leader in California (excluding Tesla), nearing 9 percent of all cars having the ability to be plugged in. General Motors (GM) was clearly ahead out of the Big Three domestic automakers at 7 percent EV sales. However, that includes brands such as GMC, Buick, and Cadillac that have no EV models available (excluding the discontinued Cadillac ELR).

If you look only at GM’s main Chevrolet brand, almost 1 in 10 new Chevys sold in California were EVs. With the addition of the long-range Bolt EV for 2017 as well as a new Cadillac plug-in hybrid, GM is poised to continue to be an EV leader in California.


Leading EV brands in California. Data source: California New Car Dealers Association, IHS Markit

Some of the laggards starting to turn around (though not all)

Some of the companies that we identified as laggards in our last evaluation of the EV market are starting to show signs of making more effort in the building and selling EVs.

Hyundai/Kia moved to over 1 percent EV sales in 2016 and is adding new plug-in models to its line up in 2017. Toyota sold low volumes of the Mirai fuel cell electric in 2016 in part due to delays in hydrogen refueling station deployment. However, Toyota now has one of the top selling plug-in hybrids with the Prius Prime.

Fiat Chrysler has long been a critic of electric vehicles, but soon will sell the first plug-in minivan, the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid.  Honda remains in last place, selling 6 fuel cell electrics in 2016 while delivering 287,526 gasoline cars in the state. They are planning on bringing battery electric and plug-in hybrid versions of their Clarity sedan to market in 2017, though Honda’s new battery electric is expected to have only 80-mile range, which could limit its competitiveness given the number of similar vehicles with higher range already on the market.


These major automakers sold over 850,000 cars in California last year, but just over 3,000 ZEVs. Data source: California New Car Dealers Association, IHS Markit

Automakers are demonstrating they can meet 2025 ZEV targets

The California Air Resources Board affirmed its ZEV regulations, citing ample evidence that automakers can achieve the 2025 target. The data supports that decision, as automakers that have developed and marketed EVs in California are already selling these cars in volumes in excess of the ZEV current requirements and are well poised to get to 8 percent sales by 2025.  These same automakers have paved the way for their industry counterparts who have been slower to step up their efforts.

In the other states that have the ZEV program, fewer vehicle models have been available to consumers and automaker efforts have lagged, but there is ample time (8 years) to bring more effort to these states. Additionally, they are not starting from scratch.  More than 25 ZEV models are being produced by automakers today, and that number is expected to reach 70 in the next 5 years.  These vehicles need to be brought to states outside of California and marketed to consumers. In addition, incentive programs in East Coast states have been expanding, like the recently announced program in New York state.

If major automakers don’t step-up in the ZEV market, they may end up paying Tesla (or other EV manufacturers) to do it for them.  Tesla isn’t subject to the ZEV program requirements because the rules only apply to large automakers who sell conventionally-powered vehicles. But Tesla can generate credits and sell those to other manufacturers who choose not to sell ZEVs. Tesla’s success puts more ZEV credits on the market – making the 8 sales percent target even easier to meet.

So let’s be clear. There is no 15 percent sales requirement for EVs in California or any other state.  California’s recently reaffirmed Zero Emission Vehicle will require less than 8 percent new EV sales by 2025 – a target that automakers are already demonstrating is within striking distance.


White House Attacks on ARPA-E Endanger US Energy Innovation

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The America First Budget Blueprint released by the White House last month proposes to eliminate the Advanced Research Project Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) of the US Department of Energy. The only reason given is that “the private sector is better positioned to advance disruptive energy research and development and to commercialize innovative technologies.”

My reaction:  They’re kidding, right?

No, this is a serious threat. According to recent news stories and my own reliable sources, the White House is now preventing ARPA-E from spending money that Congress appropriated to ARPA-E in earlier federal budgets.

These moves could quickly kill ARPA-E, an energy innovation agency that is effectively applying methods developed by DARPA (the Defense Department’s ARPA) over its 50 years of success in disruptive technology research and development.

The White House rationale for cutting ARPA-E is simply wrong. I was a Program Director (PD) at the Agency for three years. I know firsthand that the technologies we funded would not have had a prayer of attracting private sector funding at the early stage we supported them.

This blog explains a bit about ARPA-E. In the indented passages I describe a few of my own experiences fostering energy innovation during my term at ARPA-E.

Every ARPA-E project builds on an innovative idea that has the potential, if successful, to transform the way energy is generated, transformed, stored, used or transported. Huge markets await.

So why wouldn’t the private sector foot the bill for the research, as the White House suggests?

The reason is that every market sector starts with many competitive ideas, but only a few will deliver in the end. ARPA-E funds teams to make first prototype of disruptive commercial products. These first few years of directed work help winnow the field to those ideas that have a chance of market success.

ARPA-E is similar to DARPA in its willingness to fund high risk projects with huge potential rewards: DARPA has certainly funded a lot of risky projects that did not go big. But DARPA also launched the Internet, GPS, stealth technology and drones, to name a few of their biggest successes. We will not know for a few more years which ARPA‑E project will make such big impacts.

However, even a successful ARPA-E project may take 5 to 15 years to reach profitability. Venture capitalists and corporate vice-presidents represent impatient capital and will only invest if they have high confidence that there is a big pot of gold at the end of such a long rainbow.

In short, when ARPA-E invests, the projects are too risky for the private sector to fund. For a team with an early-stage idea, reaching technical and market success is like doing a complicated jigsaw blindfolded while riding a horse. The team must fit many puzzle pieces together, though the shape and number of all those pieces is not even known.

ARPA-E funds a portfolio of project teams so that each can attack the most scientifically risky pieces of their own puzzle, while defining and sorting as many other pieces as possible. At that point, the private sector might consider investing.

Having reluctantly left behind my life in Colorado, I arrived at ARPA-E in 2012 with a sense of urgency.  My three-year term in DC meant I had to move quickly to help launch a few great energy technologies.

By my third day at the Agency, over 4000 short Concept Papers arrived in response to the 2012 OPEN solicitation, with about half on deadline day. Teams from academia, industry and national labs proposed to transform every corner of the energy landscape, from transportation fuels to industrial efficiency, and from carbon capture to fusion reactors. 

I was one of four lead Program Directors, with about two months to choose which submission should be encouraged to submit a full proposal. The numbers and breadth were terrifying. Some concepts were obviously crazy, but most needed serious consideration.

Assisted by an eager technical staff and a fleet of reviewers from the scientific community, we battled a decided lack of sleep to sort, study, devise algorithms to get at reviewers’ wisdom, debate and finally decide. We searched for very original concepts that didn’t violate the laws of thermodynamics or known facts, favored ideas that had not been heavily investigated by the scientific community, and sought advances with potential to make huge impact if successful. We winnowed the piles to those proposals that had at least one extremely enthusiastic reader.

Finally, each PD made the hard decisions in their own assigned area. This was not a committee consensus exercise although we were empowered to teach, debate and challenge each other. Many cups of coffee later, we defended our selections to ARPA-E’s leadership and invited full proposals from the survivors. 

Program Directors are accomplished scientists and engineers who usually have both academic and industry experience. Based on the DARPA model, ARPA-E PDs have considerable independence and autonomy, tempered by a healthy culture of challenge and review based on technical arguments. Three-to-four year term limits mean PDs have no time for building empires.

I joined an ARPA-E staff that is technically superb and committed to getting big things done. I was amazed at how well ARPA-E culture promoted innovation, risk-taking and big-picture thinking about the energy future. PD autonomy avoids compromise to the least risky option and lets wild and transformative, but plausible, ideas get funding.

Aside from the OPEN solicitations, PDs are empowered to imagine the future and create focused Programs (with a capital “P”) that fund 10 to 20 teams to address a specific energy technology need with transformative new concepts. Proposing teams must meet challenging metrics; rigorous technoeconomic analysis at ARPA-E suggests that these metrics would open up new energy-related markets and create new industries. Good Programs often require interdisciplinary collaboration attack an applied problem. This breaks down the artificial separations among scientific disciplines and often creates new scientific subfields.

About six months after I got to ARPA-E we completed all our expert review panels and selected our OPEN 2012 awardees. The 66 winning teams received an average of about $2 million to pursue their dreams.

All the funded teams seemed enthusiastic and capable. Some of the winners had identified how the newest technical advances could revive a long-abandoned approach to a key energy problem. Others had a lab result that suggested a completely new technological opportunity. Most winners were selected despite bad marks from at least one reviewer who was quite certain the novel approach would never work.

Some OPEN 2012 projects would be cut in their first year for lack of performance. Others would go on to start new funded companies, revolutionize fields and launch new industries.  I spent the next two years traveling the country to manage and support the teams I had selected. I became their head cheerleader and harshest critic.  I had to decide whether or not they had reached their array of technical and technology-to-market milestones—and whether the project should continue to receive our funding.

The most successful one-fifth of ARPA-E’s projects have already attracted private sector funds after reaching their first technical triumphs. Together, these 74 projects have raised $1.8 billion in private funding and launched at least 56 new advanced technology startup companies. That first $1.8 billion is more than the total funding ARPA-E has given away in its seven years of existence.

These startups are already selling new products, creating jobs and ensuring U.S. technical dominance in the world’s energy marketplace. These successes are what the National Academy of Sciences hoped for when it recommended formation of ARPA-E and why President George W. Bush authorized the agency in 2007 with robust bipartisan support in Congress.

I wouldn’t trade my years at ARPA-E for anything. I had the privilege of studying both details and the big picture. I learned from some of the smartest minds in U.S. energy innovation. I saw technologies that make me confident in our ability to face the challenge of providing the energy people need without raising global temperatures or destabilizing the climate system. 

The Paris Climate Agreement shows that the world is acting on the established climate science by deploying new energy technologies. The pressure for an improved global energy system based upon low-carbon technologies will not abate and energy will continue to be one of the world’s biggest industries. To succeed, we must deploy the low carbon technologies we already have and invest in transformative technologies that will minimize the cost of remaking our energy system.

Our country faces a critical choice: Defy the White House and fund U.S. ingenuity through ARPA-E or let our global leadership in advanced energy technology slip away.

Photo: Slimdandy/CC BY (Flickr)

Five Ways President Trump Has Failed Rural America in the First 100 Days

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Look out rural America, President Trump has an executive order for you. As the White House looks to create a sense of achievement before its first 100 days is up on Saturday, the President will sign a flurry of new orders this week, including one today “promoting agriculture and rural prosperity in America.” But will it really help struggling farmers and rural economies? That remains to be seen.

Much has been said about farmers and rural voters feeling forgotten in the early months of the Trump administration, which is probably why he’s rushing to sign something at a sit-down with farmers this afternoon, just before his 100-day report card is delivered.

