UCS Blog - Clean Energy (text only)

¡La Lucha No Se Acaba!: La lucha Continúa por una Transición Justa de la Planta de Carbón de Crawford en La Villita

El 12 de agosto de 2017, nuestra organización, la Organización de Justicia Ambiental de La Villita (LVEJO por sus siglas en ingles, por sus siglas en inglés), celebró un encuentro en el parque La Villita en el vecindario de La Villita para celebrar el quinto aniversario del cierre de las plantas de carbón Crawford y Fisk en Chicago. Con miembros de la comunidad y líderes juveniles en asistencia, fue una oportunidad especial que tuvo LVEJO para recordar a muchos, todos los años de organización comunitaria y de formar coaliciones que tuvieron lugar, y para agradecer a viejos amigos y aliados del vecino vecindario de Pilsen quienes fueron esenciales en esta campaña. Con ritmos de cumbia comimos pastel, distribuimos literatura acerca de la Justicia Ambiental a los asistentes del parque(aprenda sobre los principios de justicia ambiental aquí), y disfrutamos viendo a nuestros niños romper una piñata y correr rápidamente por las golosinas que caían al suelo.

Líder juvenil de La Villita en el 5to aniversario del cierre de la planta de carbón Crawford (Crédito de la foto: Antonio López)

La conmemoración fue un momento agradable, pero también nos recordó que cinco años después La Villita sigue enfrentándose a serios desafíos de justicia ambiental, incluyendo una batalla difícil para reconstruir la planta de carbón de Crawford. De hecho, la comunidad es cada vez más vulnerable al aumento de las emisiones de diésel y muchos están preocupados por la gentrificación y el desplazamiento. A pesar de estas amenazas, los líderes de La Villita continúan luchando por una comunidad más sana y responsabilizar a los que tienen poder para que sigan principios de reconstrucción comunitaria equitativa. Como decimos en LVEJO, ¡la lucha no se acaba!

Una Transición Justa en la Planta de Crawford

Cinco años más tarde, la planta de carbón de Crawford sigue siendo un sitio poco acogedor en La Villita. A diferencia de muchas otras comunidades dependientes del carbón, La Villita no fue devastada económicamente por el cierre de la planta de carbón y la pérdida de puestos de trabajo. De hecho, Crawford contrató a muy pocos trabajadores de La Villita. Sin embargo, sabiendo que Crawford perjudicó la salud de la comunidad durante tanto tiempo y excluyó a la fuerza de trabajo local de empleos bien pagados, LVEJO está comprometida a ver llevar a cabo una transición justa en el lugar.

Una transición justa de la vieja planta de carbón significa para nosotros que los miembros de la comunidad estén profundamente involucrados en el proceso de reconstrucción y que el sitio eventualmente se convierta en un catalizador de mejor salud, acceso a trabajo y otras actividades económicas que beneficien a los residentes de largo tiempo. Situado en 72 acres de terreno creemos que hay una oportunidad significativa para transformar el sitio en un lugar que satisfaga múltiples necesidades identificadas por la comunidad, y sea una fuente de orgullo. Hemos escuchado claramente que nuestra comunidad quiere más espacios verdes, oportunidades de capacitación laboral, agricultura urbana y pequeñas empresas que sean culturalmente relevantes como Los Mangos. Puede parecer un sueño inalcanzable – y ciertamente hay muchos obstáculos – pero con un profundo apoyo de la comunidad realmente creemos que la transición justa de Crawford es posible.

Líderes juveniles de LVEJO continúan resaltando los daños a la salud comunitaria causados por Crawford (Crédito de la foto: LVEJO)

Desafíos para el Desarrollo

Entendemos que la reconstrucción de una vieja planta de carbón toma muchos años y no es fácil. Desafortunadamente, desde el cierre de Crawford, LVEJO ha tenido conocimiento de proyectos recientemente propuestos y planes de uso de terrenos que amenazan con quebrantar los avances en la calidad del aire por los que tanto luchamos.

Como La Villita tiene una ubicación centrada en Chicago y está muy cerca de las principales arterias de transporte, planificadores urbanos han designado a La Villita como un área para nuevos centros de transporte y de logística. Sin considerar el impacto en la salud de las emisiones de diésel en la comunidad alrededor, planificadores urbanos y concejales locales están rezonificando espacios industriales, aprobando proyectos de reurbanización y llevando a cabo planes de uso de terrenos que no toman en cuenta la incorporación de la justicia ambiental. En lugar de aprovechar las fortalezas y el sólido historial de ambientalismo en la comunidad, los responsables de tomar decisiones amenazan con hacer de La Villita una zona de sacrificio una vez más. Un ejemplo importante es el Proyecto de Expansión de Unilever.

Amenazas de Diésel/Unilever

La planta cercana de Unilever ha estado en el vecindario desde 1918, un testimonio del legado industrial heredado en el vecindario. En febrero de 2015, la planta de Unilever que produce la Mayonesa Hellman’s, anunció que aumentará la producción y generará 50 empleos locales adicionales en la fábrica. Pero estos trabajos tienen un costo. Hoy en día, las leyes de zonificación actuales permiten que una fábrica industrial tan grande como Unilever se expanda justo al lado de una escuela primaria de más de 1,000 niños e innumerables familias. Todos los días más de 100 camiones de diésel fluyen dentro y fuera de esta área. Basado en el estudio de tráfico de Unilever, habrá un aumento de hasta 500 camiones diésel que estarán fluyendo dentro y fuera del vecindario diariamente. Los camiones de motores diésel producen una gran cantidad de contaminantes de partículas finas que se han relacionado con el asma, las enfermedades respiratorias, y el daño general a los tejidos pulmonares. Los humos adicionales del diésel crearán peligros para la salud, aumentarán la incidencia de asma y de enfermedades relacionadas con el aire. Los niños son especialmente vulnerables. Debido a estas preocupaciones de salud, LVEJO ha lanzado una campaña de para educar a los miembros de la comunidad sobre los riesgos que el diésel plantea y hacer responsables tanto a las empresas como a quienes toman decisiones.

La Ley de Empleos en Energía del Futuro (Future Energy Jobs Act, o FEJA por us siglas en Inglés)

El fracaso de los planificadores de la ciudad y los funcionarios locales en aprovechar el cierre de la planta de Crawford para volver a desarrollar la comunidad de acuerdo con nuestras necesidades no ha detenido nuestros esfuerzos para organizar y defender una nueva economía libre de combustibles fósiles. LVEJO sigue luchando por la democracia energética y se opone vehementemente a las falsas soluciones al cambio climático.

LVEJO fue vital para la creación de una Ley de Empleos en Energía del Futuro (FEJA, por sus siglas en inglés) en Illinois que tuvo un amplio apoyo de coaliciones y de la comunidad. Críticamente, el liderazgo de LVEJO en la FEJA priorizó oportunidades de salud y justicia económica, incluyendo acceso a capacitación laboral y trabajos en energía limpia en las comunidades de bajos ingresos – una alta prioridad para todos los líderes comunitarios. FEJA incluye $33.25 millones en gastos anuales en programas de eficiencia energética para comunidades de bajos ingresos, el triple de niveles actuales de gasto en dichos programas en el estado de Illinois.

Esto sumado a millones de dólares comprometidos a aumentos en asistencia para cuentas de energía, ahorrarán dinero a las familias que luchan por pagar estas cuentas. LVEJO participó como arquitecto principal de políticas críticas en la legislación relacionadas con el servicio a comunidades de bajos ingresos, incluyendo la nueva Illinois Solar Para Todos (Illinois Solar for All), un programa de energía solar para comunidades de bajos ingresos con metas enfocadas en acceso para comunidades de justicia ambiental financiado con más de $400 millones.

El programa está emparejado con un canal de capacitación laboral que se centrará en el reclutamiento en estas mismas comunidades, con incentivos adicionales para contratar a 2.000 personas con antecedentes penales y egresados del sistema estatal de cuidado de crianza temporal.

Con la aprobación de la Ley de Empleos en Energía del Futuro, comunidades de bajos ingresos y comunidades racializadas y/o etnias minoritarias, como La Villita, tendrán oportunidades importantes de beneficiarse de los recursos comprometidos para construir una economía de energía limpia en el estado.

Kim Wasserman de LVEJO y Jerry Lucero de PERRO celebran el 5º aniversario del cierre de las plantas Fisk y Crawford en Pilsen y La Villita. Crawford está atrás de ellos. (Crédito de la foto: Antonio López)

¡No al Carbon! ¡Queremos Justicia Ambiental!

Además de asegurar que los programas de FEJA lleguen a comunidades de línea de frente y de bajos ingresos, la transición justa de la planta de carbón de Crawford es un objetivo principal de la Organización de Justicia Ambiental de La Villita. Creemos que el redesarrollo equitativo de la planta de Crawford puede destacarse como un modelo para otras comunidades de Justicia Ambiental que trabajan en iniciativas de transición justas.

De hecho, en todo el Medio Oeste de EE.UU. las comunidades de Justicia Ambiental están liderando la lucha para cerrar plantas de carbón, incineradores y otras fábricas contaminantes. La reconstrucción comunitario de la planta de Crawford no sólo beneficiará profundamente a La Villita, sino que también será un poderoso símbolo de justicia ambiental.

Major Job Losses in Renewable Energy if Current Tax Plan Passes

In March 2017, I testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on how federal tax credits for renewable energy have been a key driver for the recent growth in the US wind and solar industries, creating new jobs, income, and tax revenues for local communities.  They have also helped drive down the cost of wind and solar power by more than two-thirds since 2009, making renewable energy more affordable for consumers.

Originally enacted as part of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, Congress has extended the Production Tax Credit (PTC) seven times and has allowed it to expire on six occasions. This “on-again/off-again” status resulted in a boom-bust cycle of development in the wind industry. In the years following expiration, installations dropped between 76 and 93 percent, with corresponding job losses. Congress has also extended the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar several times.

Finally, after many years of this policy uncertainty, Congress passed a five-year extension and phase-down of the PTC and the ITC for wind and solar in December 2015. The legislation also removed the longstanding US oil export ban, as part of a compromise deal with the oil industry.

Unfortunately, the Senate and House tax bills would renege on this deal and change the rules midstream, resulting in major job losses across the US renewable energy industry. They would also jeopardize tens of billions in investments in renewable energy projects and manufacturing facilities in rural communities across America—many of which are in districts and states held by Republicans and that voted for President Trump.

Senate tax bill undermines renewable energy financing

The renewable energy industry initially praised an earlier version of the Senate tax bill, which honored the 2015 deal and did not make any direct changes to the PTC and ITC. However, the Senate made two last-minute changes to the bill to fill revenue gaps and build support from key Republicans that were concerned about the deficit that would have a significant impact on renewable energy projects.

Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT): One of these last-minute changes was to restore the AMT to fill a $40 billion revenue gap. The proposal in both the Senate and House tax bills to reduce the corporate tax rate to 20 percent would likely move most US corporations from the regular corporate income tax rate to the AMT (which is also set at 20 percent on a broader tax base), according to tax experts.

However, not all tax credits count toward the AMT and depreciation must be calculated at a slower rate. While the ITC for solar projects can count toward the AMT, the PTC for wind projects (and geothermal, biomass, landfill gas and incremental hydro projects) can only count for the first 4 years out of the 10-year window that projects are eligible to receive the tax credits. Not only would this jeopardize investment in new projects, it would have a retroactive impact on existing projects placed in service after 2007 that are still receiving tax credits under the PTC.

Base-Erosion Anti-Abuse Tax (BEAT): The Senate also made a last-minute change to the BEAT provision that could greatly reduce tax equity financing for renewable energy projects. BEAT would impose a tax on large corporations that make cross-border payments by requiring them to add those payments to their taxable income. This amount is then multiplied by 10 percent to determine what they owe to the government (except for banks and security dealers, which the Senate raised to 11 percent). These corporations must also calculate their regular tax liability minus any tax credits they receive, including the PTC and the ITC. If their adjusted tax liability is less than the fraction of their taxable income with the cross-border payments, the company would have to pay the difference to the IRS as a tax.

The more tax credits a company has, the more a company is likely to pay, making banks and other large tax equity investors reluctant to finance renewable energy projects. And like the AMT, the BEAT provision would not only impact financing for new projects but could have a retroactive effect on most existing projects that received tax equity financing.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) claims that the Senate bill could threaten $12 billion in annual tax equity financing in 2017, up from $7.3 billion in 2013 (see Figure). They estimate that tax equity financing accounted for 21 percent of the $58.5 billion in total US renewable energy investment in 2016.

The Senate tax bill would have a big impact on companies like JPMorgan, Bank of America, GE, US Bank, and Citigroup that led tax equity financing in 2016 for both wind and solar projects, as shown in this BNEF chart.

The BEAT provision would also hurt other energy sources that currently receive tax credits such as refined coal facilities placed in service by December 2011. The coal industry is also speaking out against the AMT, which Bob Murray claims will cost his company $50-60 million in increased taxes and eliminate 65,000 jobs.

House bill puts 60,000 wind industry jobs and $50 billion in new investment at risk

While the House bill does not include the AMT or BEAT provisions, it makes several direct changes to the PTC and ITC that would undermine investments in new wind and solar projects and have a retroactive impact on existing projects. These changes include:

  • Eliminating the inflation adjustment for the PTC, reducing its value by 38 percent from 2.4 c/kWh under current law to 1.5 c/kWh.
  • Changing the commence construction provision, dropping safe harbor provision, and requiring projects to have “continuous construction” to be eligible, which would greatly accelerate the PTC phase-down schedule. When combined with the change to the inflation adjustment, AWEA estimates these two provisions could reduce the value of the PTC by more than half.
  • Allowing the permanent 10 percent solar ITC to sunset in 2027.
  • Extending the tax credits to “orphan” technologies like geothermal, biopower, landfill gas, and incremental hydro that were largely left out of the 2015 deal to extend the tax credits for wind and solar for 5 years. This is the only positive change in the House bill.

The House bill would cut new wind development by more than half by 2020, according to both Bloomberg and Goldman Sachs. AWEA estimates that the House bill would put 30,000 MW of new wind projects that are under development in the US worth $50 billion of new private investment at risk, along with 60,000 jobs, as shown in this map.

Source: AWEA, Protecting American wind workers during tax reform.

Making renewable energy a priority in conference committee

The provisions in the House bill that renege on Congress’ 2015 compromise deal with the oil industry and drastically cut the value of the PTC are completely unacceptable and should be dropped. The AMT and BEAT provisions in the Senate bill should either be dropped (they are not included in the House bill) or renewable energy tax credits should be excluded—similar to how R&D tax credits are currently excluded from the BEAT provision.

House and Senate conferees were named last week. They will meet over the next two weeks to resolve key differences, with the goal of delivering a final bill to President Trump by the end of the year.

