UCS Blog - Clean Energy (text only)

Here’s an Energy Savings Plan: Buy When Prices Are Lower

Shopping for a discount makes sense, right? Let’s see what we can save if we try this with electricity.

TOU rates can promote adoption of electric vehicles and strategic electrification. credit: M. Jacobs

The typical utility company offers the same price for electricity no matter what time of day, or even what season. This would make sense if the cost to provide electricity were the same at all times, but that is not how it works. Times of higher overall demand require more equipment, and higher fuel costs.

There’s lots to like about a rate for customers that allows some savings based on the time of the day. This can help in the current debate about changes in the energy supply and what energy supplies should be added. A time-varying, or time-of-use rate (TOU for short) for consumers can improve the picture.

On top of that, a report this week by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy finds that TOU rates are a better choice than a fixed charge or a demand charge for continued engagement and support of residential energy savings efforts.

Prices and markets help decisions

Using prices to signal to the consumer and the market is a widely-recognized tool for market forces to guide investment. A utility regulator can better judge a new utility company expense, such as a proposed power plant or gas pipeline, if the costs to meet peak demand are not hidden in a single average price for energy.

When planning for new supplies, the utility companies now have more ways to communicate the costs and consumers have more ways to manage their use. The benefits of TOU rates should be measured in these decisions in terms of both the energy cost savings, and the savings for avoiding capital investment on more capacity.

Past investments help, too

TOU rates can allow energy consumption to be shifted to low-priced electricity. Credit: UCS and SEPA 51st State Initiative

The electric utility industry has made TOU rates possible through a 10-fold increase in the installations of “smart” meters in the United States. These digital meters measure electricity use at least hourly, and are expected to be serving 70 million households. Utilities have shown how these meters can help reduce the length of outages, and can be used to manage the voltage on each line so as to keep the whole system more efficient.

As so often happens with better information, evermore improvements can be found when you can get the data.

TOU rates provide prices on-peak and off-peak, which can promote savings in energy costs and capacity costs. By offering a discount on energy, innovations that use energy on a flexible schedule are more attractive. Utilities can use TOU rates to promote charging up more electric vehicles, or switching away from fossil and inefficient fuels, and making greater use of wind and solar. Knowing there are discounted prices at some times will lead to people and product manufacturers making changes in a few areas, and reaping big gains in return. (See a UCS white paper on this here.)

In fact, TOU rates aren’t just adding a cost allocated to paying capacity needs, but open the door for ideas that allow the time of energy use to be shifted. When these TOU rates are the normal practice, utility needs for new energy supplies will be lower. This makes sense for policymakers looking at rate designs, because reducing the hours of highest demand can lower everyone’s rates.

But just as important, the reduced demand for energy can be part of the integrated planning for all types of resources. Making the smart meter and the timing of energy uses part of the energy supply tool box can help solve society’s energy needs.

A technical note

Regulators considering the value of TOU rates should measure the benefit from shifting loads every day from higher-priced energy to lower-priced energy. Typical demand response practices are applied to very few hours, so there are minimal amounts of energy to be considered. TOU rates are in place on all days, and thus will lower energy consumption when electricity is produced by less-efficient generation.

People Still Care About Science: California Commits to Using Climate Science in Water Decisions

People still care about science even in today’s anti-truth, post-fact political maelstrom. And it’s not just scientists (who will soon be marching in the streets). It’s also the people entrusted with ensuring basic services, like clean drinking water. People like California’s State Water Board members, who passed a resolution this month to embed climate science into all of its existing work.

California represents the cutting-edge on many environmental issues so it often comes as a surprise to people that a significant part of my job is focused on incorporating existing climate science into California’s water policy. Water management is backwards-looking in many ways, using the past to plan the future – even when we know the past will be wrong.

That’s why the adoption of a climate resolution for water management is such a big deal. This resolution is the first commitment by a water-related state agency to use climate science in all permits, plans, policies, and decisions. It doesn’t just apply at the state level but also to the 9 regional boards that make more local decisions.

Federal rollbacks can be resisted by local resolutions

In the coming days, President Trump is expected to announce plans to dismantle the nation’s climate change policy framework, which was created in order to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. A forthcoming draft executive order gets rid of a requirement that federal agencies take climate change into account in environmental permitting.

California Department of Water Resources employee Bryan Wonderly, left, and members of the California Conservation Corps are unloading bucket loads of road base material along the walkway on the outer edge of the Oroville Dam spillway after it failed in early 2017. Photo: California DWR

This requirement has ensured that plans and infrastructure account for climate impacts – many of which we are already experiencing from more severe flooding, to more intense and destructive wildfires, to longer droughts. Without this requirement, projects are more likely to fail in the future, wasting money and potentially threatening lives. Failures like those documented in our blog series Planning Failures: The Costly Risks of Ignoring Climate Change, including:

Science can help make better decisions. That’s why the Union of Concerned Scientists was formed: to use science to help create a healthy planet and safer world. This recent climate resolution is just one example of what can be done at the state level to counter federal rollbacks that threaten science and safety.