The order will reportedly sunset the White House Rural Council created by President Obama in 2011, and in its place establish an interagency task force “to identify legislative, regulatory, or policy changes to promote American agriculture, economic development, job growth, infrastructure improvements, technological innovation, energy security, and quality of life in rural America.”

Sounds great, but of course the devil is in the details. While we’re waiting for those, let’s re-cap what the administration has done for to farmers and rural America so far:

  1. Left them waiting a record 95 days for a Secretary of Agriculture. At long last, the Senate last night confirmed former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue as Secretary of Agriculture. After being sworn in this morning, he’ll join the President and assembled farmers this afternoon. But this moment has been a long time coming. A record long time…no agriculture secretary in modern times has assumed the office later in a new administration. The protracted delay by the White House in nominating Perdue and filing the required paperwork created anxiety and consternation among farmers and rural residents. And it has had real impacts, as Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle pointed out in an April 3 letter to the full Senate. Not the least of these impacts is that there was no champion for farmers in the cabinet when the White House produced its initial budget blueprint last month (see #2 below). Asked by members of the Senate Agriculture Committee during his March 23 confirmation hearing if he had been consulted during the budget development process, Perdue stated flatly: “I had no input in the budget.”
  1. Proposed slashing the USDA’s farmer-serving budget by a whopping 21 percent. The Trump administration’s initial budget blueprint for the Department of Agriculture was panned by farmers, members of Congress, and UCS. And no wonder. It would cut direct technical assistance to farmers, funding for loans and grants to improve rural water systems, and, potentially, food assistance programs that serve low-income rural residents. (See my summary here.)
  1. Threatened to deport farm workers, creating an agricultural labor shortage. Going back to the campaign, candidate Trump took a hard line on immigration, what with the wall, the deportation force, and extreme vetting. Nearly 100 days into the administration, not much has changed, and farmers who rely on immigrant labor are worried. The Associated Press has estimated that undocumented immigrants account for 46 percent of the 800,000 farm workers on the nation’s crop farms. The dairy industry has also indicated dismay at the administration’s stance on immigration, fearing it will lose workers.
  1. Appears to have endorsed the “more-more-more” strategy that has clearly failed farmers. Last month, I wrote about the fallacy of the “more-more-more” approach to US agriculture, in which the debunked imperative to double global food production is wielded as a rationale for US farmers to pump out more corn and other commodity crops at all costs. I noted that this is not working well for those US farmers, who achieved record-high harvests for corn and soybeans last year, but at the same time found their incomes at the lowest levels since 2002. President Trump’s commitment to more-more-more seems evident in, for example, his nomination of the governor of the nation’s #1 corn state (Iowa) to be the next ambassador to China—a move that suggests doubling down on production of those same old crops, in hopes of selling more of them into overseas markets.
  1. Denied a major existential threat to agriculture—climate change—and with that, denied farmers the chance to benefit from solving it. President Trump has made his climate denial clear, with earlier executive orders, personnel decisions, and the threat to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Companies from a range of industries have appealed to the administration to reject climate denial and instead take actions to help the nation be a leader in the low-carbon economy. Now a leading farm group has also adopted that message, with the recognition that farmers also stand to benefit from climate action and suffer from inaction.
UCS to Trump administration: Farmers need real help now!

So, for US farmers, the first 100 days of the Trump presidency have been disappointing. What about the next 100 days, and the 100 days after that? With the arrival of a new agriculture secretary, UCS is gearing up to press the administration for real leadership for the nation’s farm and food system.

The work begins now.

That’s why this week, we’ll deliver a petition (with more than 29,000 signatures) asking the new Secretary to prioritize smarter public investments that make healthy foods more affordable, promote all types of farming (not just more-more-more), improve children’s health and well-being, and help farmers adopt science-based, sustainable farming practices that can help them succeed while protecting the critical natural resources we all depend upon.

On Top of a Wind Turbine, On Top of the World

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Stand atop a wind turbine and you get some powerful perspective. When you’re 280 feet off the ground, your feet clinging to the deck, the breeze blowing past, you’ve got a clear view of the power of wind energy. This past summer, I experienced it first-hand.

It’s a view that’s out of this world, and in it.

Out of this world, and in it

It’s easy to get excited about wind power when you see the latest figures—so many new wind turbines installed, so much more under construction. The excitement amps up even more when you see the costs of wind power continuing to drop, making wind a virtual slam dunk for electricity generation in broad swathes of our nation.

To help you feel that excitement, the Union of Concerned Scientists set out to capture some of it in visual form, too.

Our destination: the New York communities of Lowville and Martinsburg, home of the 195-turbine Maple Ridge Wind Farm. We talked with local residents and community leaders about what the Maple Ridge project has meant for their community, how it has fit in. We checked out the wind farm from a range of angles and perspectives. And, yes, we climbed a turbine.

A whole new perspective. Photo: UCS

What it’s like to climb a wind turbine

The mechanics of ascent are simple enough, in theory at least. In our case, we scaled five separate ladder sections inside the tower, most 60 to 80 feet at a stretch, each topped by a platform. We then climbed into the nacelle, the central part of the wind turbine where the hub and blades connect. And then we made our way out the hatch in the ceiling of the nacelle to get on top.

Though my heart and knees didn’t always seem to know it, we were never in any danger, of course. The Maple Ridge operators, like wind industry professionals across the country, take safety seriously. We were well educated ahead of time with an instructional video, written materials, and an in-person orientation.

Once on the site, we were harnessed, hooked up, or on solid footing every step, rung, and roof of the way. The harness lets you hook into a cable running up the ladder, so that even if you lose your footing on the way up or down, you don’t go very far. At each platform I shut behind me the hatch I had just come through so I couldn’t go anywhere unintended while transferring my hookup from the ladder cable to rings in the tower wall, to catch my breath and wait for the rest of the group. And before climbing out on top, I hooked into a ring on the roof. Plenty safe.

It is a long way up. though—hard on the muscles and unsettling for the novice soul.

One small step for a human… or not. The way up inside the turbine tower. Photo: John Rogers

It’s not magic, it’s engineering!

But the climb gives you some time to reflect on the miraculous engineering that makes it all possible. Some 8,000 components have to come together in perfect harmony to create a working wind turbine. And with 52,000 turbines now installed in our country, companies in America have assembled that combination of components many, many times.

It all adds up, one megawatt (MW) at a time. A single turbine can generate enough electricity to supply hundreds of typical US homes. The 195 turbines at Maple Ridge add up to 322 MW, generating enough electricity to power some 10,000 homes. On an average single day, the electricity from Maple Ridge would be enough to light more than 50 million light bulbs for the evening.

Taking a break at the top, with Bevan Griffiths-Sattenspiel of EDPR. Photo: Audrey Eyring/UCS

Nationwide, the 82,000 MW of wind power now gracing US lands supply more than 5 percent of our electricity, or enough for more than 20 million homes.

And those wind turbines do it without polluting the air or water, without consuming water, and with no emissions of CO2 or other gases that cause climate change.

All with the unstoppable power of the wind. Exciting indeed—even without the turbine climb.

“A godsend”

The excitement in the surrounding community, though, isn’t fueled by light bulbs or heart-palpitating ascents. It comes from having those turbines as an important part of everyday life.

Tom Schneeberger, who sits on the school board and whose wife owns and runs Gary’s Restaurant, a local diner (and, with local schoolkids, put out a book on the project), talks excitedly about Maple Ridge. There’ve been “all kinds of ways that the [wind] project has helped to sustain our way of living here,” he says—in the school, for road maintenance, even for upgrading the grandstand at the local fairgrounds.

Tom Schneeberger and I “Catch the Wind” (and spin, spin, spin) at Gary’s Restaurant, Lowville, NY. Photo: Audrey Eyring

Local School Superintendent Cheryl Steckley, who works on the front lines of school budget issues, speaks about the positive effects of the wind project’s annual payments (known as “PILOT” payments), half of which go to the school district:

In the initial year of the PILOT, taxes were dropped. For the next seven years taxes were held stable. We had two years where our taxes increased less than two percent. And we are now stabilized again. So the true tax rate to our residents has been cut in half from what it was… in the initial stages of the pilot. So it’s had an amazing impact on our school district.

For her, Maple Ridge has meant stabilized taxes, better school facilities, and expanded school programs.

For Martinsburg resident Terry Thisse, the project has meant income for hosting turbines on his land, increased activity for his local business, and lower taxes and better municipal services for the people he serves as town supervisor. When he and other decision makers were considering the costs and benefits of the project when it was first proposed, he says, “it turned out to be a no-brainer.”

Bill and Patty Burke host seven wind turbines on land that’s been in his family for five generations. Bill is particularly effusive in his discussion of the wind farm (which may explain why he also works part time for the wind farm giving tours). He talks glowingly about the check that arrives every three months in the mailbox—“income off the land where there’s no expenses involved.” The turbines “have been a godsend to our being able to stay in this house,” he says. “A great asset… a blessing to our goals in life.”

And at an even larger scale, Maple Ridge, says Tom Schneeberger, “has put Lewis County on the map.”

“A godsend” – Bill Burke and turbines. Photo: Audrey Eyring

Motherhood, apple pie, and wind power

Along with the tax benefits of the PILOT payments, the wind farm has meant jobs, both during construction and after. Local businesses get extra business from project-related activity, and the lease payments to local farmers and other landowners become dollars that circulate through the local economy, creating even more jobs.

And that brings up another thing that’s visible—or not visible—from on top of a wind turbine, or from nearby. None of this looks like a partisan issue. Few people would object to getting quality public services funded by something other than homeowner and business taxes. Jobs and land use payments make sense whatever your political affiliation.

It’s all just about making good use of local resources in ways that build community, rather than tearing it down.

And that’s what communities across America have discovered about wind power. In rural areas that have lost jobs and people and ways of life, wind projects like Maple Ridge have meant jobs, economic development, and more cash in the community. Another chance to help make farming and ranching viable even in this day and age.

Photo: Audrey Eyring

The view from here

Maple Ridge is exceptional, but it’s not unusual given this incredible time for wind. Forty-one states now have utility-scale wind farms, and taller towers and longer blades have meant that wind power is a viable option in even more locations around the country. And a whole new sector of wind power launched last year, when the first offshore wind farm in the Americas turned on next to Block Island, Rhode Island.

We’re hoping our new video helps convey some of that excitement.

Because from atop a wind turbine, you can see communities that are doing better because of what wind farms bring with them. Whatever your vantage point on the US wind industry, you can see a sector that is imbued with a whole lot of momentum from recent years’ progress, and a whole lot of promise for the days ahead.