It is an ominous sign that Senator Grassley (R-IA), a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, was left off the conference committee. As the father of the PTC, who represents a state that ranks second in installed wind capacity, he has been outspoken about honoring the 2015 deal and working to fix the problems in the Senate and House tax bills. “The wind energy production tax credit is already being phased out under a compromise brokered in 2015. It shouldn’t be re-opened,” Grassley said.

Pro-renewables Senators like Grassley and Susan Collins (R-ME) will have a tough vote to make on the Senate floor if these damaging provisions are not addressed in conference. Maine, for example, has over 900 MW of existing wind capacity and nearly 300 MW of new solar and wind under development that is potentially at risk.

But there are conferees who represent states with large renewable energy industries, and they are in unique position to make the changes necessary to keep that clean energy momentum going.

  • Conferees like Senator Thune and Representative Noem from South Dakota, where a wind turbine blade manufacturer from Aberdeen just announced they will be closing and laying off over 400 people, citing the federal tax bills as one of reasons for this decision. “It’s apparent that the new tax bill will cause some economic disruption and this is one of them,” according to Aberdeen Mayor Mike Levsen. “It’s what happens when government policies turn against industries. It discourages investment.” South Dakota also has 960 MW of wind projects currently under development, representing $1.6 billion in new investment, that is at risk.
  • Senator Murkowski (R-AK) has also said that fixing the BEAT and AMT provisions in the Senate bill will be “clear priorities” for lawmakers in conference
  • Senator Portman (R-OH) is from a state with a strong renewable energy supply chain, including 5,831 solar jobs at 189 companies and more than 2,000 jobs and 61 manufacturing facilities in the wind industry. Ohio also has 560 MW of new wind projects under development and $900 million in new investment that is at risk.
  • Other conferees from leading renewable energy states such as Texas, California, Illinois, Washington and Oregon would also experience significant job losses.

The US renewable energy industry has a proven track record of creating new jobs and making new investments in states and rural areas across America. Federal tax reform should encourage rather than discourage US investment in this rapidly growing global industry.

Make sure your members of congress know clean energy is important to you. Tell them to fix the AMT and BEAT provisions, and to leave the renewable energy tax credits alone.

The Future of Solar is in the President’s Hands. It *Should* Be an Easy Call

Installing solar panels in PA Photo: used with permission from publicsource.org

The saga of the would-be solar tariffs that just about nobody wants is continuing, and I can’t help but be struck by the disconnect between some of the possible outcomes and the administration’s purported interest in rational energy development for America. If President Trump believes what he says, deciding not to impose major tariffs shouldn’t be a tough decision.

Here’s the thing: in March 2017, the president issued an executive order about “undue burdens on energy development,” which said (emphasis added) that it was:

Solar’s future: Progress or pain? It’s his call.

…in the national interest to promote clean and safe development of our Nation’s vast energy resources, while at the same time avoiding regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, and prevent job creation.

Encumbering, constraining, preventing. Remember those verbs as we go through some of the key facts of this case.

The players

The trade case, brought by two US solar panel manufacturers that are on the rocks, or whose foreign parents are, involves a little-used (and failure-prone) provision in the US tax code. And it has met with almost universal rejection, from a whole host of industry, political, security, and conservative and really conservative voices (Sean Hannity, anyone?).

Even the US International Trade Commission (USITC) tasked with making recommendations in response to the petition couldn’t agree, with the four commissioners coming up with three different proposals.

As we said at the time, on the one hand it was good that the USITC recommendations weren’t as drastic as what the petitioners had asked for. On the other hand, anything that slows down our solar progress is bad news for America.

The (pre-Trump) progress

Solar has been on an incredible trajectory for years now, producing energy, cutting pollution, increasing energy security, and helping homes and businesses. The first nine months of 2017, for example, saw solar producing 47% more electricity than in the same period of 2016, with the biggest gains among the top 10 states for solar generation being in Georgia, Texas, and Utah.

Solar has also been an incredible job-creating machine. Some 260,000 people worked in the solar industry by the end of 2016, almost 2.5 times 2011’s solar job count. One in every 50 new American jobs last year was created by the solar industry. And those have been in different pieces of the industry—R&D, manufacturing, sales, project development, finance, installation—and all across the country.

The problem and presaging

Credit: J. Rogers

Some of those gains have taken place during the Trump presidency, and maybe he can rationalize taking credit for them by pointing out the fact that he at least didn’t stop those good things from happening.

That benign neglect may be about to change, though, and we’re already seeing the effects of the uncertainty that the president’s rhetoric around issues of solar and trade has created.

The trade case has continued. While not part of the specified process for this type of proceeding, the White House invited the public to submit comments to the US trade representative, and recently held a public hearing.

The next deadline is January 26, the end of the period for President Trump to make up his mind about the USITC recommendations—accepting one of the sets of proposals, doing something else, or rejecting the idea of tariffs and quotas.

In the meantime, the effects are already hitting: Utility-scale solar costs had dropped below $1 per watt for the first time in history earlier this year. Now those costs have climbed back above that mark as developers have scrambled to get their hands on modules ahead of whatever’s coming.

Large-scale solar projects are faltering (as in Texas) because of the inability of developers and customers to absorb the risk of substantially higher solar costs. That’s investment in projects on American soil, on hold.

But those setbacks could be just a taste of what’s to come.

The point: Encumbering, constraining, preventing

That brings us back to the March executive order, which boldly professed an intention to do away with burdens holding back US industry, and was decided anti-interventionist (in the regulatory sense).

And yet here we are, a few short months later, talking about doing that exact thing—messing with the market, and going against our national interests. Encumbering energy production by driving up the costs of the cells and modules that have powered so much growth. Constraining economic growth by making it harder for American homes and businesses and utilities to say yes to solar. Preventing job creation—even causing job losses—by shrinking the market for what our nation’s vibrant solar industry has been offering so successfully.

Credit: J. Rogers

The pain

While provisions in the tax bill being worked out in congress would do no good for renewables, the president’s actions could have much more direct impacts on American pricing and competitiveness. A lot of smart people are pointing out that any bump-up in US solar module manufacturing jobs will be way more than offset by job losses elsewhere in the industry, including elsewhere in solar manufacturing.

If the president chooses to ignore the many voices clamoring for rational policy on this, if he chooses—and remember he alone can fix this—to impose major tariffs or quotas, he’s going to own their impacts.

Every net American job lost because of higher module prices will have his name on it.

Every US solar panel manufacturer that doesn’t magically take off behind his wall of protectionism will be evidence of the misguideness of his approach.

Every small or large US solar project cancelled—jobs, investments, and all—because of the speedbumps, roadblocks, and hairpin turns on his energy vision-to-nowhere will be a Trump-branded monument to his lack of foresight and unwillingness to accept the changing realities of energy, innovation, and ingenuity.

The path

The solar industry, though, has offered President Trump a way out. They’ve proposed an import licensing fee approach that would support expanded US manufacturing while letting solar continue to soar (all else being equal).

That’s fortunate for the president, and for just about all of the rest of us. Because if he’s truly about unencumbering energy production, about removing constraints to economic growth, and stopping the prevention of job creation, killing American solar jobs would be a funny way to show it.

Public Source

New Transmission Projects Will Unleash Midwestern Wind Power—And Save Billions

As we look ahead to our clean energy future, a key piece of the puzzle is building the transmission system that will carry utility-scale renewable energy from where it’s generated to where it’s consumed. A recent study from the Mid-Continent Independent System Operator (MISO) shows that, when done right, transmission projects integrated with renewable energy can pay huge dividends. They decarbonize our electricity supply, improve efficiency, and lower costs to the tune of billions of dollars in benefits to electricity customers.

A long journey to get it right

Transmission projects can cost-effectively accelerate our clean energy transition. But it must be done right with proper planning, stakeholder engagement, and diligent analytics.

Ensuring long-term investments in our transmission system provide benefits to customers is a lengthy process. Beginning in 2003, MISO—which operates the electricity transmission system and wholesale electricity markets across much of the central US—began to explore a regional planning process that would complement the local planning and activities of the utilities, states, and other stakeholders operating in its territory.

After several years of scoping, planning, analysis, and legal wrangling, a set of 17 “multi-value” transmission projects (MVPs) were approved in 2011 based on their projected ability to (1) provide benefits in excess of costs, (2) improve system reliability, and (3) provide access to renewable energy to help meet state renewable energy standards.

Even six-plus years after being approved, most of these projects are currently under construction since transmission projects typically take several years to move through the approval process, permitting, siting, and construction. But even as these projects are being developed, MISO has continued to evaluate them based on the most recent information available—making sure that they are still expected to deliver the benefits originally projected.

The most recent review, fortunately, shows that they are truly living up to their “multi-value” moniker. And like a fine wine, they seem to be getting better with time.

Latest review shows benefits increasing compared to original projections

Overall, the latest review shows a benefit to cost ratio ranging from 2.2 to 3.4—meaning these projects are expected to deliver economic benefits on the order of $2.20 to $3.40 for every dollar in cost. This is an increase over the original projection of a cost benefits ratio of 1.8 to 3.0. The latest cost/benefit analysis equates to total net economic benefits between $12.1 and $52.6 billion over the next 20 to 40 years. The figure below shows how the multiple values projected from these projects add up.

The chart above shows the categories – and projected value – of benefits (columns one through 6) that MISO considers in identifying and approving projects. When stacked up, the total benefits range from $22.1 to $74.8 billion. When total costs are also considered, net benefits (the last column on the right) to the MISO System and customers that rely on it drop to between $12 and $52.6 billion. Source: MISO

As shown in the figure, the bulk of economic benefits flowing from the MVPs are from relieving congestion and saving on fuel costs (shown in column 1). These are typically characterized as increasing “market efficiency” by opening up wholesale electricity markets to more robust competition and spreading the benefits of low-cost generation throughout the region—essentially allowing cheap energy to flow where there’s demand. Because renewable energy has zero fuel cost, enabling more of it onto the grid allows the overall system to operate more cheaply. These savings ultimately flow to ratepayers that are typically on the hook for fuel costs incurred by their utility.

And the amount of wind energy that is being brought onto the system because of these MVPs is significant. This latest review by MISO estimates that the portfolio of projects, once completed, will enable nearly 53 million megawatt-hours of renewable energy to access the system through 2031. To put that in perspective, a typical home uses about 10 megawatt-hours per year. So that’s enough energy to power 100,000 households for more than 50 years!

A lot more than just electricity

When put together, the combination of well-thought-out transmission investments and renewable energy development in the Midwest also provides a host of additional social benefits, including:

  • Enhancing the diversity of resources supplying electricity to the system
  • Improving the robustness of the transmission system that decreases the likelihood of blackouts
  • Increasing the geographic diversity of wind resources, thereby improving average wind output to the system at any given time
  • Supporting the creation of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in local investment
  • Reducing carbon emission by 13 to 21 million tons annually

Let’s think about this for one second more…

Through proper planning, stakeholder engagement, and diligent analytics, here in the Midwest we are building a portfolio of transmission projects that will significantly lower carbon emissions, enable billions of dollars in investment and thousands of new jobs, make our electricity supply more reliable, and provide billions in economic benefits to ratepayers.

Maybe we should think about it for one more second. Or maybe we should start thinking about what’s next?

Source: MISO

Why You Shouldn’t Feel Bad About Recycling Old Appliances

Let’s face it: Deep down inside you, or maybe much closer to the surface, you’ve been wanting a new refrigerator, dishwasher, washer, or dryer. You’ve had your eye on that sweet little white/black/stainless beauty of a machine, and you’ve seen the holiday sales (pick a holiday, any holiday) come and go, with their “Save $200!… Free delivery!… Act now!” enticements… And yet you’ve stayed on the sidelines.

If what’s been holding you back is concern about what happens to old appliances, landfills and all, I’ve got great news for you: Chances are good that you’re better off if you upgrade, because energy efficiency progress means you can save plenty of money—and that all of us are also better off because that progress means your upgrade also cuts emissions, even when you take the bigger picture into account.

New appliances make financial sense

It should be really clear that new appliances can save you a bunch of money by saving energy (and more). Federal efficiency standards for fridges that came into place in 2014 meant electricity savings of 20-25% for most, and units qualified under the ENERGY STAR program offer at least another 9% savings.

For washing machines, ENERGY STAR-rated ones use 25% less energy and 45% less water than their conventional brethren, which means less money spent on both energy and water. Upgrading from a standard washing machine that’s 10 years old can actually save you more than $200 a year.

New appliances make environmental sense, too

So that’s the financial side of things. And we both know that’s important.

But we also both know that you’re about much more than that. You’re thinking about how that dishwasher doesn’t just magically appear, about how the old one doesn’t just vanish. You’re thinking about the implications from each stage of its life. So what about the carbon emissions, you say.

Thinking about what goes into producing and disposing of something makes a lot of sense, as long as you’re thinking about what goes into operating that same something during that long period between production and disposal (the life of the product).

And it makes even more sense to use data to help that thinking. (You’re a Union of Concerned Scientists type of person, after all; you just can’t help it.)

Fortunately, we’ve got that. Cooler Smarter, UCS’s book on where the carbon emissions come from in our lives—which of our consumer decisions have the most impact on how much CO2 we emit—has just the data you need. (In the appendices; we didn’t want to scare off other people.)

And what Cooler Smarter’s data tables show is that the emissions associated with producing and disposing of a range of appliances add up to less than the emissions associated with their use. A lot less actually: Using them can take 10-25 times as much energy as getting them there and getting rid of ‘em.

Getting Cooler Smarter about where the emissions come from, with data. Turns out that “Use Emissions” are usually the big piece. (Source: Cooler Smarter)

What that means is that if you can upgrade an appliance to one that’s more efficient, and particularly if your existing helper is more than a few years old, it’s probably really worth it not just from a financial perspective, but also in terms of carbon pollution.

That same principle, by the way, holds true for other energy users around your house: think lighting, for instance, where CFLs (compact fluorescent lights) or even newer LEDs (light-emitting diodes) in place of incandescent light bulbs can really quickly save you a bundle and pay back the emissions that went into make them. Or think vehicles, where recent years’ efficiency gains have been really impressive.

As it says in Cooler Smarter:

When there are highly efficient options for appliances, equipment, and vehicles, for instance, it almost always makes sense to junk energy hogs in favor of the most efficient models you can afford.

Four decades of progress in a box: Bigger fridges, more features, a lot less energy. (Source: ACEEE)

Old appliances can be reborn

For the disposal piece of the carbon equation, one key to making the math work for an appliance’s afterlife is to dispose of it the right way. While photos of piles of old appliances might be eye-catching—and disheartening—your old faithful dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, or fridge doesn’t have to suffer that ignominious end.

In fact, it’s a whole lot better if it doesn’t, and there are lots of ways to make it so. ENERGY STAR has a useful set of webpages on recycling old appliancesrefrigerators, clothes washers, other appliances, and more. It suggests, for example, that recycling can be through the store you’re buying the new appliance from, through your local utility, through your city or town, or via a scrap dealer.