Photo: Zack Cunningham / California Department of Water Resources

Why the Time is Right for Nevada to Raise its Renewable Portfolio Standard

It’s an exciting time for renewable energy advocates in Nevada. The state enjoys world-class renewable generation potential, and state residents are widely interested in clean energy development and jobs.

Unfortunately, the state’s clean energy progress has stalled, as loopholes in the state’s main policy driver, the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), have been exploited by a major utility.

Fortunately, there’s a proposed bill that could help. Assembly Bill (AB) 206 would increase Nevada’s RPS from 25% by 2025 to 50% by 2030 with a pathway to 80% by 2040. Passing AB 206 would place Nevada in the camp with other clean energy leaders like Hawaii, Vermont, California, Oregon and Maine, and send a strong signal to the clean energy and clean technology industries that Nevada is open for business.

A solar PV array in Gerlach, NV. Photo: BlackRockSolar

There are several reasons why the time is right for Nevada to take the next step on clean energy:

Nevada has one of the best solar resources in the country. This Department of Energy map showcases how strong the solar resource is in Nevada. Costs of solar generation have fallen by 78% since 2009 and there is no question that Nevada can and should take full advantage of this clean energy resource.

The state is over-reliant on natural gas. In 2015, Nevada relied upon natural gas to meet almost three quarters of its electricity needs. Relying on one type of generation is never a smart idea, especially gas, whose price is notoriously volatile. The degree to which Nevada relies on natural gas exposes utilities and its customers to price spikes, and adds significantly to carbon emissions and air pollution. Bringing a diverse supply of renewable energy technologies online will help reduce reliance on costly and polluting natural gas.

Reducing natural gas generation will help Nevadans most vulnerable to pollution from fossil fuels. Most of the gas-fired power plants in Nevada are located in low-income communities whose residents are disproportionately impacted from pollution from fossil fuels. Ramping up renewables will reduce the amount of natural gas and air pollution generated in the state.

Nevadans want more clean energy. According to the 2017 State of the Rockies poll (see question 30), 80 percent of Nevadans want to encourage the use of solar energy.

The grid can handle more renewables. Opponents of clean energy like to say that wind and solar generation depend on the weather, so they will make the grid unreliable. This is not true. Grid operators are constantly managing for fluctuations in both the supply of and demand for electricity. Large quantities of renewables on the grid make balancing supply and demand more challenging, but we have the tools to do it.

Making sure renewable installations are spread out, creating financial incentives to shift electricity demand towards times of the day when renewable generation is abundant, and investing in energy storage like the batteries Tesla is building in the Gigafactory near Sparks are all examples of these tools. I’ve written a lot about grid integration solutions for the California RPS and all of the same issues apply to Nevada; folks interested in learning more should check out this blog.

It’s truly time for Nevada to turn its world-class renewable energy resources into sources of clean energy generation that will benefit its economy and environment. I’ll be watching AB 206 closely and hope that the Legislature supports this effort, which will help Nevada realize it’s potential as a clean energy leader.

The Safety of Coal Miners—and Every Worker in America—Is at Risk

Three and counting.  That’s how many coal miners have been killed on this job so far in the first two and a half months of this year. Two in West Virginia and one in Kentucky. You don’t know them, but you can be sure that their families and friends are grieving and heartbroken. They were expecting them to come home after their shifts. 

Their deaths are just the most visible of the tragedies that befall our nation’s coal miners every year. In 2016, there were nine fatalities and 1,260 reportable cases of workplace injury in the US coal mining industry. We’re not talking scratches here, but serious injuries that require medical treatment, including injuries that result in loss of consciousness, lost time, temporary job reassignment, or wholesale transfer to another job.

And then there are work-related illnesses, which can be notoriously harder to track as many take years to develop. For coal miners, these include coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (Black Lung)—a devastating, irreversible, and often deadly lung disease—as well as chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases like bronchitis and emphysema.

An investigative report by National Public Radio recently revealed a major resurgence of black lung in Appalachia. This includes a cluster of 60 cases at a single eastern Kentucky radiology practice from January 2015–August 2016!

Sad and angry

These incidents sadden me greatly. As a former Acting Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and a former Chairperson of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH), I know that these and other workplace fatalities, injuries, and disease shouldn’t happen; they are largely preventable.

But I’m more than sad. I’m dumbfounded and angry. Last week, the Republican-controlled Kentucky legislature approved a measure that sets coal mine safety back decades, cutting back annual inspections from four to as few as one. And West Virginia is gearing up to seriously weaken mine safety standards and inspections in their state. You can read about it here, here, here, and here.

Meanwhile coal country legislators are trumpeting federal worker protections for coal miners—a supreme irony given that our president is proposing to cut the very federal department (Labor) that is responsible for federal inspection of our mines.

Coal mining is still a highly dangerous occupation. Lost in the debate over the use of coal and our needed transition to a renewable energy future is the continuing toll that coal mining takes on the workers that mine it. These workers are already facing the industry’s precarious economic future—and thus the welfare of their own families and communities. They shouldn’t have to fight for their own safety. Do we really think its’s right – and even smart – to bolster company profits at the expense of worker safety?