As for me, I’ve visited wind farms and geothermal power plants, toured a nuclear power plant, and climbed onto plenty of roofs to put on solar panels. I’ve spent a quarter century working on expanding access to clean energy at home and abroad. I’ve watched plummeting costs and skyrocketing installation numbers herald a revolution in the electric sector the likes of which America has never seen.

But never had the future of energy been quite so visible to me, quite so present, as when I checked it out from 300 feet above the ground. The mechanics, the markets, the politics, the community—nothing makes that all quite so clear as a clear day, a brisk wind, and an out-of-this-world view of beautiful kinetic sculptures spinning their way to our energy future.

Have I mentioned that I love my job?

To get a good sense of the wind sector’s bright future, you don’t have to climb hundreds of feet up. But it’s good to look at this powerful and exciting technology from a range of perspectives. And if you do make it up on top, the view is well worth the climb. (Even if it does make you look really small.) Photo: UCS

For help with the video project, we owe a big thanks EDP Renewables, Avangrid Renewables, and the Maple Ridge Wind Farm, particularly Bob Burke, Matt Carpenter, Bevan Griffiths-Sattenspiel, Seth Kaplan, Paul Copleman, and Caron Martin, for their help in making our trip and this video possible.

We also owe lots of appreciation to the people of Lowville, Martinsburg, Watson, and Harrisburg, NY, including Cheryl Steckly, Terry Thisse, Bill and Patty Burke, and Tom and Ann Schneeberger.


I’m Elise, and I’m a Scientist Marching in the Peoples Climate March. This Is Why.

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There have been times throughout history when great people have acted to better unfortunate situations.  However, if we examine social and political history you will find times where man had great opportunity to act but did not. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged this behavior by questioning, “How can a man sleep through a revolution?” With a consensus among scientists that climate change is attributed to human activities, we have a unique opportunity unlike any other to exhibit consciousness in the face of a changing climate.

To me, the Peoples Climate March represents a gathering of the masses to make known that we are not asleep; that we recognize the revolution, embrace its challenges, and welcome equitable solutions that will reshape a more sustainable world for all. The Peoples Climate March is more than just a day of people walking in the streets of DC. It is a collection of love and of care and represents the power of people and sound science.

As a scientist I am well aware of the impacts of climate change. We know with great confidence that the sea level will rise, flooding homes and cities. In the Northeast, for example, the region depends on aging infrastructure that is highly vulnerable to climate hazards. The Northeast has experienced a greater recent increase in extreme precipitation than any other region in the U.S. This increase combined with coastal flooding creates major risk for damage to homes, buildings, infrastructure and life.

We also know that in my home, the Southeast, there will be an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, leaving many vulnerable. We understand that temperatures are rising, increasing heat-related illness and deaths. The U.S. average temperature has increased by 1.3 degrees F to 1.9 degrees F since 1895. According to data from NASA and NOAA, 2016 was the warmest year on record. We know that there will be changes in precipitation causing floods in some areas and droughts in others; and that there will be expansion of the geographic range of hosts of vectors that cause diseases like Zika. These are just a few of the changes we expect to occur.

These changes will mean that people will have to migrate to new areas of the country, more people will deal with the associated mental and emotional health issues, and culture will be lost when people migrate from communities where their family has lived for years to new lands. All of these are consequences of a changing climate, but will those who are rich, those who have made millions of dollars off of carbon intensive industries, have to experience this burden? Not to the extent that the general population will. The impacts of climate change will not be felt evenly.

People of color, Indigenous Peoples, and low-income communities bear disproportionate burdens from climate change itself, from ill-designed policies to prevent it, and from side effects of the energy systems that cause it. Climate change affects our health, housing, economic well-being, culture, and social stability. As a graduate of Tuskegee University, a Historically Black College (HBCU), utilizing knowledge to benefit people, specifically the most vulnerable, was a foundational part of my training. I believe that using my knowledge to work towards a more just climate change agenda is very important and that we must ensure that equity, including addressing racism and classism, be at the cornerstone of all policies and plans.

Climate change presents an opportunity for producing a more just society with a more robust economy. We can provide jobs that help traditionally impoverished people get out of poverty; we can create policies that improve the lives of all, and promote a more sustainable framework for living on this Earth.

I am marching because as a scientist, I understand the science that leads to the impacts; as a person, I empathize with those who are vulnerable to those impacts; and as a global citizen, I have a duty to take action.


Elise Marie Tolbert is an ASPPH/EPA Environmental Health Fellow in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, Indoor Environments Division. She is currently working on a project to better understand and address heat stress among vulnerable populations. Through her work, she hopes to ensure equity in environmental planning and decision-making. Elise received her B.S. in Environmental Science from Tuskegee University and Masters of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences from the University of Michigan. Elise’s research has explored how pollutants and unhealthy features of the environment can affect human health. Furthermore, she seeks to examine how improving environmental health can produce social justice. Ms. Tolbert’s interests include climate change, environmental health policy, environmental justice and sustainable community development. Her future interest includes continuing her professional education and developing a career in which she can strategically work to alleviate the burden of environmental hazards, specifically for historically disadvantaged populations. Elise also serves as the Founder and Director of Next Step Up, a mentoring and tutoring program in Tuskegee, AL. Through this program, college students assist local high school students by providing the skills and motivation needed to reach their academic and personal goals.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.


Valorous Congressmen, Tilting at Windmills

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Tilting at windmills. Illustration by Charles A. Doyle.

Over the past few years, under the banner of preserving military readiness and strengthening homeland defense, legislators at the state and federal level have pushed bills aiming to ban wind turbines from vast buffer zones around military installations. Given that wind turbines and radar can interact, you might just think it appropriate to be grateful for their foresight.

The trouble is, before anyone earns a final spot in the pantheon of patriots, a pesky little thing called facts can trip up even the best of heroic narrative arcs. And these legislative Quixotes? They’re trying to “save” us from an issue the military has already solved. In the process, they’re threatening to cause actual harm to our nation’s military standing.

So here, a quick fact-check about wind and radar, including clear and strong assurances that yes, we have a process in place that works, and no, the proposed remedies don’t help military readiness—they hurt it.

Back story: Wind! Where’d that come from?

Wind power has been on a total tear these last few years. We admittedly talk about this transition a lot, but it bears repeating because it’s: 1) still just incredible, and 2) how this story begins. To wit:

Installed wind power has sky-rocketed in the past decade. Over the past five years alone, wind has represented nearly a third of all new installed generating capacity. Credit: AWEA 2016 Market Report, U.S. Capacity and Generation Summary.

When any new technology bursts on the scene, it can take some time for our institutions to catch up. Just so for wind and military siting protocols.

In the early to mid aughts, the military reviewed wind farms as part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) review process of projects over 200 feet in height. There was a steep learning curve, and as more and more projects were proposed, the uncoordinated case-by-case review process became increasingly unwieldy. This led to long lag times, late-stage decisions, and a general sense of uncertainty about procedures and outcomes.

Parties on all sides grew frustrated.

How to fix a problem? With a solution.

In response, the Secretary of Defense established the Department of Defense (DoD) Siting Clearinghouse in 2010 to create a “timely, transparent, and repeatable process” of project review. Congress followed shortly thereafter with legislation in the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2011 (Sec. 358) that formalized the roles and responsibilities of the Clearinghouse, including—critically—shifting the burden of proof from developers to the military.

Specifically, the new law required that the military issue a “determination of unacceptable risk” (i.e., reject a permit) only after showing that a proposed project—including with the addition of any possible mitigation measures—would result in an “unacceptable risk to the national security of the United States.”

With the push to coordinated review, and the shift in emphasis toward developing solutions that allowed for the dual achievement of military and national energy priorities, resolutions quickly sprang forth. These have included turbine siting and design modifications, as well as radar hardware and software upgrades or adjustments.

Status check: Green on go

How has the system fared? Remarkably well. A quick cruise through a report to Congress on 2014 Clearinghouse activities provides an illustrative example.

In 2014, the military formally reviewed 2,594 energy-related projects, and cleared 2,332 (the report notes that a staffing hang-up caused a temporary lag in processing, but that by January of the next year the backlog had been reduced).

Of these, 22 percent were wind projects.

Under the provisions of the Mission Compatibility Evaluation Process, if an initial screen suggests that a project poses a potentially adverse impact to military readiness, a Mitigation Response Team (MRT) is formed. An MRT involves convening relevant military stakeholders and project applicants to identify and consider possible mitigation options. In 2014, 14 MRTs were formed, and 5 binding agreements were established. Of the final public agreements, mitigation solutions included applicants:

  • Adjusting the siting of specific turbines, or paring down the number,
  • Paying for the addition of hardware or software to radar systems to mitigate impacts, and/or
  • Agreeing to curtail turbines (i.e., temporarily halt operations) should an emergency event occur.
So why are we having this conversation again?

The program works. Review timelines have been dramatically reduced, transparent formal (and informal) review processes exist, and—crucially—applicants and affected military stakeholders have an outlet for discussing concerns and mitigation options. If either finds the solution unacceptable, they can walk away.

So why, then, are a select number of state and federal legislators now proposing new siting requirements in the name of military readiness, when the military is saying (in its characteristically understated manner) that things are working well?

DoD continues to meet the objective of section 358(a) by ensuring “that the robust development of renewable energy sources and the increased resiliency of the commercial electrical grid may move forward in the United States, while minimizing or mitigating any adverse impacts on military operations and readiness.” [emphasis added]

Still, were we to entertain for a moment the critics’ take that the military has simply been saying things are okay to be “politically correct,” we would immediately see the fallibility of their proposed fixes.

  • Bad idea #1: Alert the DoD to development plans and evaluate potential military impacts. This would be a good idea, except for the fact that the requirement already exists. The current permitting process requires that the military screen projects. These new proposals would waste time and generate redundant paperwork and processes for the military and applicants alike, all in service of achieving that which already exists.
  • Bad idea #2: Ban the development of any wind turbine within a set distance of military installations. This idea, according to the military itself, is wholly unhelpful, with the DoD stating: “generic standoff distances are not useful.” By comparison, the present method of targeted, careful assessments of individual proposals has allowed the military and wind developers to find implementation pathways for the vast majority of projects. Further, when the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) conducted an analysis of the proposed 30 to 50 mile standoff buffers, they found that 35 percent of the current wind fleet operates within these zones without having harmed military operations, and that:
    • $33 billion – $51 billion in private capital investment would not have been made,
    • $50 million – $79 million in annual land lease payments would not be distributed to people like farmers and ranchers, and
    • $3 billion – $9.5 billion in additional capital investment for under-construction projects would have to be abandoned.
  • Bad idea #3: Ban tax credit eligibility for any wind project falling within a standoff zone. If the banning of turbines in a standoff zone is unhelpful, then simply discouraging such development by eliminating tax credit eligibility for projects in these areas is, quite obviously, even more of a sham. These proposals would not provide the military with any more power than it already has, nor would it necessarily stop wind development in these areas.