How your old fridge gets new life (with the help of a Hammond B3 organ soundtrack) (Source: ENERGY STAR)

As for where the old appliance goes/how the materials find new life: Fridges are a useful, complex array of materials that provide useful insights (and fodder for graphics). ENERGY STAR has a handy video about all the pieces and how they get reborn. (The shredding part about two-thirds of the way through isn’t for the faint of heart, particularly the appliance-loving heart, but just remember that it’s all for the greater good.) And the efficiency program in top-ranked Massachusetts not only gives the lowdown on fridge recycling (and a cool infographic), but offers free removal and $50 to boot.

That new-life-for-old idea can work for other things, too. If it’s lights you’re swapping out, here are a few ideas on what to do with old incandescent light bulbs (sock-darning, for example). For vehicles, check out UCS’s cradle-to-grave analysis.

Don’t you deserve lower costs, more comfort, less pollution, more…?

A new washer and dryer set might not fit under the Christmas tree, but that shouldn’t keep you from upgrading. Neither should concerns about what happens to the old one, or where the new one comes from.

As Cooler Smarter‘s section on “stuff we buy” lays out, there’s a lot to be said for buying less, and buying smart. But efficiency gains change the equation for some things.

If you feel you deserve new appliances, you just might be right. And if you think that upgrading to much higher efficiency ones and recycling the old might be a good move, you’d definitely be right.

Energy efficiency truly is the gift that keeps on giving, for both the wallet and the planet.

So act now—retailers are standing by!

Pruitt’s War on the Planet and the EPA—and What Congress Can Do About It

We have now endured almost a year with Scott Pruitt as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). His tenure is unprecedented—a full frontal assault on the agency he heads, and a retreat from the mission he is charged by law to advance. And thus far, Administrator Pruitt has not had to account for his actions.

But an accountability moment is nearing: for the first time since his nomination, Mr. Pruitt will appear before Congress to offer an update on the status of work at the agency—first before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on December 7, and next before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on January 31. These oversight hearings offer a critical opportunity for leaders on both sides of the aisle to ask tough questions, demand responsive information rather than platitudes, and voice their disapproval about how Administrator Pruitt has run the EPA.

Here are key topics for our elected representatives to focus on:

Mr. Pruitt’s empty “back to basics” promise

During his nomination hearing last January, Administrator Pruitt knew he would be questioned about his commitment to EPA’s mission and his repeated lawsuits against EPA when he served as Oklahoma’s attorney general. He came equipped with a clever counter-narrative. He claimed that he would make EPA a more effective agency by de-emphasizing “electives” such as climate change. He promised to steer the agency “back to basics” by focusing on core responsibilities such as enforcing clean air and water laws and cleaning hazardous waste sites.

Members of Congress should compare that promise to Administrator Pruitt’s actions over the past year. Almost immediately after taking office, he signed off on a budget that would cut EPA by 31 percent, despite the absence of any financial exigency requiring such draconian action. A few weeks later, he approved plans to lay off 25 percent of the agency’s employees and eliminate 56 programs. The proposed budget cuts target not only items Pruitt may think of as electives, but also basic bread-and-butter functions. For example, he proposed to strip $330 million from the $1.1 billion Superfund program and cut funding for the Justice Department to enforce cases.

And, in a clear contradiction of his testimony that he would work more cooperatively and effectively with state environmental protection agencies, he proposed to cut the grants that EPA gives to states for enforcement by 20 percent.

We are already starting to see the results of this effort to hollow EPA out from within. Experienced and talented career staff are leaving the agency in droves. The Chicago EPA office, for example, has already lost 61 employees “who account for more than 1,000 years of experience and represent nearly 6 percent of the EPA’s Region 5 staff, which coordinates the agency’s work in six states around the Great Lakes.” This means, among other things, a smaller number of inspectors and likely an increased number of businesses operating out of compliance with clean air and water laws.

With less staff and fewer experienced staff members, it is no surprise that EPA has seen a roughly 60 percent reduction in the penalties it has collected for environmental violations compared with the Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations at comparable stages in their respective terms. And while the Obama administration cleaned up and de-listed 60 hazardous waste sites and added 142 sites over eight years, so far the EPA, under Mr. Pruitt, is far off that pace, deleting just two sites and adding only seven.

Perhaps most troubling, civil servants have been deeply demoralized by the combination of proposed cuts and constant statements by the president and Administrator Pruitt denigrating the agency as a job killer, which it is not. As one staffer said in a recent publication entitled EPA under Siege “I think there’s a general consensus among the career people that, at bottom, they’re basically trying to destroy the place.”

Said another: “Quite honestly, the core values of this administration are so divergent from my own, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity [for retirement]….I found it difficult to work for an agency with someone who is so disrespectful of what we do and why we do it.”

Members of Congress should question Mr. Pruitt about his “back to basics” promise. They should ask why he advocated for such deep budget cuts, layoffs, and buyouts, and demand that he explain with specificity how the agency can possibly do better with such drastically reduced resources. Congress should also require Mr. Pruitt to provide clear, apples-to-apples comparisons of the record of environmental enforcement during his tenure with that of his predecessors, as measured by inspections, notices of violation, corrective actions, fines and litigation.

Administrator Pruitt’s “Law and Order” charade

Administrator Pruitt put forth a second narrative during his confirmation hearing. He promised  to restore “law and order” to EPA, claiming that the EPA had strayed beyond its statutory authority during President Obama’s tenure.

The record tells a very different story. In less than a year, Mr. Pruitt’s actions have repeatedly been found by courts to be “unlawful,” “arbitrary,” and “capricious.”

One example is particularly instructive. At the end of the Obama administration, the EPA issued a final rule requiring operators of new oil and gas wells to install controls to capture methane, a highly potent contributor to global warming. The rule was set to go into effect in early 2017. Administrator Pruitt unilaterally put the rule on hold for two years to allow EPA to conduct a sweeping reconsideration. This, the court found, was blatantly illegal, because it attempted to change the compliance date of a rule without going through the necessary rulemaking process.

Unfortunately, this tactic has become a pattern, as Mr. Pruitt has sought to put on hold many other regulations he doesn’t care for, including rules intended to reduce asthma-causing ozone pollutiontoxic mercury contamination in water supplies, and a requirement that state transportation departments monitor greenhouse gas emission levels on national highways and set targets for reducing them. Environmental nonprofit organizations and state attorneys general have had to sue, or threaten to sue, to stop this illegal behavior.

The EPA’s lawlessness is not confined to official acts, but also concerns the administrator personally. In an obvious conflict of interest, Mr. Pruitt played a leading role in the EPA’s proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the nation’s first-ever limit on carbon dioxide pollution from power plants. Yet, just a few months before taking over at the EPA, Mr. Pruitt had led the legal fight against the rule as Oklahoma’s attorney general.

In effect, he played the role of advocate, then judge and jury, and ultimately executioner, all in a matter of a few months.

In addition, Administrator Pruitt is under investigation for misusing taxpayer dollars for $58,000 worth of private chartered flights, and has wasted $25,000 of taxpayer money to build himself a secret phone booth in his office.

Congress needs to ask Mr. Pruitt how he can be said to have restored respect for the law at the EPA, when the EPA (and perhaps Administrator Pruitt personally) have been flouting it. They need to ask him about what role he played in the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, and how he can square his conflicting loyalties to the state of Oklahoma (which he represented as an attorney) and to the American people (who he is supposed to represent as head of the EPA). Congress should also investigate his personal use of taxpayer funds and his penchant for cutting corners on legally mandated processes.

An “Alice in Wonderland” approach to science

The EPA’s five decades of success rest on its longstanding commitment to the best available science, and to its well-trained professional scientists who deploy that science. Administrator Pruitt has taken a wrecking ball to this scientific foundation.

First, he ignores staff scientists when their conclusions do not support his deregulation agenda. On the crucial scientific question of our time—climate change and what is causing it—Mr. Pruitt says he does not believe carbon dioxide is a primary cause. Of course, this statement runs directly counter to the conclusions of EPA scientists (as well as those of the recently issued US Global Change Research Program Climate Science Special Report). And, in one of his first policy decisions, Administrator Pruitt overturned EPA scientists’ recommendation to ban a pesticide (chlorpyrifos) that presents a clear health risk to farmers, children, and rural families.

But Mr. Pruitt is not only ignoring staff scientists, he is also sidelining and suppressing advice from highly credentialed and respected scientists who advise the EPA. Last summer, he sacked most of the members of the Board of Scientific Counselors, a committee of leading scientific experts that advises the EPA about newly emerging environmental threats and the best use of federal research dollars. And he has used this as an excuse to suspend the board’s work indefinitely.

More recently, he issued a new policy which states that a key outside Science Advisory Board will no longer include academic scientists who have received EPA grants in the past, under the purported theory that the grants render them less objective. Yet, Administrator Pruitt will fill these posts with industry scientists who are paid exclusively by industry, and with scientists who work for state governments that receive grants from the EPA. This new policy has enabled Mr. Pruitt to fill these boards with scientists who are clearly aligned with industry, scientists such as Michael Honeycutt, who has railed against EPA limits on soot and even testified before Congress that “some studies even suggest PM [particulate matter] makes you live longer.”

Administrator Pruitt’s attack on science also includes the EPA deleting vital information from agency websites. For example, the EPA has deleted key information about the Clean Power Plan, even though the agency is in the middle of a public comment process on whether to repeal that rule, and what to replace it with. The EPA has also eliminated information on the “social cost of carbon” and the record of its finding that the emission of greenhouse gases endangers public health.

These deletions seem designed to make it more difficult for the scientific community, and members of the public, to access the scientific information that stands in the way of Mr. Pruitt’s agenda.

Congress needs to probe deeply on these multiple ways that Administrator Pruitt has diminished the role of science at EPA. Representatives and senators should make him explain why he thinks he knows more about climate science and the harms of pesticides than his scientists do. They should demand that he explain why it is a conflict of interest for academic scientists who receive EPA grants to advise the EPA, but not for state and tribal scientists who receive these grants, or industry-paid scientists. And Congress must find out why so much valuable information about climate science, the social cost of carbon, and other matters have vanished from EPA websites.

Making the world safe for polluters

In December 2015, more than 190 countries, including the United States, approved an agreement in Paris to finally tackle the greatest challenge of our time—runaway climate change. Donald Trump pledged to pull the United States out of this agreement when he ran for office, but for six months into his term, he did not act on the pledge, and there was an internal debate within his administration.

Mr. Pruitt led the charge for the US withdrawal from that agreement. He has followed up on this by going after almost every single rule the Obama administration had put in place to cut global warming emissions. This includes the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the “re-opening” of the current fuel economy standards that are now on target to roughly double cars’ fuel efficiency by 2025, the repeal of data gathering on methane emissions from oil and gas facilities, and tampering with how the EPA calculates the costs of carbon pollution, among many other actions.

But Administrator Pruitt’s rollback of safeguards is not limited to climate-related rules; it also includes cutting or undermining provisions that protect us all from more conventional pollutants. He has started the process of rescinding rules that limit power plants from discharging toxic metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead into public waterways; regulate the disposal of coal ash in waste pits near waterways; and improve safety at facilities housing dangerous chemicals.

The breadth and ferocity of these rollbacks is unprecedented. Congress needs to push back hard. For starters, representatives and senators need to demand that Mr. Pruitt explain how it fits within his job duties to lobby the president against one of the most important environmental protection agreements ever reached. Similarly, they need to highlight the impacts on human health and the environment from all of the rollbacks that Administrator Pruitt has initiated, and force him to explain how the EPA can be advancing its mission by lowering environmental standards.

Congressional oversight is needed now more than ever

Many aspects of Mr. Pruitt’s tenure are truly unprecedented. However, he’s not the first EPA administrator to display fundamental disrespect for the agency’s mission. As one legal scholar has noted, during the Reagan administration there were “pervasive” congressional concerns that former Administrator Anne Gorsuch and other political appointees at the agency “were entering into ‘sweetheart deals’ with industry, manipulating programs for partisan political ends, and crippling the agency through requests for budget reductions.”

Congressional oversight back then was potent: among other things, Congress demanded that the EPA hand over documents about the apparently lax enforcement of the Superfund law requiring cleanups of hazardous waste sites. When the EPA head refused to comply with those demands, Congress held Administrator Gorsuch in contempt. Senators, including Republicans such as Robert Stafford and Lincoln Chaffee, publicly voiced their alarm. Eventually, President Reagan decided Ms. Gorsuch was a liability, and he replaced her with William Ruckelshaus, EPA’s first administrator under President Nixon, and a well-respected moderate who stabilized the agency.

These oversight efforts were “the decisive factor in causing Ms. Gorsuch, as well as most of the other political appointees at the agency, to resign.”

It may be too much to expect that the current, polarized Congress will exhibit the same level of tough, bipartisan oversight it did in the Reagan era. Yet, bipartisan support for vigorous environmental protection remains strong today and some Republican leaders have already called upon Administrator Pruitt to step down. It is high time for Congress to do what it can to ensure that Mr. Pruitt’s EPA does not continue to put the interests of a few industries ahead of the clean air, water, and lands that the agency is mandated to protect.

Which States are Most Energy-Efficient? Here are the Latest Results

Adding insulation to your attic is an effective step to improve the efficiency of your home, save money, and cut carbon emissions.

Autumn makes me think of leaves colored orange and amber and red, of the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg wafting from a range of desserts… and of states vying for top honors in the annual state ranking of energy efficiency policies and progress.

The leaves are mostly done, and the desserts are in my belly. But the latest ranking from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy is out and available, and ready for sampling. It’s always a beautiful sight and a tasty treat.

Energy efficiency – Why and how?

Energy efficiency is already one of the main tools we use for meeting new energy demand. Why it makes sense as a tool is clear, as the new report says:

[Energy efficiency] creates jobs, not only directly for manufacturers and service providers, but also indirectly in other sectors by saving energy and freeing up funds to support the local economy. Efficiency also reduces pollution, strengthens community and grid resilience, promotes equity, and improves health.

The annual scorecard “ranks states on their efficiency policies and programs, not only assessing performance but also documenting best practices and recognizing leadership.” ACEEE does that by looking at a range of metrics that are shaped by each state’s efforts:

  • Utility and public benefits programs and policies
  • Transportation policies
  • Building energy codes and compliance
  • Combined heat and power (CHP) policies
  • State government–led initiatives around energy efficiency
  • Appliance and equipment standards

 

ACEEE state energy efficiency scorecard rankings, 2017

Who’s on top?

The highlighted states include some familiar faces plus a few new ones. The top states were the same in 2017 as in 2016, and highlighted the strong focus on efficiency in certain parts of the country:

  • Massachusetts took the top spot for the seventh straight year, and stood alone at the top (after tying with California for 2016 honors). Northeast states also took third (Rhode Island), fourth (Vermont), sixth (Connecticut), and seventh (New York).
  • The West Coast states garnered high marks, too, taking second (California), fifth (Oregon), and seventh (Washington).
  • The Midwest also made a good showing, at ninth (Minnesota) and eleventh (Illinois and Michigan, tied).