The mission of Cape Cod Air Force Station, home to a PAVE PAWS (Phased Array Warning System) radar, is newly supported by onsite wind turbines. Credit: Daniel Piraino (flickr).

These obstructionist proposals will succeed in wasting people’s time and jeopardizing vast sums of investment capital, but they won’t improve military readiness. Worse, they directly undermine the military’s stated mission of decreased energy dependence, including through increased renewable energy development. Perhaps more than any other entity, the military recognizes the cost of fossil fuel dependence, from supply chain vulnerabilities all the way up to conflict repercussions from the real and serious threat multiplier of climate change.

The military wants to make this work. So instead of hurting their efforts, help them. Support the build-out of renewable energy resources by calling for more investments in the research and testing of mitigation solutions, not by undermining the mission compatibility evaluation process that the military supports.

Drop the misplaced gallantry, and come back to reality. We need our legislators to put their trust in facts, not myths, and help our nation overcome real challenges, not imagined.

New Update of the UCS Satellite Database

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A fresh version of the UCS Satellite Database has been posted. It includes launches through the end of 2016. Apologies for the delay this time; we will be back on schedule and have a new one shortly.

Here are some of the more interesting satellites new to the database:
Rendezvous and proximity operations
GSSAP 3 and 4, the new pair of Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness satellites (Fig. 1). The four GSSAP satellites, operated by the US Air Force, are built to surveil other GEO satellites using rendezvous and proximity operations (RPOs). Satellites that perform rendezvous and proximity operations get a lot of attention, as this technology can be used for surveillance and inspection, repair and refueling, but also for interfering with another satellite as an anti-satellite weapon. While the US appears to be significantly ahead in sophistication, Russia and China continue development of these capabilities.

Fig. 1 (Source: Air Force)

Position, navigation, and timing
The European Union augmented its Galileo position, navigation, and timing constellation with four new satellites, to bring the total on-orbit to 18, enough to move from a test system to one providing initial services (Fig. 2). This was the first time that the Galileo satellites were launched by a European rocket, the Ariane V, rather than a Soyuz. Full operational capability for the constellation is planned by 2020. The Galileo system is meant to provide a civilian and European alternative to the US Global Positioning System and Russian Glonass systems.

Fig. 2 (Source: European Space Agency)

Cutting-edge science and “unhackable” satellite communications
And China launched the Quantum Science Satellite, an experiment to test out quantum entanglement over long distances to better understand basic physics and to potentially develop quantum key distribution-based secure satellite communications (Fig. 3). If initial experiments are successful, the goal is to demonstrate this over long distances, between collaborating (and competing) labs in China and Austria.

Fig. 3 (Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature, Vol. 492, Issue 7427. Copyright 2012.)

March for Science: A Search for Truth, Trust, and Public Support

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“Sure, this is nice and all, but be honest, can’t you prove just about anything with ‘a study?’” I’m all too familiar with this question, and I think it stems largely from one simple fact. As scientists, my colleagues and I spend too much time in our labs worried about truth and too little time connecting with the public and building trust. That’s why you’ll find me at the March for Science this weekend along with thousands of my friends and neighbors.

As a professor at Wayne State, the focus of my research is combustion. Almost everyone uses combustion every day. When controlled correctly, combustion in a car’s engine maximizes fuel economy, with a minimum of pollutant emission. These regulations directly impact the economy and public health. But from 2009 to 2015 vehicles sold from VW cheated on these regulations.

How was this cheating uncovered? It was research done a small university lab in the mountains of West Virginia that provided the data which alerted the public to this problem. The shocking part? The WVU study was published May 30, 2014, but the notice of violation from the air resources board did not go to VW until September 2015 and appeared only after VW had made its own public admission. The lack of communication among scientists, the media, and the public prevents environmental crises like this, and others, from reaching us quickly enough.

This is part of what the March for Science is all about. Getting attention paid to science and making sure science gets the support it needs. President Trump’s budget proposal cuts funding to basic science, slashing programs within the NIH, EPA, NASA between 10 and 30 percent, for a net savings of just less than 10 billion, while simultaneously ballooning spending in the military by 52 billion. This kind of policy shift away from science and towards the military is a dangerous shift in US priorities towards ‘might makes right.’  We must stand together against this dangerous idea.

Science brings us together because the essence of science is consensus. That’s a word I wish I heard more coming out of Washington. We must hold all elected leadership accountable to facts. Without support for and trust in science, we don’t have a common basis of facts to decide  what to do next.  I hope you’ll agree that the time is ripe to March for Science and that you’ll walk alongside me as I hold up my sign: “Science is pro-testing,” but if you can’t, then I hope to see you back in Detroit!


Dr. W. Ethan Eagle is a faculty member in Mechanical Engineering at Wayne State, and he supports the student-led effort to charter a bus from WSU to DC to attend the Science March on Washington. You can help support those students here  In Michigan, there are planned marches in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Lansing. Find out more about the events at

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Marching for Science and Climate Protects Our Communities

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Until three years ago, you could have called me a scientist, educator, or mentor—but not an activist or marcher. Over time, however, I have recognized that I have the knowledge, privilege, and responsibility to act and march to protect the communities I love.

Early in my studies at MIT, I believed I could only contribute to solving the climate change dilemma by creating energy efficient and renewable energy technologies. This all changed after I participated in the first People’s Climate March in New York City in 2014. Now I am convinced that activism as a citizen-scientist is an equally valid way to highlight problems and advocate for solutions.

Attending the People’s Climate March was a life-changing experience. I marched alongside more than 310,000 individuals in the heart of NYC to call our world leaders to start taking serious action against climate change. That day I understood the difference I could make by becoming part of something greater than myself.

Furthermore, I recognized that staying on the sidelines to claim “objectivity” as a scientist was not an option. Sitting this fight out would mean staying silent while I watched disenfranchised and vulnerable communities suffer. By staying silent, I would be denying my own relationship to these communities, my own humanity, and I would be ignoring my responsibility as a citizen to fully participate in the democratic process.

As a son of poor immigrants from Central America who grew up in the inner city, I am painfully aware that poor communities are disproportionately affected by environmental threats like climate change. For example, the tragic outcomes of Hurricane Katrina overwhelmingly affected low-income and minority communities. Of the 250,000 evacuees that arrived in Houston, and were housed in shelters, 90 percent were African American, of which 6 in 10 had incomes below $20,000. Today we see similar structural inequalities and issues arising from water contamination in Flint, Michigan, and in the potential impacts of the Dakota Access Pipeline on the drinking water of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Understanding that climate change, like other environmental problems, is an issue of equity and justice has further motivated me to take action. As Einstein once said, “those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.” I believe scientists, engineers, and experts should be working not just to address climate change, but to do so in a way that empowers communities that do not have an equal seat at the negotiation table.

Therefore, as I prepare for the March for Science on April 22 and People’s Climate March on April 29, I want to remind my colleagues that science or technology alone will not solve the major challenges facing our society. Peaceful marches and protests are valid and necessary means of creating the societal momentum needed to make change. More importantly, if we are going to address these challenges in a fair and equitable way, we must use our privilege to empower and uplift the most marginalized communities in society.

If you can identify with me as a scientist, educator, person of color, or son or daughter of immigrants, then I ask you use your voice to speak up. For me that means marching to protect the communities I care about. I ask that you do the same. If we are truly going to protect and empower our urban and rural communities from an environmental and health hazard as big as climate change, we need everyone to fight.


Josué J. López is an educator, mentor, and active citizen-scientist. He is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research and MIT Lemelson Presidential Fellow. Josué was born in Los Angeles, studied in Houston, and now feels like a true Bostonian. He has worked on educational initiatives focused in promoting ‘green’ careers to inner-city youth. Most recently, he has analyzed investment and marketing trends in clean tech and contributed to a blog for the New England Clean Energy Council.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Top Clean Cars from the 2017 New York Auto Show

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I just got back from checking out the 2017 New York Auto Show and eating a couple dirty water hotdogs in the process. Here are my top picks for the clean cars that were on display and headed to a showroom near you.

Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid

The 2017 Kia Niro. Photo: Kia Motors

The 2017 Kia Niro Plug-In Hybrid is a well-proportioned crossover utility vehicle that – like all electric vehicles – can be plugged into any regular grounded electrical outlet to charge its 8.9 kWh battery pack. The Niro’s electric drivetrain is paired with a traditional gasoline-fueled engine that will kick in after the 25 mile electric range is exhausted. Though 25 miles might seem paltry, keep in mind that over a quarter of Americans commute under 5 miles to work and another quarter commute under 15 miles each day. The Niro can help those with longer commutes greatly reduce their gasoline use and emissions too.  Having a relatively small battery pack also means that the Niro will have fast charging times. Level 2 charging (from a 240V outlet like one used for a home washer / dryer) will only take a little over an hour to totally refill the Niro’s batteries. The Niro is expected to hit the U.S. market later this year, and will be upgraded to an all-electric version for European markets in 2018.

Chevy Bolt

The 2017 Chevy Bolt might be a game changer for the EV industry. Photo: Chevy

I’ve covered the Bolt before, but the NY Auto Show gave a lot of attention to this all-electric offering from Chevy, and the Bolt remains an indicator for whether electric vehicles will ultimately succeed in the U.S. Don’t worry, the signs are encouraging given what the Bolt and other electrics have to offer.

The 2017 Bolt is MotorTrend’s Car of the Year, will go 0-60 in just 6.5 seconds, and has an estimated all-electric range of 238 miles. These performance stats should help the Bolt appeal to gearheads and eco-drivers alike. With a price tag of around $30,000 after the federal tax credit, joining the electric transportation revolution won’t be a strain on many new car buyers’ wallets, especially considering that the average new car price in 2016 was up to $33,560.

The Bolt’s battery pack can get 90 miles of charge in just 30 minutes from optional DC fast charging, far less time than it takes me to pit stop with my toddler on my way up north for holidays.  A full charge will take about 9 hours via slower level 2 charging, not a big deal considering that electric vehicle drivers have found that over 80 percent of their charging has been done at home – and mostly overnight. And, perhaps most importantly, the Bolt will save you money on fuel. Driving on electricity costs about half as much as driving on gasoline and can cut your vehicle emissions in half compared to similar gasoline vehicles.

Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid (Plug-In Version)

The Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid is the first electric minivan in the U.S. Photo: By author

The 2017 Pacifica Hybrid is a plug-in version of Chrysler’s popular minivan lineup with a horribly confusing name. At first glance you might mistake this for a traditional gasoline-hybrid without a plug, but no, it actually has a plug and rechargeable battery pack.

The Pacifica Hybrid will have a 16 kWh battery pack that will give it 33 miles of all-electric range, and a gasoline-powered V6 engine that is good for a combined 32 mpg after the battery is depleted, which is really quite good for a large minivan. Other minivans typically get around 20-22 mpg. Level 2 charging can give the Pacifica a full charge in just 2 hours, while level 1 charging from any normal household outlet will take about 12 hours.  Confused about the difference between fast and regular charging? Check out this primer.

WardsAuto gave the Pacifica Hybrid engine high marks as an outstanding “propulsion system,” and the NY Daily News thinks the Pacifica is the best minivan you can buy. These accolades are both important and warranted, as this Chrysler is the first plug-in minivan sold in the U.S., and a critical step toward giving U.S. consumers electric options to choose from among different types of vehicles.

Cadillac CT6 Plug-In

2017 Cadillac CT6 Plug-In. Photo: Cadillac

I’ve got a soft spot for Cadillac. My grandfather exclusively drove jet black Cadillac’s with cream white interiors until he had to stop driving, and I still remember what it felt like to climb into a passenger seat that felt more like a top-of-the-line barcalounger than car seat.

Cadillac is also a quintessential American luxury brand, and has been idolized in countless movies and hit songs. So, I was glad to see Cadillac present a plug-in version of their flagship sedan at the NY Auto Show. The 2017 CT6 Plug-In is an electric / gasoline hybrid that puts out 335 horsepower and a respectable 31 miles of all-electric range from a 18.4 kWh battery pack that also lets it run up to 78 miles in an extra fuel efficient mode. Overall, this model boasts a 62 mpg combined EPA rating, which is extremely impressive for a heavy luxury sedan. The 2017 Audi A8, by comparison, only gets 22 combined mpg.

Recharging the CT6 will take about 4.5 hours and can also be charged via any regular home outlet. Oh, and don’t forget that this beast will sprint from 0-60 in an estimated 5.2 second, which makes it nearly as quick as the Twin-Turbo version. So, if you’ve got around $75,000 to drop on a dope ride, you might want to consider the CT6 Plug-In as a fashionable and fuel efficient way to cruise.

Volkswagen e-Golf

The 2017 VW e-Golf. Photo: VW

Volkswagen is trying to make amends for its transgressions (see Dieselgate). As part of these efforts, which include investing in electric charging infrastructure, the German automaker is set to update an all-electric version of its popular hatchback.

The 2017 VW e-Golf uses a 35.9 kWh battery pack that gives it an estimated 125 miles of all-electric range on a single charge, plenty for many commutes and enough for weekend warrior road trips with a charge pit stop along the way. Volkswagen also made the previously optional 7.2-kW onboard charger standard, meaning that the recharge time from a 240 volt power source (like what is used for a home washer / dryer) has dropped to less than six hours. A DC fast charger that can replenish the battery to 80 percent of its capacity in about an hour, and VW also upgraded the electric motor, dropping its 0-60 time to 9.6 seconds.

Last year, the e-Golf SE started at $29,815 (before the $7,500 federal tax credit and any state or local incentives). If the 2017 model holds the line on that pricing when it goes on sale early in 2018, it should stay competitive with the Tesla Model 3 and Chevy Bolt among the most affordable all-electric vehicles ready for prime time.

Why Scientists Are Fighting Back: We’ve Had Enough of Trump’s War on Facts

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Next Saturday, in Washington, DC, and in hundreds of rallies around the world, scientists and their supporters will stage what is likely to be the largest gathering of its kind in history. The March for Science, an idea hatched by a few enthusiastic people on Reddit, has mobilised scientists and their supporters as never before.

As a colleague observed: “You know you’re in trouble when scientists take to the streets.” He’s right. I’ve worked closely with scientists for decades and, by training and temperament, they tend to be happiest in the lab, testing and retesting experiment results – among the last groups of people you might expect to find protesting.

So, why are they grabbing placards now? Because an unprecedented attack on science, scientists and evidence-based policymaking is underway in the US federal government.

Nowhere is the attack more ferocious than on the issue of global warming, where the Trump administration has taken a wrecking ball to the modest but important policies put in place by President Obama. First among them is the Obama administration’s signature Clean Power Plan, the nation’s first-ever limit on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, which Trump has vowed to repeal.He has also pledged to “reopen” (which could well mean “weaken”) hard-won vehicle fuel economy standards that have already begun lowering carbon emissions and oil consumption. Meanwhile, in a tragic example of wilful blindness, Trump has abolished a rule requiring federal agencies to consider how large federal projects affect climate change and how climate impacts, such as sea level rises and drought, might affect the long-term viability of the projects themselves. This is akin to erecting a building on a fault zone without considering earthquakes.

Thankfully, bureaucratic hurdles make it hard to accomplish these goals with a stroke of the president’s pen. But if the administration succeeds, it may increase by billions of tons the emission of global warming gases and other pollutants that endanger our health; burden our children with much higher costs of fighting climate change; cede the United States’ clean energy prominence to other countries and make it much harder to meet the goals the US set as part of the 2015 international Paris agreement on climate.

There is nothing subtle about Trump’s antipathy to science. As a candidate, he dismissed decades of established scientific evidence by calling global warming a “hoax” and he has displayed an unprecedented disregard for facts and evidence throughout his brief presidency, even on matters as trivial as the size of the crowd at his inauguration.

He picked cabinet members for crucial posts who prominently display their ignorance about or disdain for science. Scott Pruitt, his choice to lead the US Environmental Protection Agency, has stated publicly that he does not accept that carbon dioxide emissions are a primary cause of climate change. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, thinks funding research on global warming is a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The anti-science approach extends far beyond climate science. In one of Pruitt’s first official acts, for example, he overruled the recommendation of his own agency’s scientists, based on years of meticulous research, to ban a pesticide shown to cause nerve damage, one that poses a clear risk to children, farmworkers and rural drinking water supplies. What’s more, Trump hasn’t even yet followed in the time-honoured tradition of appointing a presidential science adviser. His proposed budget cuts government science across the board, reducing vital research and data gathering on topics such as sustainable farming methods, weather prediction, the fate and transport of air pollutants and clean energy technologies.

The attack on science is coming not only from the Trump administration. Private groups, such as the fossil-fuel funded Heartland Institute, have mailed extraordinarily misleading booklets entitled Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming (sic), vowing to make sure that every school science teacher receives this disinformation presumably to weaken the consensus the climate change is real and burning fossil fuels is its primary cause.

Even more worrisome, Congress is using a radical tool called the Congressional Review Act to eliminate numerous public safeguards that took years to develop and is actively working to pass bills that make it harder for federal agencies to issue science-based safeguards for public health and safety. One bill, for example, would prevent academic scientists – but not industry-funded scientists – on federal advisory boards from weighing in on scientific issues within their expertise.These attacks are profoundly unacceptable to many scientists and collective outrage over them has propelled the March for Science and the People’s Climate March planned for the following Saturday.

Yet something even bigger also seems to be brewing. For a long time, many of us have believed that facts speak for themselves, and scientists could remain on the sidelines to avoid “politicising” their work. The recent election and its aftermath have clearly triggered a dramatic re-evaluation of these norms. We have learned – the hard way – that we can’t take respect for facts and science for granted and a large and growing “fact-based” community is rising up. This grouping includes those who rushed to airports to protest against the ban on Muslim immigration and the public and private attorneys who demonstrated in court that the policy had no facts to support it. It includes those who have packed town hall meetings to block a repeal of the Affordable Care Act and shown that the replacement bill fixed no problem at all (except perhaps the tax increases that were levied on the rich to pay for expanded healthcare).

This fact-based community includes journalists who are calling out falsehoods despite being branded enemies of the American people. It includes political leaders from both parties who have insisted upon a thorough investigation into allegations of Russian influence over the election and taken seriously the information assembled by career intelligence officials.

What unites these disparate acts is the principle that demonstrable facts and evidence – not fake news, alternative facts, supposition or innuendo – must form the backbone of public decisions. It is what separates a democracy from a theocracy, monarchy, or dictatorship, all forms of government in which “the truth” is whatever the ruler says it is.

My organisation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, with its more than 500,000 members and supporters, has joined with allies from the climate, environmental justice and labour movements to help organise both the March for Science and the People’s Climate March.

As the demonstrations are likely to show, an enormous number of people understand what is stake. The greatest attack on science in memory may wind up spurring the greatest mobilisation of scientists, and allies far and wide, we have ever seen.

This post first appeared in The Guardian.

Photo: Wikimedia

Watts Bar Lacks a Proper Safety Culture

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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a Chilled Work Environment Letter to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) on March 23, 2016, about safety culture problems at the Watts Bar nuclear plant. TVA promised to take steps to restore a proper safety culture at the plant.

Nearly 13 months later, has a proper safety culture been restored at Watts Bar?

No, according to a report issued April 19, 2017, by the TVA Office of the Inspector General (TVA OIG).

Fig. 1. (Source: D. Lochbaum)

The TVA OIG report paints a very disturbing picture of conditions at Watts Bar. I monitored safety culture problems at Millstone (1996-2000), Davis-Besse (2002-2004), and Salem/Hope Creek (2004-2005). The problems described in the TVA OIG report are comparable to the unacceptable conditions that existed at Millstone and Davis-Besse. A difference is that the NRC did not allow Millstone or Davis-Besse to operate until those safety culture problems were corrected to an acceptable level.

The TVA OIG report explains why TVA keeps reporting that the chilled work environment at Watts Bar was confined to the Operations Department and did not contaminate other work organizations at the site: The TVA Office of the General Counsel instructed the Employee Concerns Program and others within TVA not to use “chilled work environment” and to use “degraded work environment” instead. So, while TVA cannot find chilled work environments outside Operations, they find “degraded work environments” almost every place they look. But through an artifice of semantics conjured up by TVA’s attorneys, no chilled work environments are being found.

The TVA OIG didn’t buy the semantics: “Additionally, when 75 percent of a work group at a nuclear utility perceives that they are working in a chilled environment as is the case with ECP at TVA, it would seem reasonable to conclude that there is a chilled work environment in that group and unreasonable to pass it off as a ‘degraded work environment’.”

How bad is the chilled work environment at Watts Bar? The TVA OIG report indicates that 75% of the Employee Concerns Program (ECP) staff did not feel safe to raise concerns without fear of retaliation. ECP is supposed to be the organization that workers with safety concerns can go for help resolving them. When the helpers feel chilled, how can they truly help workers?