ACEEE makes a point of calling out some “most improved” states, too, and this year that brought in states from other parts of the country:

  • Idaho was the most most improved, jumping up seven spots and landing it in the middle of the pack—its best performance, says ACEEE, since 2012—due to investments in “demand-side management”, increased adoption of electric vehicles, and building energy code improvements.
  • Florida gained three spots in part due to its work on energy efficiency for the state’s farmers.
  • Its work to strengthen building energy codes in the state helped Virginia move up four notches.

The savings add up. (Source: ACEEE state energy efficiency scorecard)

How do states take it to the next level?

No state got a perfect score, ACEEE points out, so every state has room for improvement. Fortunately, they offer a few tips on how to make that happen:

  • Establish and adequately fund an energy efficiency resource standard (EERS) or similar energy savings target.
  • Adopt policies to encourage and strengthen utility programs designed for low-income customers, and work with utilities and regulators to recognize the nonenergy benefits of such programs.
  • Adopt updated, more stringent building energy codes, improve code compliance, and involve efficiency program administrators in code support.
  • Adopt California tailpipe emission standards and set quantitative targets for reducing VMT [vehicle miles travelled].
  • Treat cost-effective and efficient CHP [combined heat and power] as an energy efficiency resource equivalent to other forms of energy efficiency.
  • Expand state-led efforts—and make them visible.
  • Explore and promote innovative financing mechanisms to leverage private capital and lower the up-front costs of energy efficiency measures.

But we’re making progress, and leading states are demonstrating what a powerful resource energy efficiency is.

And with a federal administration that seems determined to move backward on clean air and water by propping up coal, and backward on climate action, that state action on clean energy is more important now than ever.

So congrats to the efficiency leaders among our states, and thanks.

 

I’m About to Testify at the EPA. Here’s What I Have to Say….

Photo credit: Sanjay Suchak.

After a restful and enjoyable time with my family over the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve extended my stay here in Charleston, West Virginia, to testify at the Environmental Protection Agency’s hearing on its proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan. I’ll be speaking tomorrow morning. Below are my prepared remarks.

Testimony of Dr. Jeremy Richardson at EPA’s Public Hearing on Repealing the Clean Power Plan, on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists

Remarks as Prepared

I stand before you today as the brother, son, and grandson of West Virginia coal miners. And at the same time, I am also a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, where I focus on the US power sector and how the clean energy transition already underway can help us address the urgent threat of climate change. As you might imagine, we have interesting discussions at our house over Thanksgiving!

Like so many others here today, my family has helped keep the lights on in this country for generations—and also like many of you, I’m deeply proud of that history. And yet, things are changing—fast. My research confirms something you probably already know: coal has become increasingly uneconomic compared with cheaper, cleaner forms of energy like natural gas and renewable energy—and this market trend is going to continue.

But these days it feels like facts don’t matter—and that’s very disturbing to a scientist like me. So, just for the record, allow me to state some things that are true and obvious, but seem to have been forgotten in the rhetoric around these issues.

First, coal miners and coal communities are suffering. The job losses experienced—especially over the last five to ten years—have been devastating for families and communities. But—the primary driver of the decline of coal is economics. Coal can no longer compete with cleaner and cheaper ways to generate electricity—largely natural gas, with renewables increasingly beating coal in some parts of the country. And coal mining jobs have been declining since the middle of the last century because of mechanization, the shift to cheaper, large-scale surface mining operations out West, and geologic realities that have led to declining productivity in Appalachian coal mines. It is easy to blame the policies of the last president for all of coal’s problems, but it simply isn’t true.

Second, it is the job of the Environmental Protection Agency to protect human health and the environment. It is not the job of the EPA to protect the coal industry. In fact, the EPA is bound by law to address air and water pollutants from producing and using coal. Many of these pollutants are hurting the health of communities right here in Appalachia, where acid mine drainage and coal ash contaminate our waterways, and are also causing harm around the country where people live downwind from coal-fired power plants. The EPA is also legally required by the Clean Air Act to curtail global warming emissions from power plants because science shows that climate change poses risks to our health and the health of future generations.

This brings me to my third point, that climate change is real, period. It is primarily caused by human activities—including the burning of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil. Despite what you may have heard or read, this is not disputed by any expert on the issue. The recently released National Climate Assessment special report confirms what we already knew—we are observing the impacts of climate change now, and left unchecked it will likely get much worse. And importantly, we can still avoid some of the worst consequences—if we act fast.

The Clean Power Plan was an important step toward reducing emissions from one of the largest sources of US carbon emissions. Nationally, it also would have provided significant economic and public health benefits by lowering other pollutants and encouraging growth in the renewable energy industry. That is why I am here today to voice UCS’ opposition to the repeal of the Clean Power Plan.

My dad, who is a retired longwall maintenance foreman believes that climate change is real. He also understands that coal represents good paying jobs for our state. So do I.

When I left behind my previous research in astronomy more than 10 years ago, I did so because I was deeply passionate about addressing the threat of climate change. The truth is, the often-vilified environmental activists are worried about climate change because of its impacts on people. For me, I don’t really care about what happens to the polar bears—but the reality of melting ice is truly a canary in the coal mine, and the potential impacts on humans and human civilization are deeply frightening.

According to the latest scientific assessment, sea levels are expected to continue to rise by at least a few more inches in just the next 15 years, and from 1 to 4 feet or more by 2100. Tidal flooding in communities along the US East and Gulf Coasts has increased in recent decades, and is expected to get much worse in the coming decades. An analysis by Climate Central finds that depending on emissions level, between 147 and 216 million people worldwide are at risk of living on land that is below sea level in 2100. And that may be a conservative estimate, based on current population estimates and data limitations, and the authors suggest the number may be much higher—around 300 to 650 million people.

Heavy rainfall is increasing in both intensity and frequency across the United States, with the largest increases observed in the Northeast region, which includes West Virginia. Changes in extreme precipitation can lead to catastrophic flooding, like the state experienced during the historic floods of June 2016.

Even as I changed careers, I recognized that we must reduce emissions to address climate change—and that means changing how we produce energy. But I have been wrestling with a nagging question—what does a low carbon future mean for a place like West Virginia, a place I still call home?

The challenge before us is that we must figure out how to solve both problems—bringing down carbon emissions so that we protect people all around the world who are facing the impacts of climate change, and simultaneously investing in new economic opportunities in the very places where people depend on coal for their livelihoods.

As a start, we must increase federal spending targeted at economic development and economic diversification in coal country. If the current administration really cared about coal communities, it would be doubling down on those investments, not cutting federal programs, like the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Economic Development Administration, that support communities here and around the region.

I am here to tell you that it’s time we tone down the rhetoric on this issue. It’s not as if there was a “war on the horse and buggy” a hundred years ago. No, something better came along: the automobile.

Today we are seeing solar panels go up on homes and businesses right here in West Virginia, no thanks to state policies, but rather due to some intrepid business leaders who see the future and want our state to be a part of it. We need to collectively support those efforts, not because we’re anti-coal, but because we deserve to be a part of the clean energy economy that is emerging all around us.

This hearing, and this entire process to derail action to address climate change, are distracting us from the real work at hand.

We must not only work to protect the planet’s climate through strong carbon standards, but also ensure that we invest in workers and communities to spur new economic opportunities right here in the heart of Coal Country.

I do not accept that this is an “either-or” proposition.

The Union of Concerned Scientists stands ready to do its part.

Thank you.

Dr. Jeremy Richardson

Senior Energy Analyst, Union of Concerned Scientists

Always in “Hot Water”

My wife likes to joke that I am always in “hot water.” It’s a play on words that reflects my career from college, at two National Laboratories and now in retirement.

America’s National Laboratories are hotbeds of scientific research directed at meeting national needs. In my case, working at two national labs helped me contribute to resolving growing issues of environmental impacts of energy technologies—thermal electric generating stations, in particular on aquatic life of rivers, lakes and coastal waters.

Getting a PhD in 1965, I was recruited by the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC’s) Hanford Laboratory (now the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory of the US Department of Energy) to conduct research on thermal discharges to the Columbia River from nine Hanford, Washington, plutonium-producing nuclear reactors. They were part of cold-war nuclear weapons production, but their thermal discharges were not unlike those from a power plant, just larger.

With pretty good understanding of potential water-temperature effects on aquatic organisms, our team of researchers sought effects of elevated temperatures on various salmon populations and the river’s other aquatic life. We had two main objectives: (1) to identify effects of the Hanford reactors on the river’s life, and (2) to translate our findings into criteria for safely managing thermal discharges (like the 90-degree limit for damages I found for Delaware River invertebrates).

Our Hanford research caught the attention of AEC headquarters and its Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. There was interest in countering the public thermal pollution fears by doing research that could be applied to minimizing ecological impacts everywhere. Thus, in the fall of 1969, I was asked to leave Hanford, which I greatly enjoyed (as a Northeasterner, the Pacific Northwest was like a paid vacation!) and moved to Oak Ridge in spring of 1970.

At Oak Ridge, I put together a team to develop criteria for minimizing ecological effects of thermal effluents nation-wide.  Oak Ridge had no power plants of its own. Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) power stations nearby were research sites, but our focus was on developing general criteria. We built a new Aquatic Ecology Laboratory with computer-controlled tank temperatures, a set of outside ponds to rear fish for experiments, hired biologists and engineers, and assembled a “navy” of boats for field work. We set to work at a fever pitch.

But then…. The Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the AEC was handed the Calvert Cliffs decision that mandated the AEC conduct complete reviews of the environmental impacts of the nuclear power stations it licensed. In 1972, our research staff was “reprogrammed” to prepare Environmental Impact Statements on operating and planned nuclear power plants. This turned out to be a tremendous opportunity to carefully evaluate not only thermal discharges but other impacts of using cooling water. By evaluating facilities across the country, we gained the nationwide perspective we needed for our research. With the National Lab having staff from many scientific and engineering fields to assign to the assessments, we gained a hugely valuable multi-disciplinary perspective that has helped us advance beyond just biology, fish and bugs.

Many years of productive thermal-effects work followed, with satisfaction that our contributions were often followed and our data used. We saw many of our efforts resolve issues for power plant thermal discharge permitting. The National Academies used our framework for water quality criteria for temperature; EPA used them as criteria for “Balanced Indigenous Communities” in thermally affected waters and setting temperature limits. As “thermal pollution” became more resolved, the Department of Energy and our National Laboratory provided our scientists the mission and capacity to work on other issues, most notably aquatic ecological effects of hydropower, that is helping with future innovation as technologies shift.

Throughout our research and analysis, we fostered “technology transfer” to the public through educational seminars and information aid to electricity generators. ORNL sanctioned some outside, site-specific consulting. I have been fortunate in retirement (since 2005) to continue to do this, and have assisted more than 50 companies and regulatory agencies (both domestic and foreign) with thermal effects issues. I feel good that the problem-solving research and analysis and application of this knowledge outside the labs (my “hot water”) have benefited society.

Through my time at the Hanford/Pacific Northwest and Oak Ridge national labs, I’ve worked with world-class researchers and scientists in many disciplines and have worked on projects that have advanced our understanding of ecological impacts from various energy sources. We need to continue to invest in our scientists at federal laboratories of the Department of Energy. I would like to thank my fellow scientists at government labs this Thanksgiving for the work they’ve done problem solving and finding innovative solutions for the public as well as private sector.

Dr. Charles Coutant retired as distinguished research ecologist in the Environmental Sciences Division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2005. Dr. Coutant received his B.A., M.S., and Ph.D. in biology (ecology) from Lehigh University.  Since retirement he has served part time as an ecological consultant to regulatory agencies and industry.

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.

Coal-burning Dynergy Wants a Handout. Will Illinois Give It to Them?

Photo: justice.gov

Last week marked the end of the Illinois General Assembly’s 2017 veto session. Fortunately, Dynegy failed in its latest attempt to have the legislature bail out several of its coal plants in central and southern Illinois at the expense of local ratepayers.

But the fight isn’t over. Dynegy has been relentless in their efforts to force the public to pay for keeping their aging, polluting, and uneconomic coal power facilities open. Here are some pathways they are pursuing and why it’s important to stop them.

The legislature

Dynegy, a Texas-based company that owns eight coal plants in central and southern Illinois, introduced legislation (SB 2250/HB 4141) that would grant them a bailout for their uneconomic Illinois plants, while ratepayers foot the bill. These plants were built several decades ago: the bill would allow Dynegy to continue to emit harmful pollutants for years to come.

Last year alone, Dynegy’s Illinois plants emitted more than 32 million tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

Dynegy claims that their Illinois coal plants are not being fairly treated in the current wholesale power market and if forced to close they would take hundreds of jobs with them. The proposed legislation would create a capacity-pricing system for Central and Southern Illinois, run by the Illinois Power Agency. Such a system would expectantly produce higher capacity prices, like those in Northern Illinois, and put more money into Dynegy’s coffers. Meanwhile, the higher capacity prices would be passed onto ratepayers.

Yet, Dynegy’s argument that immediate action is needed is unjustified. Ameren Illinois—the local power provider that purchases and delivers generation from Dynegy’s coal plants to customers—does not believe this is a resource adequacy issue in the short-term. And we agree. In 2016 the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition (of which UCS is a member) worked tirelessly to pass a long-term vision for the state’s energy future with the passage of the Future Energy Jobs Act, which increases energy efficiency and renewable energy development in the state.

Prolonging the life of uneconomic and dirty coal plants would derail this clean energy future.

This bill got lots of push back at last week’s hearing. The opposition’s testimony noted that an immediate threat to grid reliability does not exist and passing the legislation would put a financial burden on Ameren Illinois ratepayers. It’s estimated that the proposal could raise Ameren Illinois customer’s electric bills upwards of $115 a year.

Avenue 2: the Pollution Control Board

In addition to its legislative efforts, Dynegy has been working with the Illinois EPA to rewrite the Illinois Multi-Pollutant Standard, which is a 2006 clean air standard for coal plants. The proposed changes to the rule would create annual caps on tons of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emitted by the entire coal fleet rather than on individual power plants. If approved, the new limit on sulfur dioxide would be nearly double what Dynegy emitted last year and the cap on nitrogen oxide emissions would be 79 percent higher than in 2016.

This proposal would allow Dynegy to close newer plants and run older and dirtier plants harder. Meanwhile, Illinois communities will get increased air pollution, and some will still be faced with job losses.

Not just an Illinois issue

While some blame environmental regulations for the ailing coal industry, a recent report from the Trump administration’s Department of Energy confirms the major primary reasons coal plants nationwide have been faced with economic woes are  low natural gas prices and flat electricity demand. Struggling coal plants aren’t just an Illinois issue. The role of coal in the electricity sector is on the decline nationwide, while the increase of wind and solar presents opportunities for communities, businesses, and policymakers.

Our recent report A Dwindling Role for Coal: Tracking the Electricity Sector Transition and What It Means for the Nation examines the historic transition of the US electricity sector away from coal and towards cheaper, cleaner sources of energy. Since 2008, more than one-fifth of US coal generation has either retired or converted to different fuels, with significant benefits to public health and the climate. This transition has reshaped the power sector and will continue to do so.