The ECP hired two individuals from outside TVA in February 2016 to conduct an independent investigation of the work environment at Watts Bar. According to the TVA OIG, this investigation was independent and forthright, but the ensuing report was anything but independent. The TVA OIG reviewed emails and interviewed the independent investigators and found that “the term ‘chilled work environment’ was edited out of the text of the report by ECP personnel.” In fact, the independent investigators did not write the six-page Executive Summary for “their” report—ECP wrote it. ECP wrote that a “degraded work environment” rather than a “chilled work environment” existed at Watts Bar. TVA OIG reported being unable to find “degraded work environment” being used within TVA or elsewhere prior to this “independent” report.

One of the two independent investigators told the TVA OIG that TVA management “did not like the fact that he stated that TVA management contributed to the poor SCWE [safety conscious work environment]” at Watts Bar. He was not invited back to participate in subsequent debriefing activities which “he attributed to management’s reaction to his report-out to them of the results from Phase I.” In other words, TVA shot the messenger.

The TVA OIG report states that “both the independent investigation commissioned by TVA and the SRTR [Special Review Team Report] were inappropriately influenced by TVA management” and that “the independent investigators were told by TVA ECP what they could and could not put in their report and the Executive Summary of that report was written by ECP, not the independent investigators.”

As to whether the chilled work environment issues were confined to the Operations Department, “Through personnel interviews conducted by OIG investigators, it was learned that many instances of HIRD [harassment, intimidation, retaliation, and/or discrimination] have occurred or have been alleged to have occurred in Operations and in other departments at WBN [Watts Bar Nuclear].” More specifically, surveys conducted during 2016 after workers raised concerns that led to the NRC’s Chilled Work Environment Letter being issued reveal safety culture issues outside of the Operations Department at Watts Bar.

Maintenance Department: 36% of workers feel free to report problems and concerns. 55% of workers believe they could report problems and concerns without fear of retaliation. 91% of the workers witnessed behavior contrary to a healthy nuclear safety culture.

Chemistry Department: 50% of workers feel free to report problems and concerns. 50% of workers believe they could report problems and concerns without fear of retaliation. 50% of the workers witnessed behavior contrary to a healthy nuclear safety culture.

Security Department: 34% of workers believe they could report problems and concerns without fear of retaliation. 67% of the workers witnessed behavior contrary to a healthy nuclear safety culture.

Engineering Department: 67% of workers believe they could report problems and concerns without fear of retaliation. 66% of the workers witnessed behavior contrary to a healthy nuclear safety culture.

Radiation Protection Department: 78% of the workers witnessed behavior contrary to a healthy nuclear safety culture.

The TVA OIG explicitly states “TVA’s continuing denials have been found to be incorrect by the NRC and independent assessors: a chilled work environment exists in at least several departments at WBN and within the ECP program itself.”

The TVA OIG makes an interesting observation regarding the 51 actions that TVA identified as necessary to correct the problems expressed in the NRC’s Chilled Work Environment Letter—none of them pertain to TVA’s upper management. The TVA OIG states “It is certainly worth considering whether this might be at least a contributor, if not a root cause, of the failure of any of the CAPRs [corrective actions to prevent recurrence], remediation plans, and the like to correct the continuing recurrence of chilled work environments at TVA over the past decade.” Indeed!

Watts Bar Needs a Proper Safety Culture

The TVA OIG report makes it extremely clear that Watts Bar lacks a proper safety culture and that lack is broader than just within the Operations Department.

Watts Bar needs a proper safety culture because it is the fundamental foundation for nuclear safety overall. If workers do not raise safety concerns—either out of fear of retaliation or out of distrust that management will correct them—the inventory of unresolved safety concerns increases over time. Nuclear power plants are robust and require a large number of failures and malfunctions before an incident morphs into a disaster. The rising number of unresolved safety concerns reduces the number of failures needed to facilitate such transformations.

Proper safety cultures cannot be acquired from eBay or Amazon. Senior managers must make it happen. If TVA’s senior managers can’t or won’t make it happen, either TVA needs new senior managers or NRC needs to write TVA another letter—a stronger letter perhaps along the lines of a Show Cause Order compelling TVA’s lawyers to explain why Watts Bar can continue to operate safely with “degraded work environments” all over the site.

In the meantime, if Watts Bar experiences a disaster, it won’t be an accident. It’ll be an outcome of operating a nuclear power reactor with a safety culture documented to be woefully inadequate.

I’m Marching for the Same Reason Preservationists Have Always Marched—to Save Places and the Communities They Anchor

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As a historic preservationist, I often find myself in common cause with my nature conservation colleagues. So I took note last year when the International Union for the Conservation of Nature adopted a startlingly blunt message:  The ecosystems that underpin our economies, well-being and survival are collapsing. Species are becoming extinct at unprecedented rates. Our climate is in crisis. This is the moment to get it right, they said, but our window of opportunity is closing.  

Given the inter-linkages of nature and culture in the global landscape, I couldn’t help but wonder what IUCN’s warning meant for our cultural ecosystems and what are the opportunities to safeguard humanity’s heritage? These are big questions… and a big opportunity to help supply some answers is at hand.

An unprecedented mobilization

The end of April will witness an unprecedented mobilization on the climate question. It begins on April 22 with the March for Science to defend science, scientists, and evidence-based policy-making and culminates with the People’s Climate March on Saturday, April 29.

The most recent elections have emboldened climate skeptics, but polls show that 70 percent of Americans say climate change is happening and a majority understands that humans are responsible for it. These marches will help clarify just who among us stands on the side of climate action.

My passion for historic preservation calls me to be counted in that number

Historic preservation is by definition forward-looking. What aspects of the past will the present save for the future?  Melting ice and permafrost, increases in sea level and extreme temperatures, more frequent and intense storms give this question new urgency.

The impacts of climate change threaten historic buildings across the US as well as the communities they anchor and the livelihoods and traditions that define us. National Landmarks at Risk, a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, found that even the country’s most iconic and historic sites including some of our most treasured national parks face an uncertain future.

Thankfully, fighting threats to heritage is nothing new to us. Historic preservation isn’t partisan, but it is political—and it always has been. Anyone who’s ever fought to save a historic building from a wrecking ball knows that. This is a movement that stared down reckless “urban renewal,” and highway building and helped turn the tide on careless sprawl. And now we face a changing climate.

Historic Preservationists at the 2014 Peoples Climate March in New York City. Photo: Andrew Potts

Now it’s time to get to work

As the US National Trust for Historic Preservation has warned, climate change is not merely a physical threat to our cultural heritage; it also challenges our understanding of what it means to “save” a place. While the challenges are complex, all our prior battles have prepared us for this moment. Now it’s time to get to work.

One of historic preservationist’s strengths has always been its practical utility. We win when we stress that preservation and human progress are synergistic, not mutually exclusive. But too few of us our following this proven strategy when it comes to climate change.

Many of the resources we seek to preserve–from archeological sites to traditional and indigenous knowledge–hold valuable information on how earlier cultures responded to changing environments, can be part of a lower energy demand future, and can inform us about the origins of modern climate change. The National Park Service’s 2016 Cultural Resources Climate Change Strategy puts it best:  “Through the tangible and intangible qualities they hold, cultural resources are also part of the solution to climate change.”

It’s time for us to lead

As with so many other crises, cultural resources are a source of community resilience, an asset to be leveraged. Historic preservationists have been down this road many times and it’s time for us to lead. Correction: it’s past time. It’s past time for historic preservationist to make clear our commitment to use the tools of our movement in service of climate action.

How could we not stand on the side of those committed to preserving tribal and other communities on the front-lines of global change?  Where else would you expect to find us when sites that weave the very fabric of our shared history—from Ellis Island to the Everglades, Cape Canaveral to California’s César Chávez National Monument—are at risk?

So why will I be marching in the March for Science and the People’s Climate March later this month? And why under the banner of historic preservation?

Simple: as a historic preservationists, I’m in the saving-places business and some places I care about need our help.

Author bio: Andrew Potts is a partner at the law firm Nixon Peabody, where he focuses on financing for historic rehabilitation projects. He is the former executive director of the US National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. 

Is Progress Stalled on Clean Energy? Nah. Look at What States are Doing.

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There is a lot of discouraging news coming from Washington DC these days when it comes to addressing climate change. The Trump administration has vowed to repeal key policies to lower greenhouse gas emissions (such as the Clean Power Plan), and is re-opening, which may mean “weakening,” others (such as fuel economy standards for cars). The head of the EPA (the EPA!) is urging President Trump to pull out of the international Paris Agreement. And his budget director thinks that funding climate science research is a waste of money.

Yet, when one leaves the beltway, one sees progress. From many businesses that are investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy, and bringing products and technologies to market that make cleaner forms of energy available and cost-effective. From cities that are using their powers of planning, zoning, and municipal purchasing to create sustainable cities.

And from state governments, which have all the tools they need to transition to clean energy. States can establish overall greenhouse gas reduction goals, and back those goals with laws, regulations and incentives. States can put a price on carbon, either acting individually (California) or regionally (RGGI). States have pervasive control over electric generation through their regulation of utilities, and can use energy efficiency standards, renewable portfolio standards, long-term contracting requirements, and net metering rules to mandate or incent efficient and renewable energy.

States issue building codes, which they can use to make buildings more energy efficient. States can directly invest in infrastructure, such as mass transit and EV charging stations, to lower greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. And if they follow California’s lead, they can require cars sold in their states to be fuel efficient and/or electric.

As UCS’s Clean Energy Momentum State Ranking shows, many states are using these tools effectively, and making dramatic progress on the ground. And while many of the leaders are the blue coastal states you might expect, it is very heartening to see that success has geographic and political diversity.

Some salient examples: South Dakota has the highest percentage of in-state generation from renewables, while Wyoming has the most renewable energy coming on line in the next few years. Iowa does the most to help businesses purchase renewable energy. Arizona is a leader in efficiency. Texas invested $7 billion to build transmission lines, making it by far the largest generator of wind energy in the country.

It is clear that on the state level, in sharp contrast to Washington, DC, there is bi-partisan support for clean energy. Whether motivated to avert climate impacts, reap air quality benefits, create new jobs or diversify the energy supply, a large and growing number of states are using the tools they possess to make progress. And that is at least a partial antidote to the bad news coming from Congress and the Trump administration.

That being said, the state ranking also reveals the need for improvement. Many states do not have greenhouse gas reduction goals or a set of laws to achieve them. Sales of electric vehicles as an overall percentage of the fleet are low in all states. Many southern and southwestern states are not taking advantage of a resource—plentiful sun—and have very low penetration of rooftop solar. Many northern states are wasting energy and money because they don’t have strong energy efficiency targets.

My hope is that this new analysis, and the pressure that can be exerted by active and engaged citizens, will help broaden the areas in which all states can succeed, and turn the state laggards into leaders. At a time when progress in Washington, DC has stalled, this is our best path forward.

Who’s Driving Clean Energy Momentum? Ranking State Progress

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Clean energy has been having a really good run in recent years: costs falling, scale skyrocketing, millions of people enjoying its benefits. And the future is looking bright in a lot of ways, with technologies, customers, and policies coming together in beautiful harmony for a whole lot more progress to come.

When it comes to the role of our 50 states in creating this great clean energy momentum, which ones do we have to thank? That’s what the new Clean Energy Momentum State Ranking from the Union of Concerned Scientists set out to discover. As for how to figure out who’s tops, that title says it all… if you just look at each piece.

Let’s break it down, build it up, and see what we get. (And some of the answers just might surprise you.)

Gauging leadership on clean energy momentum

The map gives a sneak peek at the results from the new analysis.

And here’s how the pieces of the title come into play:

Clean energy. Our focus was the electricity sector, but that turns out to include a range of pieces, and it’s important to think about the multiple dimensions of “clean energy”:

  • Renewable energy—wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, and bioenergy—is an obvious component, but certainly not the only one.
  • Energy efficiency figures in strongly in terms of how we make progress: Doing more with every electron means needing less electricity from some of our dirtiest sources, and having our renewable electricity take us further.
  • Transportation electrification is an increasingly important piece of the power sector picture, and cleaning things up. For most US drivers, electric vehicles (EVs) give strong environmental benefits. And those benefits are going to keep going up as the country’s electricity mix gets cleaner.

Our new analysis includes all three sectors.

Momentum. This is one of the things that’s unique about this analysis. We were interested in capturing not just where states are now, but also where they’ve come from recently, and where they’re headed.

Clean energy momentum covers “now” things like the renewable electricity fraction of a state’s generation, its electricity savings, its EV sales, and its clean energy jobs.

But it also includes the “where ya coming from?” piece, like how much a state’s renewables fraction has increased recently, and how much its power plant pollution has decreased.

And momentum in the clean energy space is about the “still to come” part—how much renewable energy is happening in the near future, and what kind of policies (for renewables, efficiency, and carbon pollution, for example) will give clean energy oomph in the years to come.

Our analysis measures all that.

For clean energy, the best direction is up (Credit: Dennis Schroeder/NREL).

State. Why focus on the states, when we need the federal government to be doing its thing? It’s clear that we need both.

States have been a powerful, positive force for progress on clean energy, through different political climates and different federal administrations. Given the uncertainty of leadership from Washington, D.C. (to put it mildly), we definitely need states to continue to lead in each of these areas, to keep the momentum going—and growing.

That’s why focusing our analysis on state performance made sense… not as the whole picture, but as a key part of the picture.

Ranking. We wanted to keep this simple, easy-to-understand, while covering the bases that needed covering. So our ranking incorporates a dozen metrics covering that range of sectors and time periods.

And we wanted to keep it grounded. The assessment gauges how states are doing relative to a really important yardstick: their peers. For each of the metrics, states could earn up to 10 points. We let the best-performing state define that top end, and set the zero-point level based on the worst-performing state. States got their points for that metric based on where they were on that worst-to-best scale.

The envelope, please

So, all together, those pieces give us Clean Energy Momentum: Ranking State Progress. And when we put it together and look at the numbers, here’s what we find.

The top performers overall include a mix of West Coast, Northeast, and Midwest states (see graph).

One surprise is who ended up on top. Yeah, I get that California might not seem like a shocker. But we were really careful, in designing the analysis, to make sure the metrics didn’t give extra credit to big states, so that we’d have a level playing field for measuring leadership. All the figures were “normalized” in some way, with calculations per capita, per household, as a percent of generation or car sales or whatever. And yet California still tops the rankings.

Interestingly, the Golden State gets there not by being at the head on a bunch of metrics—it is #1 only on one (EV sales as a percent of overall car sales last year)—but by being a stellar, all-around performer. It shows up in the top-five list for a total of seven metrics, and top-10 for still another.

In spot #2 is Vermont, which leads on two of the metrics: clean energy jobs per capita and carbon reduction target. But it also has a total of five top-five appearances, in electricity savings, energy efficiency policy, and EV adoption. Its record of 10 top-10 appearances is the most of any state.

Massachusetts captures #3 with the strongest energy efficiency resource standard (a leading policy for driving efficiency), and top-five performances also in residential solar capacity per household, electricity savings, clean energy jobs per capita, and carbon reduction targets. And it earned nine top-10s.

Rhode Island, #4, is in there because of its top electricity savings numbers, and its top-five-ness in pollution reduction and policies around renewables, efficiency, and carbon reduction.

And Hawaii rounds out the top five. The Aloha States tops our residential solar metric (by a long shot) and is a strong performer for EV adoption and renewables policy.

Oregon, Maine, Washington, New York, and Iowa round out the top 10 states. And those states are followed by Maryland, Minnesota, Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada.

Solar is hot! Thank leading states near you (Credit: Derrick Z. Jackson).

Metric surprises

But the results are a lot more than the top overall states. The nice thing about the multiple metrics is getting to see not just who leads overall, but who leads on different pieces. And looking at it that way produces some surprising findings. For example:

  • South Dakota may not be the first name that comes to mind when you’re thinking about renewables, but it turns out to have the highest renewable energy portion of its in-state generation—hydro, yes, but also wind. It also ties with New Hampshire for the top spot in our power plant pollution reduction metric. That makes SD one of only two states (with Vermont) to get two #1s.
  • Wyoming might bring to mind coal, not clean energy, but it tops our metric on new renewable energy capacity—how much is being built around now and in the near future, per capita and as a percentage of new power plant capacity.
  • Those who know wind might not be surprised to see Kansas somewhere on the leader board, and indeed it is: #1 for the increase in its renewable energy generation percentage, based on a tripling of its wind (from 8% of its in-state generation to 24%).
  • For clean energy jobs per capita, the basis for another metric, Vermont tops the efficiency piece (along with overall clean energy jobs per capita) and Nevada leads on solar, but tops on wind jobs is North Dakota.

While our main focus is on the states that perform well across metrics, it’s helpful to see who’s moving forward in different ways.

Pedal to the metal

Overall, the range of metrics incorporated in the UCS Clean Energy Momentum State Ranking paint a picture of state successes and a 50-state race for clean energy leadership. And the analysis points to recommendations for states as they build on clean energy momentum and continue strong progress toward a new energy future, like these:

  • States have to continue to drive clean energy momentum by adopting policies for continued progress in a whole lot of areas, from renewable energy and efficiency, to vehicle electrification, to economy-wide reductions in global warming pollution.
  • States should focus more on making sure that everyone shares in the benefits of clean energy, particularly low-income households and communities of color, those who are most affected by power plant pollution and other imbalances in the electricity sector.
  • States have got to push the federal government to accept its own responsibility for leadership in the clean energy space, given the value of strong national policies in a lot of these areas.

But, however we do it, we need, as a society and a country, to be picking up the pace. For clean energy jobs. For clean air and better public health. For a more just energy system.

And with an administration in the White House that seems more enamored of the brake pedal than the accelerator, where states are willing and able to lead on clean energy, we need them to be even more solidly in the driver’s seat.

To clean energy momentum, then—and step on it!

Click here for more on our clean energy momentum analysis from colleagues on the Midwest results, the California perspective, the big picture, and more.

Clean Energy Momentum in the Midwest

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A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists ranks state leadership on clean energy momentum across the country. Here’s a look at how the Midwest fared.

The analysis for the new report, called Clean Energy Momentum: Ranking State Progress, uses 12 metrics, which assess key trends in the state deployment of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and the electrification of vehicles. The metrics also gauge progress in areas of job creation, pollution reduction, and the state policy environment for driving clean energy.

Midwest findings

Jobs are one really important aspect of progress on creating clean energy momentum. Wind jobs are rapidly growing in the Midwest. In terms of raw numbers, Iowa is number one in the region, with over 6,000 people employed in the industry (the fourth highest in the country), followed by Kansas, Illinois, North Dakota, and Minnesota. The jobs metric in the UCS analysis looks at per-capita figures for each technology; for wind per-capita, North Dakota is first in the region and the country, with almost 3.8 wind jobs for every thousand residents, followed by South Dakota, Iowa and Kansas.

For solar jobs, Ohio is first with 5,831 solar jobs, then Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. For energy efficiency jobs in the Midwest, Illinois is by far the winner with 89,830 total energy efficiency jobs in the state and is number three nationally. For energy efficiency per-capita, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Kansas did very well.

For a look beyond jobs, let’s dive a little deeper into some key Midwest states—what UCS’s new analysis suggests they’re doing well at, and where they might be able to build up their scores.


The Iowa State Capitol

Iowa is the shining star of the Midwest, coming in at number 10 nationally. Iowa has always been strongly committed to renewables, and was the first state to implement a Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) in 1983. Iowa currently generates over 36% of its electricity from wind power, and has 6,911 MW of installed wind capacity. And the Hawkeye State certainly isn’t done; they came in second place overall based on new renewable energy capacity under development.

Iowa also scores well on the analysis’s metric that focuses most strongly on the corporate piece. States can make it easier for businesses to purchase and use renewable energy in various ways. Iowa is number one nationally in this, based on the ease with which in-state companies can buy clean energy from utilities or third parties.

UCS’s analysis also suggests ways Iowa could improve its ranking. Iowa could create a global warming emission reduction target, for example. Vermont scored first place in this category, with their GHG reduction goal that calls for a 50% reduction in emissions from the 1999 level by 2028, and a 75% reduction by 2050. Iowa could also increase their installed residential solar capacity.

Iowa currently only has 39 MW of installed solar capacity, compared to leading states that have thousands of megawatts of solar.


Minnesota is second in the Midwest in UCS’s new analysis, scoring number 12 nationally due in part to its success in reducing power plant emissions. This is a reflection of Minnesota’s progress in renewable energy generation, with 21 percent of its energy coming from renewables, and it reflects the state’s shift away from less efficient fossil-fueled power plants. Last fall, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved Xcel Energy’s 15-year resource plan that will retire nearly 1,400 megawatts (MW) of coal capacity and move the state’s largest utility towards 40 percent renewable energy by 2030.

Minnesota scored 8th nationally on their state target for reducing global warming emissions. This is due to the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act, which set a goal for reducing GHG emissions in 2015 to a level 15% below the 2005 level, 30% below in 2025, and 80% below in 2050.

Minnesota could improve on the amount of installed residential solar capacity per household. Possible increases in renewables in the state could be achieved through increasing the states renewable energy standard from 25 percent by 2025 to 50 percent by 2030. Doing so would build on the success of the previous standard as well as get more solar on roofs in Minnesota.