What’s next

It’s expected Dynegy will be back in 2018 with similar legislation. And the Illinois Pollution Control Board hearings will be held on January 17 in Peoria and March 6 in Edwardsville.

Recently, a third pathway for Dynegy has surfaced, a stakeholder process that will kick off at the end of the  month to discuss the potential policy opportunities that are laid out in a report requested by Governor Rauner and written by the Illinois Commerce Commission. The white paper addressed current questions about resource adequacy in central and southern Illinois.

Speak up!

Tell Governor Rauner, and your state legislators, to oppose a Dynegy bailout that would prolong the life of uneconomic coal plants in the state, and would have negative public health impacts for Illinois residents. Illinois needs to transition away from old, dirty, and costly fossil fuels, and continue to increase development of renewable energy and energy efficiency in the state.

Photo: justice.gov

You Heard Right—The Trump Administration is Bailing Out Coal Plants

Photo: Seth Anderson/CC BY-NC-SA (Flickr)

No one likes paying more on their electric bills. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what might happen if the US Department of Energy gets its way with a recent request that bails out uneconomic coal plants. UCS opposes both this and something similar under review by the West Virginia Public Service Commission.

Who benefits? Owners

The Trump administration proposes to force the markets to provide guaranteed profits to coal-fired power plants and nuclear plants that are failing in the competitive wholesale electricity markets. Although the proposal is thin on details, it would amount to a bailout. This primarily benefits the owners of US coal mines by paying the uneconomic coal-burning power plants upwards of $5 billion per year to keep burning coal from those mines.

The power plant owners will also have larger profits in the short-run.

Power plant owners of course understand these coal plants are uneconomic—which is why they are looking for someone to pay them to keep them online. Before the Trump DOE came along, West Virginia went through this in 2013 with the Harrison power plant, which has cost consumers more than $164 million so far. Now Harrison’s owner, FirstEnergy, is attempting the same thing with its Pleasants coal plant.

Coal plants potentially benefiting from DOE proposal in green and red. Size based on Co2 emissions. Source: UCS analysis

The track record of coal mine owners in protecting the jobs and health of coal miners is abysmal; spending money to keep coal-burning plants open is not a great policy for the communities in coal country. While purporting to support coal communities, the administration simultaneously proposed to cut federal budgets that support those communities.

Who pays? Trapped consumers

Bending the markets to require profits be given to a few plant owners is an awful idea.When the Administration rejects the markets’ results to favor a few political supporters, every business owner and every consumer should consider themselves under attack. Electricity is not a luxury or an option for our society.

The government needs a very clear explanation if the captive customers paying unavoidable electric bills are suddenly required to pay billions more in costs each year.

While FERC and state regulators do have the authority to approve rule changes that increase payments to existing power plants, using good policy to reduce the cost of an expensive change would be the responsible choice. Unfortunately, the debates are tilted against consumers.

How much money?

Estimates for increased payments to generators run in a range from $2.4 billion to $10.6 billion annually for payments under the proposed rule—but that does not include the pollution impacts. UCS offered FERC an initial estimate of costs due to increased CO2 emissions by calculating the CO2 emissions from existing coal-burning generators that appear to be eligible for the payments proposed by the DOE. UCS found over 50 GW of existing coal capacity that would potentially be eligible for the proposed subsidy and included only those that were located within energy markets of PJM, MISO,NYISO, or ISO-NE, and that are known to be presently subject to market competition.

Using their 2016 CO2 emissions, the coal plants potentially eligible for payments under the DOE Proposal create annual costs of about $9 billion from emitted CO2. Impacts from other pollutants will make this higher.

What’s wrong with the DOE proposal?

The proposed rule submitted by the DOE is worse than vague about benefits to reliability or “resilience.” The DOE proposal has not defined the need for a set of services, not defined the services, and not defined the performance improvements sought or expected from generators eligible for proposed payments. The DOE has not supported its proposal with evidence, nor is it supported by the body of science-backed reports that have been published in recent months, many of which were funded and directed by the DOE. The National Academy of Sciences described how to improve in electric system resilience, and the DOE ignored that, too.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission should not approve this proposed rule with this lack of evidence and detail regarding impacts on consumers and reliability.

Further, the DOE proposal fails to define resilience. This is sufficient reason for FERC to reject the proposal. Where “essential reliability services” have been defined, those capabilities can be provided by solar, wind, and storage. Demonstrations of solar generation capabilities to provide “essential reliability services” have recently been published by the California ISO, California Energy Commission, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and First Solar. Earlier documentation of wind generation capacity providing reliability and ancillary services has been made by NREL, and deployed commercially by Xcel operators in Colorado.

Is the DOE wrong in claiming reliability is being affected?

Yes. The retirement of power plants in the RTOs/ISOs has not diminished the reliability of the electric power system, and DOE has not supported its claim that retirements of uneconomic creates a reliability impact. Reliability is closely watched, with regular comprehensive reviews provided by NERC. The DOE proposal contradicts NERC and does so despite the fact that the NERC reliability assessment is cited in the DOE Staff report. NERC’s State of Reliability 2017 report states that the bulk power system is reliable today despite the recent plant retirements.

Resilience (and reliability) for the electric power system are desirable goals for the economy and the well-being of everyone—but without a definition and means to evaluate the contribution to serving such goals, a policy or expense cannot be justified. A better approach is to invest small, distributed resources for the grid, given that the vast majority of customer outages are due to disturbances on the transmission and distribution systems and not the shortage of fuel at large power plants.
UCS continues to actively engage in the FERC and regional debates over the DOE proposal. Stay tuned for updates.

Photo: Seth Anderson/CC BY-NC-SA (Flickr)

¿Qué es la energía eólica marina? Una visita a la primera granja de los EE.UU.

Viajar a Block Island para ver de cerca la primera granja eólica marina de los Estados Unidos me hizo recordar lo mucho que disfrutaba las salidas de campo organizadas por el colegio y luego la universidad. Desde las visitas de primaria a granjas con conejos, vacas y caballos, a las salidas mientras estudiaba ingeniería a procesos de automatización e industrias de ensamblaje de productos, siempre me fascinó presenciar en vivo lo que aprendía en las aulas de clase. Ahora que me especializo en temas de energía limpia, la visita a esta granja eólica marina no fue la excepción.

 ¿En qué consiste la energía eólica marina?

La energía eólica consiste en la generación de energía por medio del uso de turbinas que aprovechan la velocidad del viento. En el caso de la energía eólica marina, las turbinas de viento están ubicadas en plataformas instaladas en el mar.

Medidas de las turbinas eólicas marinas de Block Island. Crédito: Deepwater Wind, LLC

La granja eólica marina de Block Island cuenta con 5 turbinas de proporciones impresionantes. Las torres miden 360 pies (110m), equivalente a la altura de 20 jirafas ubicadas una sobre la otra. Cada aspa mide 240 pies (73m), casi igual al ancho de un avión Airbus A380 de un extremo a otro de sus alas.

En cuanto a las plataformas, para este proyecto se usaron jackets  los cuales están situados entre 75 y 90 pies (23 a 27m) bajo el nivel del mar; en el buceo recreativo la profundidad máxima autorizada oscila entre 20 y 40m. Las plataformas están aseguradas a su vez con pilotes que penetran 200 pies (60m) el fondo del mar.

La energía generada por esta granja eólica marina de 30 megavatios (MW) es suficiente para cubrir las necesidades de 17.000 hogares. Esta energía es transmitida a través de un cable submarino que conecta la granja con Block Island, y la isla a su vez se conecta con la red eléctrica continental del estado de Rhode Island a través de un segundo cable submarino.

¿Cuáles son los beneficios de esta tecnología?

Granja eólica marina de Block Island: energía limpia hecha realidad. Foto: P. García.

Son múltiples los beneficios del uso de la energía eólica marina.

Ambientales. Debido a su naturaleza, no produce emisiones contaminantes al utilizar el viento y no plantas diésel u otros combustibles fósiles para generar energía. En el caso de la granja eólica marina de Block Island, anualmente evitará la emisión de 40.000 toneladas de dióxido de carbono, equivalente a sacar de circulación 7.500 carros. Esta transición a energías renovables es de singular importancia para contrarrestar los peores efectos del cambio climático.

Económicos. El diseño, implementación y mantenimiento de proyectos eólicos marinos requiere de mano de obra, lo que se traduce en empleos, desarrollo industrial y por ende económico. Tan solo en Block Island para un proyecto de 30MW se han creado más de 300 empleos. Esto es un claro abrebocas de lo que viene para la región si tenemos presente las metas de desarrollo de energía eólica marina establecidas por estados como Massachusetts (1.600MW) y Nueva York (2.400MW).

Tecnológicos: La costa este de los Estados Unidos presenta un especial potencial para la eólica marina debido a la velocidad del viento y la poca profundidad del mar. Sumado a esto, la energía eólica marina provee un mayor rendimiento y eficacia en comparación con la eólica terrestre debido al tamaño de las turbinas, y a que hay menos obstáculos para el viento al no haber construcciones o alteraciones geográficas. Adicionalmente, la energía eólica marina es usualmente ubicada cerca a los lugares donde la energía es consumida, evitando así el uso de extensos sistemas de transmisión para poder transportar la energía a su destino final.

Sociales y ecológicos. La debida planeación, integración de la comunidad científica y consulta previa con comunidades y pescadores de la zona, garantizan la sana coexistencia de proyectos tecnológicos como la granja eólica marina de Block Island y el desarrollo de actividades productivas, la continuidad de la vida diaria de las comunidades y la conservación de especies marinas y de aves de la zona.

Presenciando como se construye el futuro. Foto: P. García.

Mi deseo para la energía eólica marina: ¡Buen viento y buena mar!

Sin duda, la energía es esencial para nuestra vida diaria. Visitar esta granja eólica marina ha sido una valiosa oportunidad para dimensionar las proporciones de esta tecnología, comprobar su increíble desempeño, y reafirmar que proyectos sostenibles como este son no solo viables, sino esenciales para nuestro desarrollo económico, social y ambiental. Dadas las innumerables oportunidades para su implementación en la costa este de los Estados Unidos y muchísimos más lugares del mundo, espero que la energía eólica marina tenga cada vez más: ¡Buen viento y buena mar!

Paula García Deepwater Wind, LLC Paula Garcia P. Garcia

Key Messages on US Offshore Wind, in 5 New Quotes

Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried/UCS

The annual offshore wind conference of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) last week felt even more energized (and energizing) than usual, now that we have offshore wind turbines actually spinning in US waters. Here are five takeaways in quotes from conference speakers that capture where we find ourselves at this moment in clean energy history.

1.      “Our energy challenges are economic development opportunities.”

This quote, from Kevin Law, the president and CEO of the Long Island Association (a chamber of commerce), really struck me as a beautiful when-life-gives-you-lemons-make-lemonade kind of approach to offshore wind.

As Mr. Law pointed out, Long Island, being an island, is surrounded by water. (No, really.) Their particular position on the Eastern seaboard means that frequent storms are an issue. Combine those with an aging power plant fleet and myriad impacts on power infrastructure from climate change, and you’ve got good reason for doing things differently.

Credit: J. Rogers

Offshore wind is totally up for that. For Mr. Law, this new-fangled approach to making electricity reliably and nearby suggests a real opportunity. Not just for what offshore wind could mean in terms of jobs and related economic development, but also for what it could contribute to keeping the lights on when more storms come.

2.     “It all comes back to signposting and visibility.”

If Mr. Law’s quote was a taste of what offshore wind can do for states and regions, the quote from Jonathan Cole of wind developer Iberdrola Renewables was a hint about how—how the offshore wind industry will most effectively get costs down and get projects online.

It comes down, in part, to letting developers and manufacturers know what we expect of them and where we want to head together: signposts, and visibility. As a 2016 study on offshore wind costs put it,

The key… is making a firm commitment to scale so the market can do its work. By providing market visibility—the State’s commitment to a pipeline of projects over a set period—the offshore wind industry in the U.S. can deliver energy costs on the kind of downward trajectory seen in Europe.

This was the argument we and many others made in pushing for strong offshore wind commitments in Massachusetts last year.

All up and down the East Coast (and beyond), we want industry players to see their way clear to investing in those states, in this country, in ways that help bring down the costs—by setting up shop here, in one form or another, and by relying less over time on materials brought in from other, established offshore wind markets, for example.

3.     “We’ve got a great message.”

This quote, from AWEA President Tom Kiernan, is right on—and, like the two previous ones, also about economic development. And more.

In so many ways, this is a technology that practically sells itself. Or would, if people had all the facts about it—the jobs potential, the manufacturing options, the energy potential, the proximity to where so many of us need the power, the compatibility with fishing and other uses of our country’s Outer Continental Shelf—and if costs keep dropping so impressively. It is a great message.

AWEA Offshore Wind 2017

4.     “We think this is a race we can win.”

The conference was held in New York City, and the keynote speaker was NY Lt. Governor Karen Hochul. And the lt. governor threw down the gauntlet, in no uncertain terms.

The race she was talking about wasn’t the contest between us and the increasing effects of climate change. It was about the race to become the center of America’s offshore wind activity, or even the world’s.

Lt. Gov. Hochul laid out three reasons why New York will serve as the “preeminent global hub” for offshore wind in this country. According to her: wind is not a political issue in New York (it enjoys bipartisan support), the Empire State embraces innovation, and the state is laying down the building blocks (“smoothing the road for you”), with the forthcoming New York Offshore Wind Master Plan that they previewed at the conference.

Credit: J. Rogers

Good arguments, all. But Massachusetts isn’t yielding. At the same conference the Bay State unveiled a new study of ports and infrastructure—in particular, waterfront properties “that could be acquired and potentially improved through private investment to become suitable facilities for a number of offshore wind activities.” And don’t think they’re thinking about those facilities serving only Massachusetts markets…

Maryland isn’t ceding ground, either, or Rhode Island—first-to-offshore-wind Rhode Island—or New Jersey (once they have a new governor), or…

While some cooperation will be useful to make sure that activities in different states complement each other to the extent possible, that competition can be a powerful motivator.

5.     “There is a transition… ongoing and we all should be part of it.”

This quote is from Michael Olsen of Statoil Wind US, the company developing the newly named “Empire Wind” farm off NYC and Long Island, and it sums it up. Offshore wind is happening, with more than 14,000 megawatts of offshore wind outside the US, in 13 countries and two continents. The 30 megawatts installed last year off Rhode Island was part of an 18% increase in wind farm capacity globally in 2016. And there’s lots more on the way.

For American jobs, for American energy, for American security, for our environment… we should indeed be part of it.

Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried/UCS

Memo to EPA Chief Pruitt: End Subsidies for Fossil Fuels, Not Renewables

Economically and environmentally, it would be far better for the future of the planet to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and provide more incentives for clean energy. Photo: Union of Concerned Scientists

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt recently proposed eliminating federal tax credits for wind and solar power, arguing that they should “stand on their own and compete against coal and natural gas and other sources” as opposed to “being propped up by tax incentives and other types of credits….”

Stand on their own? Pruitt surely must be aware that fossil fuels have been feasting at the government trough for at least 100 years. Renewables, by comparison, have received support only since the mid-1990s and, until recently, have had to subsist on scraps.

Perhaps a review of the facts can set administrator Pruitt straight. There’s a strong case to be made that Congress should terminate subsidies for fossil fuels and extend them for renewables, not the other way around.

A century (or two) of subsidies

To promote domestic energy production, the federal government has been serving the oil and gas industry a smorgasbord of subsidies since the early days of the 20th century. Companies can deduct the cost of drilling wells, for example, as well as the cost of exploring for and developing oil shale deposits. They even get a domestic manufacturing deduction, which is intended to keep US industries from moving abroad, even though—by the very nature of their business—they can’t move overseas.

All told, from 1918 through 2009, the industry’s tax breaks and other subsidies amounted to an average of $4.86 billion annually (in 2010 dollars), according to a 2011 study by DBL Investors, a venture capital firm. Accounting for inflation, that would be $5.53 billion a year today.

The DBL study didn’t include coal due to the lack of data for subsidies going back to the early 1800s, but the federal government has lavished considerably more on the coal industry than on renewables. In 2008 alone, coal received between $3.2 billion and $5.4 billion in subsidies, according to a 2011 Harvard Medical School study in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Meanwhile, wind and other renewable energy technologies, DBL found, averaged only $370 million a year in subsidies between 1994 and 2009, the equivalent of $421 million a year today. The 2009 economic stimulus package did provide $21 billion for renewables, but that support barely began to level the playing field that has tilted in favor of oil and gas for 100 years and coal for more than 200.

A 2009 study by the Environmental Law Institute looked at US energy subsidies since the turn of this century. It found that between 2002 and 2008, the federal government gave fossil fuels six times more than what it gave solar, wind, and other renewables. Coal, natural gas, and oil benefited from $72.5 billion in subsidies (in 2007 dollars) over that seven-year period, while “traditional” renewable energy sources—mainly wind and solar—received only $12.2 billion. A pie chart from the report shows that 71 percent of federal subsidies went to coal, natural gas and oil, 17 percent—$16.8 billion—went to corn ethanol, and the remaining 12 percent went to traditional renewables.

A new study by Oil Change International brings us up-to-date. Published earlier this month, it found that federal subsidies in 2015 and 2016 averaged $10.9 billion a year for the oil and gas industry and $3.8 billion for the coal industry. By contrast, the wind industry’s so-called production tax credit, renewed by Congress in December 2015, amounted to $3.3 billion last year, according to a Congress Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) estimate.

Unlike the fossil fuel industry’s permanent subsidies, Congress has allowed the wind tax credit to expire six times in the last 20 years, and it is now set to decline incrementally until ending in 2020. Similarly, Congress fixed the solar industry’s investment tax credit at 30 percent of a project’s cost through 2019, but reduced it to 10 percent for commercial projects and zeroed it out for residences by the end of 2021. The JCT estimates that the solar credit amounted to a $2.4-billion tax break last year. Totaling it up, fossil fuels—at $14.7 billion—still received two-and-a-half times more in federal support than solar and wind in 2016.

The costs of pollution

Subsidy numbers tell only part of the story. Besides a century or two of support, the federal government has allowed fossil fuel companies and electric utilities to “externalize” their costs of production and foist them on the public.

Although coal now only generates 30 percent of US electricity, down from 50 percent in 2008, it is still responsible for two-thirds of the electric utility sector’s carbon emissions and is a leading source of toxic pollutants linked to cancer; cardiovascular, respiratory, and neurological diseases; and premature death. The 2011 Harvard Medical School study cited above estimated coal’s “life cycle” cost to the country—including its impact on miners, public health, the environment and the climate—at $345 billion a year.

In July 2016, the federal government finally began regulating the more than 1,400 coal ash ponds across the country containing billions of gallons of heavy metals and other byproducts from burning coal. Coal ash, which has been leaching and spilling into local groundwater, wetlands, creeks, and rivers, can cause cancer, heart, and lung disease, birth defects and neurological damage in humans, and can devastate bird, fish, and frog populations.

But that was last year. Since taking office, the Trump administration has been working overtime to bolster coal, which can no longer compete economically with natural gas or renewables. Earlier this year, it rescinded a rule that would have protected waterways from mining waste, and a few months ago it filed a repeal of another Obama-era measure that would have increased mineral royalties on federal lands. More recently, Energy Secretary Rick Perry asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to ensure that coal plants can recover all of their costs, whether those plants are needed or not.

Natural gas burns more cleanly than coal, but its drilling sites, processing plants, and pipelines leak methane, and its production technique—hydraulic fracturing—can contaminate water supplies and trigger earthquakes. Currently the fuel is responsible for nearly a third of the electric utility sector’s carbon emissions. Meanwhile, the US transportation sector—whose oil-powered engine exhaust exacerbates asthma and likely causes other respiratory problems and heart disease—is now the nation’s largest carbon polluter, edging out the electric utility sector last year for the first time since the late 1970s.

Like the coal industry, the oil and gas industry has friends in high places. Thanks to friendly lawmakers and administrations, natural gas developers are exempt from key provisions of seven major environmental laws that protect air and water from toxic chemicals. Permitting them to flout these critical safeguards forces taxpayers to shoulder the cost of monitoring, remediation, and cleanup—if they happen at all.

The benefits of clean energy

Unlike fossil fuels, wind and solar energy do not emit toxic pollutants or greenhouse gases. They also are not subject to price volatility: wind gusts and solar rays are free, so more renewables would help stabilize energy prices. And they are becoming less expensive, more productive, and more reliable every year. According to a recent Department of Energy (DOE) report, power from new wind farms last year cost a third of wind’s price in 2010 and was cheaper than electricity from natural gas plants.

Perhaps the biggest bonus of transitioning to a clean energy system, however, is the fact that the benefits of improved air quality and climate change mitigation far outweigh the cost of implementation, according to a January 2016 DOE study. Conducted by researchers at the DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the study assessed the impact of standards in 29 states and the District of Columbia that require utilities to increase their use of renewables by a certain percentage by a specific year. Called renewable electricity (or portfolio) standards, they range from California and New York’s ambitious goals of 50 percent by 2030 to Wisconsin’s modest target of 10 percent by 2015.

It turns out that it cost utilities nationwide approximately $1 billion a year between 2010 and 2013—generally the equivalent of less than 2 percent of average statewide retail electricity rates—to comply with the state standards. On the benefit side of the equation, however, standards-spawned renewable technologies in 2013 alone generated $7.4 billion in public health and other societal benefits by reducing carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter emissions. They also saved consumers as much as $1.2 billion by lowering wholesale electricity prices and as much as $3.7 billion by reducing natural gas prices, because more renewable energy on the grid cuts demand—and lowers the price—of natural gas and other power sources that have higher operating costs.

Take fossil fuels off the dole

If the initial rationale for subsidizing fossil fuels was to encourage their growth, that time has long since passed. The Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank, published a fact sheet in May 2016 identifying nine unnecessary oil and gas tax breaks that should be terminated. Repealing the subsidies, according to CAP, would save the US Treasury a minimum of $37.7 billion over the next 10 years.

An August 2016 report for the Council on Foreign Relations by Gilbert Metcalf, an economics professor at Tufts University, concluded that eliminating the three major federal tax incentives for oil and gas production would have a relatively small impact on production and consumption. The three provisions—deductions for “intangible” drilling costs, deductions for oil and gas deposit depletion, and deductions for domestic manufacturing—account for 90 percent of the cost of the subsidies. Ending these tax breaks, Metcalf says, would save the Treasury roughly $4 billion a year and would not appreciably raise oil and gas prices.

At the same time, the relatively new, burgeoning clean energy sector deserves federal support as it gains a foothold in the marketplace. Steve Clemmer, energy research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, made the case in testimony before a House subcommittee last March that Congress should preserve wind and solar tax incentives beyond 2020.

“Until we can transition to national policies that provide more stable, long-term support for clean, low-carbon energy,” he said, “Congress should extend federal tax credits by at least five more years to maintain the sustained orderly growth of the industry and provide more parity and predictability for renewables in the tax code.” Clemmer also recommended new tax credits for investments in low- and zero-carbon technologies and energy storage technologies.

Despite the steady barrage of through-the-looking-glass statements by Trump administration officials, scientific and economic facts still matter. Administrator Pruitt would do well to examine them. Congress should, too, when it considers its tax overhaul bill, which is now being drafted behind closed doors. If they did, perhaps they would recognize that—economically and environmentally—it would be far better for the future of the planet to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and provide more incentives for clean energy.

Up Close with America’s New Renewable Energy: Experiencing the Now-ness of Offshore Wind

Block Island Wind Farm. Photo: E. Spanger-Siegfried

On a recent clear day, colleagues and I hopped on a boat for a look at our nation’s energy future. From right up close, offshore wind turbines make quite an impression. The biggest impression, though? That the future of energy… is actually right now.

Seeing is believing

The boat tour gave us a chance to be out on the water in the vicinity of the turbines of Rhode Island’s Block Island Wind Farm, the first offshore wind facility in the Americas. And what first stood out in that trip was… well, the wind turbines.

Block Island Wind Farm: Seeing is believing. Photo: J. Rogers.

Sight. Yes, these things are no shrinking violets. The mechanical engineer in me is drawn inexorably to the stats that define that heft, facts about the size of each the five 6-megawatt turbines that make up the wind farm. About the lengths/heights—of the towers (360 feet up from the ocean’s surface), the foundation (90 feet down to the seabed, then 200 feet beyond), the blades (240 feet from hub to tip). About the weight—1500 tons for the foundation, 800 more for the tower, the nacelle (the box up top), and the blades.

The poet in me, if there were one, would wax lyrical (and poetical) about the visuals of the trip. I can at least say this: I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this beholder was quite taken with the towering figures just feet away as we motored by, and, as far as I could tell, my fellow travelers/beholders shared that sentiment.

The turbines don’t just look solid and mechanical and useful. They look like art—graceful, kinetic sculptures rising from the briny depths.

Beyond seeing, and seeing beyond

This tour wasn’t just about seeing, though. With a trip this exciting, you want to bring multiple senses to bear, and so we did.

Offshore wind power – Big, bold, beautiful, and ready for its close-up. Photo: E. Spanger-Siegfried.

Sound. Surprisingly, given the size of each installation, sound was not really a piece of the turbine-gazing experience. That is, I could maybe hear the blades turning, but only barely, over the noise of the ship’s engine and, particularly, over the sound from the very wind that was exciting those blade rotations.

Scent. The scent on the water was of the sea air, which I don’t normally get and which I’d welcome any day. When you get close enough to see the bolts and welds on the foundations and towers, though, these wind turbines smell like jobs.

The workmanship that went into these marvels is clear. Looking at each, you can easily imagine the workers, local, abroad, and in-between, that made this possible.

While many of the major components for this first-in-the-nation wind farm came from factories in established offshore wind farm markets, it was welders in Louisiana who gave birth to the foundation, using manufacturing skills wisely transferred from the offshore oil/gas industry. And the pieces all came together courtesy of ironworkers, electricians, and more in Rhode Island—some 300 local workers, says project developer Deepwater Wind.

Offshore wind admirers. Photo: J. Rogers.

Touch. Much as I would have enjoyed getting right on the turbines (and maybe even on top?), our passage by understandably left us a few tens of feet short of that. (Next time.)

But my fellow travelers and I were clearly touched by the experience of seeing such power right up close, could easily feel the transformative energy of each turbine.

Taste. That leaves one more sense. This trip wasn’t just about the taste of the salty air. It communicated the sense that what we got on the water on that recent fall day was just a taste of what’s to come. Maybe, then, we can couple that with a sixth sense: a sense of optimism.

Because it’s hard to stand there on the rising-falling deck, with the sun, the wind, and the sea spray, with those powerful sculptures so close by, and not get a sense that you’re witnessing a special something. A something that goes beyond five turbines, big as they are, and beyond 30 megawatts and the 17,000 homes that they can power. A sense that’s there much more beyond.

One of the local leaders from the electricians union (IBEW) captured this beyond idea well in talking about the project from the point of view of jobs, and the economic development potential of this technology:

Offshore wind: The future is present. Photo: J. Rogers.

“The real prize was not the five turbines… The real prize is what’s going to come.”

When it comes to offshore wind turbines, the what’s-to-come seems as big and powerful as each turbine multiplied many-fold. We seem poised for so much more, not just abroad, but right here at home.

A video of the Block Island project from proud project financier Citi can get you close to this particular project, and this cool 360 version of the turbines courtesy of the New York Times can get you even closer (just hold on tight!).

But for readers in this country, the fact that we’re poised for much more means that a chance to visit a wind farm in waters near you could be coming soon.

And if you do get there, use as many senses as you can. Offshore wind power is an experience worth getting close to, and opening up to.

The print version of Citi’s Block Island promotion includes the tagline “On a clear day you can see the future”. But getting up close to offshore wind turbines makes it clear that this particular energy technology is here and now. That it’s so ready for the big time. That yesterday’s energy future is today’s energy present.

So go ahead, on clear days, or cloudy, rain or shine: See, hear, smell, touch, and taste that energy-future-in-the-present. And celebrate.

In New Mexico, Facing the Question of What Comes After Coal

Photo: WildEarth Guardians/Creative Commons (Flickr)

Change is coming to New Mexico.

As recently as 2011, coal accounted for more than 70 percent of in-state electricity generation; now it’s under 60 percent, and falling fast. Coal simply cannot compete in the face of cleaner, cheaper resources coming online.

But with this change comes opportunity. New Mexico has a chance now, before its coal plants and coal mining operations have closed, and before jobs have been lost, to chart an intentional path toward a clean energy future that is considerate of both the benefits and challenges that such a transition will bring. By committing to an energy plan dominated by renewables, policymakers in the state can secure good jobs, significant capital investment, and a brighter, cleaner, and healthier world for all New Mexicans.

And as highlighted in our new analysis, Committing to Renewables in New Mexico: Boosting the State’s Economy, Generating Dividends for All, this can all be achieved while keeping costs for consumers affordable, and electricity service reliable.

Recognizing the imminent transition ahead

In New Mexico, it is no longer a question of whether the state’s coal plants will retire, but when. This past summer, the state’s largest utility, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), concluded that its most cost-effective portfolio of resources was the one that was entirely coal free. From a company that had been just a year prior staunchly defending its need to keep coal plants running, this announcement marked a stunning turn.

The question that follows, though, is what gets built to fill the gaps?

New Mexico has a nearly unparalleled array of renewable resource potential available to it, from strong and steady winds, to countless days of uninterrupted sun, to ready access to geothermal. These incredible resources mean that for the state, developing clean energy is particularly cost-competitive. And project developers have been flocking to New Mexico in response—right now, more than 1,800 MW of wind are under construction or in advanced stages of development.