Another area of needed improvement is electric vehicle adoption. How quickly a state is harnessing the public health and environmental benefits of electrifying the transportation sector is another important dimension of clean energy momentum. In 2016 less than half a percent of the cars sold in Minnesota were electric vehicles. This metric could improve with the adoption of a zero emission vehicle regulation, incentive programs, or infrastructure investments for EVs.


Source: Peter Juvinall – NREL.

Illinois ranks number 19th nationally, but number two (behind Iowa) in corporate renewable energy procurement. The Land of Lincoln is also doing well on reducing harmful power plant emissions by retiring coal plants, and focusing on renewable energy and energy efficiency.

And Illinois has set itself up for a lot more clean energy, thanks to the recent passage of the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) which will help the state continue to decrease emissions, and increase the adoption of solar in the state. Illinois currently has 70 MW of installed solar, which will greatly increase thanks to the FEJA.


Michigan came in at number 27, but performed better than any other Midwest state on electric vehicle adoption.

Michigan has had numerous coal plant closures in the state in recent years. And it looks like progress in that direction will continue; DTE Energy has already shuttered three coal-fired coal plant units, and has plans to close another eight by 2030.

Areas for improvement included the amount of installed residential solar capacity. The estimated distributed solar photovoltaic capacity in the state is 31 MW, which is equal to 8.2 W per household (way below the leading states, which have many hundreds of watts per household).

Thankfully, Michigan recently strengthened its renewable portfolio standard to 15% by 2021, from 10 percent by 2015, with requirements to build renewable energy resources within the service territories of Michigan utilities.

Next steps

With the Trump Administration’s focus on undercutting action on climate policy at the federal level, state leadership is more important now than ever. States must focus on a range of policies to keep momentum and continue to reap the benefits of clean energy including economic development, job creation, and cleaner air and reduced public health risks.

An Earth Day Salute to States Leading the Clean Energy Transition

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Earth Day is Saturday. The annual event always inspires me to reflect on where the country has been and where it’s headed in terms of protecting the land, water, air, plants, and animals that share our planet with us humans.

In an age where basic environmental issues are becoming hyper-political, I am encouraged by a new analysis UCS just released that proves just how much progress we’ve made across the country to lower pollution—both the kind that makes us sick and the kind that warms our atmosphere—by investing in electric vehicles, energy efficiency, and clean, renewable sources of electricity.

Wind power on the San Gorgonio Pass. Source: Flickr/Clark

The report looks at clean energy progress across all 50 states, and ranks them in terms of leadership on a number of policies and programs, including advancement of renewable energy and energy efficiency, jobs created in clean energy, and programs that limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Not surprisingly, California earned the top spot overall by performing well in a number of categories that were analyzed, including placing first on electric vehicle adoption and second on the amount of residential rooftop solar per capita. It also ranked high on other metrics, such as electricity savings, clean energy jobs per capita, and the strength of its renewable energy and global warming emissions policies.

Following California were Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Oregon, Maine, Washington, New York, and Iowa. Progress was so widespread that 35 states demonstrated enough clean-energy momentum to score in the top 10 in at least one metric, while 21 states scored in the top 10 in at least three categories.

While California’s leadership on renewable energy and energy efficiency already serve as a model for other states, the Golden State should not rest on its laurels. The state has a large economy—the sixth or seventh largest in the world depending on the year. Investments we make here ripple throughout the world. With so much at stake or stalled at the federal level, California will play an extremely important role in making sure clean energy momentum across the country does not lose ground.

La energía limpia, el progreso de los estados y qué podemos hacer

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Un nuevo análisis de la Union of Concerned Scientists clasifica el progreso de los estados en la transición hacia la energía limpia. ¿Por qué es importante?

Hablé con mi co-autora del informe, Paula García, sobre las razones principales por las cuáles es importante la energía limpia, así como para entender cuáles son los estados líderes.

¿A qué nos referimos con energía limpia?

John Rogers: Paula, el informe se llama “El progreso de la energía limpia: Clasificación del avance de los estados”. Hablemos de cómo lo hicimos. ¿Puedes describir para nuestros lectores el análisis que llevamos a cabo?

Paula García: Por supuesto. Para nuestro análisis nos enfocamos en la energía limpia desde tres perspectivas. La primera incluye la energía renovable como la solar y la eólica. La segunda aborda la eficiencia energética, la cual nos permite hacer mejoras en edificaciones para reducir el consumo de electricidad, aumentar la comodidad y ahorrar dinero, tanto en la casa como en el negocio. Y la tercera tiene que ver con los vehículos eléctricos.

JR: Y esos los incluímos porque representan una importante área de avance de la energía limpia, debido a los beneficios medioambientales que traen, y el hecho de que son un área de rápido crecimiento en los Estado Unidos.

PG: Así es. Entonces incluímos estas tres áreas. Y la forma en que analizamos el avance que han logrado los estados es usando indicadores para medir su progreso reciente, dónde se encuentran en este momento y hacia donde se dirigen.

¿Por qué es importante la energía limpia?

JR: Excelente. Entonces, ¿Podrías explicarle a nuestros lectores porqué consideramos que es importante la energía limpia?

PG: Hay muchas razones por las cuales como sociedad necesitamos tener una mayor representación de la energía limpia en nuestra vida diaria. Por ejemplo: la energía limpia es una fuente sólida de generación de empleo. Y estos empleos no solo benefician a quienes trabajan en esta área, sino también a la economía del lugar donde residen estas personas.

JR: Y el hablar de la energía limpia sugiere que hay razones que tienen que ver con la salud pública…

PG: Sí, las centrales eléctricas por décadas han emitido agentes contaminantes como el dióxido de azufre y óxidos de nitrógeno. Estos contaminantes son sumamente nocivos para la salud pública por cuanto tienen serias repercusiones, por ejemplo en enfermedades pulmonares como el asma.

El uso de la energía limpia en este caso es una herramienta fundamental para reducir el uso de esas centrales, y por ende los niveles de agentes contaminantes.

JR: Y esos efectos dañinos no afectan por igual a los residentes dentro de un mismo estado…

PG: Así es. Las estadísticas nos muestran que las personas más expuestas a esa contaminación son aquellas de bajos recursos y que pertenecen a grupos minoritarios étnicos y raciales. Esto tiene unas implicaciones muy negativas afectando desproporcionadamente la salud pública de estas comunidades. Por ejemplo, las personas puertorriqueñas tienen la más alta tasa de ataques y muertes a causa del asma.

JR: Esos contaminantes tienen un efecto directo lamentable en la salud de muchas comunidades. ¿Y el dióxido de carbono?

PG: Totalmente. Este es otro de los agentes emitidos por las centrales eléctricas—

JR: —especialmente las plantas de carbón

PG: Sí. Y esas emisiones de dióxido de carbono son una de las principales fuentes que generan cambio climático. Y los efectos del cambio climático lamentablemente a quienes afectan de forma más drástica es a las mismas comunidades de bajos recursos y de grupos étnicos y raciales minoritarios.

JR: Los efectos de que hablamos son inundaciones u olas de calor, por ejemplo, para los cuales comunidades de menos recursos están menos preparadas para responder, tanto físicamente, en cuanto a la infraestructura, como financieramente, en cuanto a tener los recursos económicos como para reconstruir sus viviendas, recuperarse y prosperar.

PG: Por esto la transición hacia la energía limpia es tanto y más importante en términos de que sus beneficios lleguen a todo las personas.

JR: Y hablamos aquí no solo de la reducciones de los contaminantes que mencionaste y el cambio climático, sino que también de los trabajos, los cuales pueden ser de gran beneficio también en nuestras comunidades más necesitadas.

¿Quiénes son los líderes?

JR: Entonces, en cuánto a los estados y el progreso de la energía limpia, ¿qué hallamos?

PG: Lo primero que encontramos es que el avance de la energía limpia está pasando a lo largo de todo el país; desde la costa pacífica hasta la costa atlántica, así como en el medio oeste, encontramos estados que están a la vanguardia.

California ocupa el primer lugar en la calificación general, debido a sus esfuerzos en muchísimos frentes. Desde la adopción de vehículos eléctricos, el gran desarrollo de la energía renovable, la amplia generación de empleos en energía limpia y su liderazgo en políticas energéticas y climáticas.

En el noreste Vermont, Massachusetts y Rhode Island van a la cabecera por sus esfuerzos en temas de eficiencia energética, y desarrollo de energía renovable.

Y en el medio oeste encontramos a Iowa dentro de los 10 primeros estados que están liderando esta transición hacia la energía limpia.

¿Por qué es importante enfocarnos en el progreso de los estados?

JR: Hablemos de la importancia del liderazgo de los estados en el avance dado la situación política nacional en que nos encontramos.

PG: Bueno, es vital entender que están haciendo los estados para que esta transición hacia la energía limpia sea una realidad, especialmente en este momento en que existe una gran incertidumbre con respecto a cuál va a ser el liderazgo desde la Casa Blanca. Hasta el momento es difícil percibir acciones federales favorables en temas de energía limpia.

Por tanto, ahora más que nunca es fundamental entender cuáles son los estados líderes en energía limpia y como replicar y multiplicar sus éxitos. Esto sin duda contribuirá a mantener y acelerar el ritmo de adopción de la energía limpia. Y por ende el que podamos compartir sus beneficios con todos y cada uno de nosotros.

¿Cómo puedo contribuir con esta transición?

JR: ¡De acuerdo! ¿Qué pueden hacer, entonces, nuestros queridos lectores para mantener e impulsar el avance de la energía limpia?

Credit: Stephen Melkisethian

PG: Hay muchas formas de contribuir con esta transición. Empezando con participar activamente en los procesos de toma de decisiones a nivel local, estatal y federal. Es importante informarse sobre qué acciones sus representantes están tomando en temas de energía limpia y exigirles que activamente presionen por un mayor progreso en esta área.

Así mismo, justamente la próxima semana vamos a tener una gran oportunidad para expresar de forma contundente nuestro poder como sociedad para exigir acciones inmediatas “en defensa de nuestro clima, nuestro ambiente y nuestra salud”. El sábado 29 de abril vamos a tener la Marcha del pueblo por el clima en Washington, DC, y todos y cada uno de ustedes están invitados a unirse a este movimiento. Yo estaré ahí marchando!

JR: ¡Ahí voy a estar yo también!

Y vale la pena mencionar otra importante forma para que nuestros lectores participen en la solución de los grandes desafíos que enfrentamos, tanto en el campo energético como en el de “los problemas más apremiantes de nuestro planeta”: únanse a la Union of Concerned Scientists. Así podrán estar al tanto de lo que está pasando y de cómo pueden apoyar nuestros esfuerzos.

PG: ¡Completamente de acuerdo!

Photo: Black Rock Solar/CC BY 2.0, Flickr


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