The trouble is, a number of these clean energy projects and the ones that have preceded them have been built to serve out-of-state customers, not New Mexicans. Slowly the state’s utilities have been awakening to the cost-saving potential of investing in these resources themselves. But that interest is threatened to be overshadowed by some utility calls for a much larger buildout of natural gas.

Critically, our analysis shows that a growing dependence on natural gas would be short-sighted, and not in the best interest of consumers.

Studying the horizon, and finding all signs point to renewables

We set out to understand the different electricity pathways the state could take as coal plants retire and new resources are brought online to replace them. We found that no matter how you slice it, the least-cost future is one characterized by a high level of renewables. Indeed, with or without a strengthened renewable policy in place, our research found that renewables—and not natural gas—provided the best deal for consumers and the New Mexican economy.

So why the need for a policy, when the market suggests either way leads to green?

Because these market-based findings run counter to some utility plans in the state, which propose to keep building out natural gas over time. A policy commitment to a high-renewables future, on the other hand, makes sure that these clean energy opportunities are diligently considered and pursued.

And what incredible opportunities they are.

When we modeled steadily strengthening the state’s existing renewable portfolio standard (RPS) from its current target of 20 percent by 2020 to 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040, we found that the policy could ensure the achievement of widespread benefits for New Mexicans, including:

  • Photo: Ozturk/iStock.

    Significant capital investment, on the order of $6 billion between 2016 and 2030 and $7.2 billion between 2017 and 2040, funding the development of 2,200 megawatts (MW) of wind and 870 MW of solar by 2030, and total on-the-ground capacity reaching 3,650 MW of wind and 3,900 MW of solar in 2040.

  • Investments in wind and solar driving the creation of nearly 2,400 new direct, indirect, and induced jobs in construction, operations, maintenance and other related fields by 2030, as well as the annual potential for $9.5 million in land-lease payments by that time.
  • The affordability of electricity costs for consumers, with typical monthly electric bills for households in most years lower than they were in 2016.
  • Cleaner air leading to improved health—savings from the reduction in SO2 and NOx health effects alone could total approximately $305 million by 2030—and reduced water consumption on the order of 90 percent from coal plant retirements.

It’s clear that when the state commits to a clean energy future, the benefits and opportunities are significant, and long-lasting.

Good policy is needed to point the way

In New Mexico, when it comes to strengthening the state’s existing RPS, the goal is not to pick winners—it’s to ensure that winners will be picked. It’s also about defending against the alternative, where a growing dependence on natural gas risks saddling ratepayers long into the future with the costs of stranded assets, or infrastructure that would be abandoned before it had been paid off due to the country’s inevitable shift away from fossil fuels.

Last legislative session, SB 312 was introduced to strengthen the RPS, as modeled in this analysis. The effort ultimately stalled, but it’s expected to be revisited in future sessions. Policymakers would do well to take the time between to strongly consider how such a policy can leverage the investment benefits of regulatory certainty, and how that can help keep utilities pushing forward with clean energy progress.

Photo: Mr.TinDC/Creative Commons (Flickr).

At the same time, achieving a clean energy future in New Mexico requires more than any single policy can deliver. For example, the simultaneous strengthening of the state’s energy efficiency resource standard would bring down costs across the board.

An increased focus on demand-side solutions, such as broader implementation of time-varying electricity rates and targeted guidance to shift loads like through the electrification of hot water heaters, can similarly ease the integration of high levels of renewables.

So too can energy storage, as well as a proactive planning process to ensure that necessary transmission expansions are supported. Participation in broader energy markets can help balance loads, and save customers money. Finally, focused attention must be devoted to worker retraining, and developing viable and vibrant economic futures for communities currently dependent on coal.

Opportunity awaits. Policymakers have the chance to be proactive and actualize that positive potential now, and they should—not just for the benefit of New Mexicans today, but also for decades to come.

Pruitt Puts Coal Before Children

Photo: Rushlan Dashinsky/iStockphoto

In announcing his abandonment of the Clean Power Plan, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt boasted, “The war on coal is over.”

That means the war on children has begun.

The irony is particularly cruel because a draft copy of Pruitt’s repeal order says with a straight face that it complies with President Clinton’s 1994 environmental justice executive order protecting vulnerable populations.  The order says it is “unlikely to have disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority populations, low-income populations and/or indigenous peoples.” For further insult, the home page of EPA’s website has a banner at the bottom declaring that October is Children’s Health Month. “Children are often more likely at risk from environmental hazards,’ the banner read. “Find ways you can protect children from environmental risks.”

Pruitt is increasing the risks and making a mockery of the agency’s name in throwing out the CPP proposed by former President Obama to curb carbon emissions that harm both climate and health. Using Voodoo Economics 2.0, Pruitt claims repeal will save Americans $33 billion in needless industrial compliance.

The reality is that even without the CPP, which Pruitt helped hold up in the courts when he was attorney general of Oklahoma, renewable energy is a powerhouse that already dwarfs the supposed savings of CPP repeal. Its growth is being felt in red states, blue states, and purple states alike. Nationwide, the trade association Advanced Energy Economy estimates that the sectors of energy efficiency, solar and wind power add up to a $108 billion industry.

The $33 billion in total industrial savings boasted by Pruitt are obliterated by the annual benefits of up to $34 billion a year in better health from the cleaner air delivered by the CPP. The EPA projected 3,600 less premature deaths a year, along with 1,700 less heart attacks, 90,000 less asthma attacks and 300,000 less missed workdays and school days. An independent analysis two years ago by eight researchers, including scientists from Harvard, Syracuse and Boston universities published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found there would be about 3,500 fewer premature deaths with the cleaner air proposed by Obama. Their study concluded:

“Carbon standards to curb global climate change can also provide immediate local and regional health co-benefits.” The researchers found that in the scenario closest to the Clean Power Plan, most of the states with the highest health benefits are also those that burn the most coal to generate electricity. Some of those same researchers last year published a study on the financial benefits in the online science journal PLOS One. They found that the CPP would result in $38 billion in annual net health and social benefits. The study said, “The health co-benefits gained from air quality improvements associated with climate mitigation policies can be large, widespread, and occur nearly immediately once emissions reductions are realized.”

The health implications are so widespread it indeed constitutes an environmental justice issue. The Department of Health and Human Services says Latino children are 40 percent more likely to die from asthma attacks than white children. And among all racial groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African American children have the highest rate of asthma, one in six, and had the highest rise in asthma from 2001 to 2009, 50 percent.

The benefits are also economic for the parents of these children. For instance, Latino workers are particularly vulnerable to the hotter temperatures of climate change as, according to the Department of Labor, they constitute 42 percent of construction laborers up to 75 percent of farm field workers.

But make no mistake, Pruitt’s repeal has the potential to hurt everyone. In response to Pruitt’s repeal of the CPP, an editorial Tuesday in the Portland Press Herald, a leading newspaper in the very white state of Maine, said, “Maine children have some of the highest rates of asthma in the nation, partly as a result of our position downwind from the power plants in the Midwest and Great Lakes states, putting young lungs at the end of the nation’s tailpipe.”

Unfortunately, this is hardly the first decision Pruitt has made in his first half year running the EPA that puts children in harm’s way. He has reversed the ban on chlorpyrifos, a pesticide known to be associated with reduced brain function in children. He is reviewing or pledging to reverse other Obama-era rules designed to curb water pollution and toxic chemical spills.

In his press release Tuesday, Pruitt claimed he was “reinstating transparency into how we protect our environment.” All he actually did was clarify his role as a puppet of fossil fuel, at the utter expense of the health of the nation’s children. When the Obama administration proposed the Clean Power Plan, the health benefits to children were at its center.

The word “children” is not uttered once in Pruitt’s official announcement of repeal.

What’s the Real Story on the Future of Coal?

With everything going on in the world, and our current political environment here in the United States, doesn’t it feel like we’re all talking past each other these days? It feels particularly poignant to me as the brother, son, and grandson of West Virginia coal miners—and as a scientist working on clean energy policy, and I’m not alone. If you’ve been following news around energy and climate change, or last year’s presidential election, you’ve probably heard a lot about coal and coal miners. Here I’ll try to cut through some of the rhetoric and offer some clear fact-based insights, drawing on a new analysis (and podcast) that the Union of Concerned Scientists just released called, A Dwindling Role for Coal: Tracking the Electricity Sector Transition and What It Means for the Nation. It’s a national analysis of the economic viability of coal-fired power plants in the United States, along with a series of four community snapshots to illustrate a few aspects of how that complex transition (which simultaneously benefits people through improved public health and potentially threatens people’s livelihoods) has played out or may play out on the ground.

It’s all about economics

The analysis tracks the changes in the nation’s fleet of 1,256 coal-fired electric generating units from 2008 to 2016, and, building on previous UCS work, identifies which of the 706 currently operating units are more expensive to run than cleaner alternatives. We conclude that 57 GW of coal capacity are uneconomic compared to existing natural gas, on top of another 51 GW of coal capacity that are already slated for retirement or conversion to another fuel (mostly natural gas). All told, that amount of capacity (108 GW) represents 38 percent of the nation’s coal generating capacity that was operating at the end of 2016.

Read that again: more than one-third of the nation’s coal-fired electricity is either already slated to go offline or is more expensive to operate than existing natural gas plants.

What’s driving this fundamental shift in the electricity sector since 2008? In a word: economics. Market forces are the main driver—in the form of low natural gas prices, flattening electricity demand, and rapidly declining costs of renewable energy. All those environmental regulations you hear politicians talk about? They’re playing a minor role compared to market trends in the power sector. In fact, our determination of uneconomic coal units didn’t even consider the cost of installing missing pollution control equipment.

Check out the interactive map below that shows the operating coal fleet in 2016 and what might happen to it in the future. The results are summarized in a short fact sheet, and our methodology and assumptions are detailed in a technical appendix.

Wait, how much?

More than a third of the coal fleet sounds like a lot, right? Looking at the slider map above, two things jump out at you: there are a lot of green dots (units that are uneconomic compared to existing natural gas) and many of those green dots are in the Southeast.

The first thing to know is that there’s no danger of the lights going out any time soon. The planned retirements will occur over a number of years, and the people whose job it is to think about this stuff don’t foresee any issues with reliable electricity at least through 2021, even in light of these planned retirements. And secondly, for those units that we find to be uneconomic, decisions about their ultimate fate will be made by states and utilities—hopefully in consultation with affected communities and workers—and any decisions to close down plants would occur over years and be done in such a way as to avoid blackouts. How do we know that? Because 452 coal generating units—totaling almost 60 GW—closed from 2008 to 2016 without any risk to reliability.

So, what are the cleaner, cheaper options to replace coal?

Coal is one of the most polluting ways to generate electricity, so a shift away from coal is a tremendous benefit to public health. What comes online to replace the lost coal generation really matters for our health and our climate.

Given the widespread availability of cheap natural gas, it’s no surprise that we found the highest number of coal units to be uneconomic compared to existing natural gas facilities. But even though it produces much less air pollution and somewhat lower global warming emissions than coal, natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and a complete shift from coal to natural gas would make it nearly impossible to meet our long-term carbon emissions reduction goals to address the very real threat of climate change (to say nothing of the very real impacts happening today with very real implications for people). That’s why at UCS we have frequently raised concerns about a risk of an overreliance on natural gas for electricity.

Our analysis therefore also identifies which coal units are uneconomic compared to new wind and solar facilities (see Figure A3 from the technical appendix). As the cost of these renewable resources continues its dramatic decline, we can expect many more coal units to face increasing competition from renewables. Our colleagues at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy took a look at our numbers and found that there is a compelling case to be made for renewables to replace some uneconomic coal plants in the Southeast.

What about the impacts on people living near and downwind from these coal plants?

As part of our national analysis, we gathered information on the population and demographics of people living within a three-mile radius of each coal-fired generating unit that we identified as operating in 2008.  What we found was striking: this transition away from coal has led to a dramatic reduction in the total number of people living near an operating coal plant. Between 2008 and 2016, the number of people living within three miles of an operating coal plant fell from about 8.5 million to about 3.3 million. That number could fall further to around 1.5 million if all the uneconomic units we identified plus the units that are already slated for retirement or conversion also stop burning coal.

It’s important to emphasize that this transition away from coal dramatically improves public health and well-being. The people living closest to coal plants experience the most harmful effects from pollution—and they are often minority and low-income communities. Our snapshot from Chicago highlights how one community fought back and won—but continues to fight for environmental justice.

We have made available a downloadable spreadsheet containing plant-level data, the results of our economic stress test, and information on the number of low-income and minority residents living nearby each plant. This demographic screening can help guide community engagement and identify analysis needs that can help with transition planning.

The benefits of reducing pollution from coal extend well beyond that three-mile radius. We calculated that the reduction in air pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide from the coal units studied here has already led to $250 billion (yes, with a “b”) in national public health benefits from reduced air pollution and global warming impacts from 2008 to 2016. As a result, millions of Americans are now breathing cleaner air and hundreds of thousands fewer are dying or becoming sick from coal-related ailments.

Finally, the negative impacts of coal often continue even after the plant shuts down—and this legacy must be considered in planning for a plant closure. Our snapshot from North Carolina illustrates one community’s struggle with coal ash—from a plant that’s still operating.

What about the people working at those coal plants?

This analysis did not look at the jobs implications of plant closures, for a simple reason—there’s no national database of the number of people working at individual coal plants. But if you’re one of those utility workers, you certainly don’t see this as good news. And these large facilities are also large sources of local tax revenue, meaning that while a community might be suffering from health impacts due to air pollution, it may simultaneously rely on that plant for jobs and money for schools and services.

My point is, the transition is complex—and collectively we must solve all aspects of it, not just reducing carbon emissions and air pollution, but also finding new jobs and opportunities for affected workers and investing in economic development in struggling communities.

The voices of local leaders from the communities highlighted in our community snapshots illustrate different aspects of what transition means—and offer insights into what can be done to help ensure that the shift away from coal is well-planned and more equitable, taking into account local needs and concerns. One positive story can be found in our snapshot from Lansing, which transformed a former coal plant into a LEED-certified office building.

Finally, although our analysis focuses on coal-fired power plants, the implication of the transition away from coal in the electricity sector is lower coal production, meaning that mining communities are also impacted by the transition. But alternative energy jobs have reached coal country, and our snapshot from West Virginia highlights an innovative solution to creating new jobs.

Where’s the political leadership?

Despite the economic writing on the wall, and the urgent need to limit global warming emissions and other harmful pollutants, the Trump administration continues to roll back as many environmental regulations as it can get its hands on. Its campaign promise to bring back coal jobs rings hollow and is ultimately a cynical strategy to protect the profits of coal companies rather than protect the interests of coal workers. But the economic reality is that, even without modern pollution controls, many coal units are simply more expensive to run than the alternatives, with market forces decidedly driving the electricity sector away from coal.

Yet the assault on those environmental protections continues. Today EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will announce a revised proposal for the Clean Power Plan—our nation’s first-ever limits on global warming emissions—in an effort to roll back progress despite widespread public support nationally.

Coming from a coal mining family, I fear that folks back home are buying into a false promise. If the administration were serious about helping coal mining communities, it would be championing federal programs that invest in those communities, instead of proposing to eliminate them altogether. It would be looking at innovative ways to spur economic development and diversify local economies that are dependent on coal.

Instead, in perhaps the administration’s most egregious idea yet, Energy Secretary Perry proposed new rules to bail out economically struggling coal and nuclear power plants that would leave electricity ratepayers on the hook to subsidize those costs, to the tune of billions dollars annually.

It starts with truth telling

We need to be honest about the complexity of transitioning away from coal and we must demand thoughtful solutions, not cheap political rhetoric. There are no easy answers. We must create policies to ensure a just transition away from coal, both to reduce the heavy toll on the health of those who live downwind from coal-fired power plants and to address the climate crisis. And we must build on the significant economic opportunities of renewable energy and work to ensure these lead to family-sustaining jobs, especially in the places where coal jobs are being lost.

For me, the biggest takeaway of this research is the need for policymakers and utility planners to engage early with affected stakeholders: coal-dependent communities, affected coal plant workers, coal miners, and low-income and minority residents living near coal plants who have long suffered a disproportionate burden of health impacts from pollution. With adequate time and resources, plans can be developed to remediate and redevelop former sites, to address lost tax revenues, and to help diversify local economies and create new well-paying jobs. It won’t be easy, but it’s what’s necessary.

We call on Congress and the administration to grapple with these complex issues and put forth real solutions. Let’s get to work.

New Economic Opportunities in the Heart of Coal Country

Photo: Coalfield Development Corporation

America is awakening to the reality that our country’s energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables—while cutting pollution and creating new jobs in many places—is painful for Appalachian families.

For generations, our communities have depended on coal-mining jobs and the businesses supported by the coal industry. Nationally, coal-mining employment fell from just over 91,000 in 2011 to under 66,000 in 2015, with West Virginia and Kentucky among the largest declines. This transition won’t be a just and fair one until our communities are made whole.

But in this challenging time there is real opportunity, if we have the courage to seize it. This can be the moment when we finally start not just talking about our potential as a region, but actually realizing it.

Our story

I founded Coalfield with much love from West Virginians for West Virginians. I was born and raised in the state. While I was fortunate to have a solid, middle-class upbringing, I was always aware of the pain going on around me. In college, I became a committed member of a Presbyterian Church, which fostered in me a deep commitment to social justice. We learned from and were inspired by people making a way forward in tough places all over the world: migrant workers in apple orchards, communities of color, low-income communities, and native people on reservations. I even had the chance to travel to Botswana and Nepal on behalf of the church.

But everywhere I went, I had the nagging sense that these were amazing places and amazing people, but they weren’t my place. I felt I could have a big impact back home, where the need was great and growing greater. So in 2011, joined by my best friend from high school, I decided to try and do things differently for our state to show that we could be more than just one industry and just one trade.

Since then, I’ve had the honor of seeing a former mine-industry worker go from being homeless, to joining our construction work-crew, to becoming a homeowner. I’ve seen people walk across the stage and become the first in their family to earn a college degree. We’ve installed the first solar systems many of our small towns have seen. We employ former strip miners who now reclaim and rejuvenate the soil through our agriculture work on former mountaintop-removal sites.

At Coalfield Development, we support a family of social enterprises that work in community-based real-estate, green-collar construction, mine-land reclamation, artisan trades, sustainable agriculture, and solar installation. These are real business enterprises that have real economic potential in central Appalachia. These are enterprises that are beginning to diversify the local economy in a tangible way.

Each enterprise has sustainable revenue models, including earned revenue (contracts, sales, service fees, etc.) and, thus, long-term sustainability. They are unified by an innovative model for workforce development and training that we at Coalfield developed.

We recognized that job training programs are insufficient—people need jobs to support themselves and their families. Our model puts people to work while developing new skills.  Under the 33-6-3 model, each of the enterprises hires unemployed people to work the following weekly schedule: 33 hours a week are spent doing paid labor for these enterprises on projects which tangibly improve the community; 6 hours a week are devoted to core community college classes for an Applied Science degree; and 3 hours are committed to life skills coaching, such as parenting, financial management, time management, physical health, teamwork, communication, and goal setting. Some of the 33 hours of manual labor even count as on-the-job credits applied towards the academic degree (according to curriculum agreements in place with the community colleges).

So yes, we are feeling great pain in the face of the coal industry’s decline, but we’re not just dying towns. We are also hard at work ensuring that great things, very creative endeavors, are afoot. We’re persistent problem-solving communities, who love our home and are steadfastly committed to it.

National attention

An exciting policy development in 2015 was the creation of the POWER Initiative (Partnerships and Opportunities in Workforce and Economic Revitalization), a federal initiative to support community efforts to diversify our local economy. This provided the Appalachian Regional Commission with its largest budget since the 1970’s, which led to major support for innovative efforts like ours.

This is an appropriate role for the government to play: funding research and development for early stage, pre-market business concepts that lead to real economic growth in communities that need it.

As we work to adapt, to diversify our economy, and to shape a better future, we need the country to believe in and support us. The country should not blame us for climate change—miners only ever mined coal because there was demand for it. Anyone who has turned on a light switch is just as much to blame for climate change as a coal miner, if not more so.

What’s needed now is local solutions driven by local people. And then we need national and global investments to support our strategies. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is doing just that. Incredibly, he announced $3 million in grant funding to support coal communities in conjunction with the premiere of the National Geographic documentary From the Ashes, which tells our story along with the stories of many other coal-impacted communities. We’re honored to be a grantee, and we hope others around the world will follow suit by investing in our region. One way to do this is by checking out our Crowdrise campaign page to donate.

What you can do

We really do need the donations, and we’ll steward them well. But even better would be if folks from around the country will do business with us. Buy furniture from our Saw’s Edge Woodshop or produce from Refresh Appalachia. Contract with Rewire Appalachia and Solar Holler, LLC to install a solar system on your roof, or with Revitalize Appalachia to renovate your property.

Even better yet: move here, start a company, and put our smart, talented, loyal miners back to work.

Brandon Dennison is the founder and CEO of Coalfield Development Corporation, a family of social enterprises working throughout coal country to help build a new economy in the wake of the coal industry’s rapid decline.

Photo: Coalfield Development Corporation

This Is What It’s Like to Live Near a Coal Plant in North Carolina

Photo: Sanjay Suchak (used with permission)

As one of the community snapshots highlighted in A Dwindling Role for Coal, I’m handing over my blog to my colleague J.C. Kibbey, Midwest outreach and policy advocate, who interviewed Linda Jamison, a local community activist from North Carolina. Linda gives us her own perspective of living near a coal-fired power plant—Duke Energy’s Roxboro Power Plant—and she highlights some of the community’s concerns about the safety of their water supply.

Some quick background information: when coal is burned, it produces ash—just like burning wood for a campfire—except that coal ash contains highly toxic metals and other pollutants. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed standards on the disposal of this industrial waste, known as Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR).

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

J.C. Kibbey: How long have you been in Semora?

Linda Jamison: I’ve been in Semora on and off since 1963.

JCK: The Roxboro Power Plant now has four coal-fired electricity generating units—all of which are identified in our analysis as uneconomic compared to natural gas. The total capacity of the plant is more than 2,400 MW. When did the first units begin operating?

LJ: 1966.

JCK: So you lived there before the coal plant? What changed in Semora after it was built?

LJ: First there was lots of heavy truck traffic and a lot of dust; we had a dirt road at first, and [when the plant was built] they paved it.

The plant let off steam with ash in it that would get all over your house, your garden, your farm. Before, we would eat right out of the garden – we would pick fruit right off the tree. After the plant, we had to start washing everything off.

When it let off steam, it made so much noise it would wake you up when you were asleep and you didn’t know when it was going to happen. It would happen during the day, happen at night, happen early in the morning.

Semora was a majority black community—we had one Caucasian family, before the plant. Everybody farmed, everybody knew each other, everybody gardened. My mom gardened and canned and froze food. All we bought from the store was sugar and salt and pepper and we grew everything else, but that all had to stop when the plant was built.

There was a picnic area near the plant they used to rent out for picnics and parties and family reunions, until suddenly they closed it and never told us why. Not long after that, they put a notice about fishing in the water near the plant and put a limit on how many fish you could eat.

Early on, we didn’t know everything was contaminated. My father used to cut grass at the plant. In 1984 at Thanksgiving, he got a cold and went to the doctor. The doctor told him he had cancer. Forty-five days later he was dead.

When my father got sick, I spoke up because I always felt that the plant had something to do with the people that were getting strange diseases and the kids getting cancer. I thought the plant was a contributing factor. But it was hard to get people interested. People were not educated about the effects these plants could have. Some people didn’t want to make waves. Some people had jobs there.

We were led to believe there wasn’t anything harmful being released from that plant. People would have stopped using the water then, if they had known.

I moved away in 1979 for a job and eventually moved back in 2012.

JCK: What were things like when you came back?

LJ: When I came back, I began noticing changes with the water in my parents’ home. It smelled bad, you couldn’t drink it or anything. I just installed a filtration system in our house because of the smell, but no one said anything about the well water being contaminated.

After the Dan River spill in early 2014, people started asking more questions about coal ash and there was concern about what was happening to drinking water wells.

JCK: You’re referring to the spill of more than 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of ash pond water from Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station in February 2014. According to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, within two weeks the plume of waste had reached 70 miles downstream. The spill led to increased awareness of unlined coal ash sites, particularly the 14 sites in North Carolina owned by Duke Energy, like the one at Roxboro.

LJ: But it wasn’t until more than a year later that the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) made it to Roxboro and started testing a few of our wells and found that they were contaminated. They didn’t even test everyone’s wells. They said not to cook with the water or drink it. But I thought, the skin is the largest organ – what makes them think it won’t go through your skin?

JCK: What has it been like on a day-to-day basis in terms of living with contaminated water?

LJ: They started giving us bottled water to drink and cook with, but I’m so sick of bottled water I could scream. I’m disabled and I have to lift big cases of water just to cook a meal. I can’t even explain what you have to go through just to cook a meal. I’m by myself—I don’t know how families with kids do it. You have to deal with empty bottles—it’s just a mess.

The law [North Carolina House Bill 630, which became law on July 14, 2016] says that Duke Energy has to replace our wells with either public water systems or filtration systems. But I’m still paying for our last filtration system, and now they’re trying to offer me another one—but those systems don’t get rid of hexavalent chromium or some of the other metals they found in our wells. The standards they [NC DEQ] came up with this month for the filtration systems are basically nothing. They would allow a higher dose of hexavalent chromium in the water than what we have now.

JCK: How have you tried to address these problems? What has that process been like?

LJ: Our community, along with the Southern Environmental Law Center, Appalachian Voices, Clean Water for North Carolina, and the Sierra Club have all been working on this coal ash issue. Erin Brockovich has come to North Carolina and talked about this issue—it’s the same chemicals as in her famous case.

It’s not just our community that has been affected. Many communities in North Carolina where they have coal ash have had their wells and water contaminated. We are all fighting Duke Energy to give us public water and give us compensation for the lost value of our homes [because of the contaminated water].

We asked the County Commissioners to support hooking us up to the public water system, but one of the board members works for Duke Energy. The board has five members and voted 3-2 against it, with the Duke employee cast the deciding “no” vote. We have been struggling against Duke’s money and political power. The company also had ties to the previous governor, Pat McCrory. He worked for them for almost 30 years and he met frequently with representatives from Duke.

JCK: Yes, Governor McCrory’s ties to Duke Energy have certainly been a campaign issue.

LJ: Gov. McCrory’s administration pressured toxicologists and health officials to write misleading letters to the community about our water. Health officials sent a letter saying not to drink the water, and then the McCrory Administration tried to get them to send another letter saying that the water was OK to drink—but nothing had changed with the water.

At least one public health official ultimately left over this issue: Megan Davies, an epidemiologist and section chief in the state Division of Public Health resigned; and Kenneth Rudo, a toxicologist who had served nearly 30 years with the Department of Heath and Human Services, retired.

Duke has big money and we don’t, but we’re still fighting and we’re not going to give up. We’ve had press conferences, we’ve had news reports—I’ve personally done several news reports. I feel better about the fact that my whole community has come together and other organizations are fighting with us. I feel better knowing that we are not alone and that there are other communities with water contamination and we are all fighting for the same thing.

Duke is claiming that there were no medical problems [because of the coal ash], even though their own statistics and reports show there is a risk of health issues. They are asking people to sign paperwork saying that they will not sue for medical problems—that if you agree to accept their $5,000 payment for a new water filtration system, that the paperwork stipulates that you will never file a medical lawsuit and no one in your family will either.  No one is taking that deal. If Duke believes their ash hasn’t affected our health, then they shouldn’t need a release of medical claims.

JCK: The plant is still operating. Are there air issues in addition to the water issues from the coal ash?

LJ: You still see ash on your windowsill. They still release the steam, ash and dust—not as much as they used to. They mostly release it at night now. Most people in this community don’t plant gardens or farm anymore. People talk about what’s in the air.

JCK: Has there been any talk about the plant closing? It appears that the North Carolina Utilities Commission has directed Duke to study retrofitting the Roxboro power plant.

LJ: They’re not closing it. They’re trying to change it to burn natural gas.

JCK: What has fighting these battles  been like for you personally?

LJ: Sometimes it feels like we’re doing something and other times it feels like it’s not working. You get your hopes up thinking the state will listen or the courts will rule in favor of our community, but then it doesn’t happen.

It’s just been constant let-downs by people in our government who are supposed to be fighting for us, supposed to be looking out for our health and well-being. They go wherever the money is.

Even when Duke was fined for this, the McCrory Administration stepped in. They said that a fine that was supposed to be just for one coal ash site counted for all the coal ash sites in the state. The Southern Environmental Law Center is suing DEQ and Duke over some of these issues.

JCK: Some of the damage has already been done, but going forward, what do you want to see happen? How should we address the problem long-term?

LJ: First, we want to be on a public water system and for Duke to foot the bill for it. Second, we want to protect our right to file medical claims.

Finally, we want Duke to clean up its coal ash. Some plants with coal ash sites are being required to remove it, and at others Duke is trying to “cap in place” [which means placing a cover over an unlined pit]. But we’re seeing now that they are not always using the right materials for that, and that the pools where the coal ash is stored aren’t lined like they are supposed to be.

But even as we are dealing with this, the state is shipping in coal ash from China, India, and Poland to make concrete rather than finding ways to get rid of the coal ash that’s already here. They’ll end up poisoning all of North Carolina.

JCK: Linda, thanks for sharing your story with us.

Photo: Sanjay Suchak (used with permission)

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