Coal mines today. Maybe your workplace tomorrow.

These rollbacks of public and worker protections should surprise no one—the states are clearly emboldened by the anti-regulatory, industry-first furor coming from the White House and Congress. They are also harbingers of how these sorts of actions could affect your workplace as well.

See for example, the President’s ill-conceived two-for-one Executive Order that planted this anti-regulatory flag as an almost first order of business. Or the imminent congressional effort to roll back the ability of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to cite employers for record keeping failures. (Record keeping may sound less consequential; it’s anything but.)

And be wary, very wary, of congressional attempts to undermine the role that science plays in policy making and public protections. Bills like the HONEST Act (Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act), the REINS Act (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny ), and the Regulatory Accountability Act may have high-sounding names, but they are designed to seriously erode the regulatory and science advisory processes that give us the safeguards we all count on. And when you hear about regulatory rollbacks or reforms, wonky as they may sound—take a moment to think about what would be lost. For coal miners, that may be their lives or limbs.

We have a voice. Let’s use it.

Let’s keep this top of mind: Our elected officials work for us—we the people. We need to let them know what we think and what we expect of them in terms of protecting and promoting our interests—not treating us as secondary to the interests of corporate and business leaders who generally have more resources and access to the halls of power.  And then we need to hold our elected officials accountable for what they do and what they don’t do.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is there to help keep you informed about attacks on science, engaged, and to provide tools and resources to help maximize your effectiveness. eWe’re all in this together.  Your voice matters.

Photo: Mgtmail/CC BY (Flickr)

Secretary of Defense James Mattis: The Lone Climate Change Soldier in this Administration’s Cabinet

Since the inauguration, we have witnessed President Trump filling his Cabinet with climate deniers and billionaires.  As each day passed, the reality of what we can expect from this administration has become all too clear.

Yesterday President Trump released his proposed “skinny budget” officially titled “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.”  Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, put a fine point on the implications of the skinny budget stating that it disregards science, placing communities at risk. Regarding the budget cuts at FEMA, NOAA, and NASA, he says that these cuts:

…will undermine our nation’s ability to forecast weather, prepare for and recover from disasters, and safeguard national security. These cuts will also limit our ability to monitor the impacts of ever-worsening global climate change. Such misguided changes will put the safety of Americans at risk, while costing taxpayers more in disaster assistance over the long haul.”

Indeed, all six mentions of climate change are related to cuts. In case the budget cuts to FEMA, NOAA, and NASA don’t speak for themselves, OMB budget chief, Mick Mulvaney said that President Trump sees spending on climate change programs as a ‘waste of your money’:

“As to climate change, I think the president was fairly straightforward: We’re not spending money on that anymore,” “We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that, so that is a specific tie to his campaign.”

OMB Director Mulvaney: “We consider spending on climate change to be a waste of money.” Photo by www.c-span.org 

The question is, how will President Trump’s Secretary of Defense James Mattis, arguably the lone climate change soldier within this Administration’s Cabinet, navigate his way between his deep understanding  of the impacts of climate change and the anti-science, climate change denying administration?

Earlier this week ProPublica’s Andrew Revkin published a story on Defense Secretary Mattis’ unpublished 58-page testimony, a document that answers the Senate Armed Services Committee questions raised during his confirmation hearing back in early January. In no uncertain terms, Secretary Mattis said that climate change is a national security challenge.  According to Revkin, five Democratic senators on the committee asked about climate change, including Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking member, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Here’s what Defense Secretary Mattis had to say on climate change in his unpublished testimony:

#1 Climate change is impacting where troops are operating today and is a national security challenge:

Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today,” and “It is appropriate for the Combatant Commands to incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning.” And “Climate change can be a driver of instability and the Department of Defense must pay attention to potential adverse impacts generated by this phenomenon.”

Yes, the Union of Concerned Scientists agrees with Defense Secretary Mattis, as do other U.S. military leaders who applauded Secretary Mattis’ “clear-eyed view on climate change and security”.

In UCS’s report The US Military on the Front Lines of Rising Seas we looked at the impacts of sea level rise and we found that the military is at risk of losing land where vital infrastructure, training and testing grounds, and housing for thousands of its personnel currently exist.

#2 Climate change requires whole of government response:

As I noted above, climate change is a challenge that requires a broader, whole-of government response. If confirmed, I will ensure that the Department of Defense plays its appropriate role within such a response by addressing national security aspects.”

Yes, the Union of Concerned Scientists agrees with Defense Secretary Mattis as do other U.S. military leaders.

In our report, Toward Climate Resilience:  A Framework and Principles for Science-Based Adaptation, we outline 15 principles organized around three themes: science, equity, and commonsense ambition. The principles are designed to be used by decision makers and practitioners from the local to the federal level and are recognition of the harm communities are facing due to human caused climate change; the damaging impacts are growing, and so is the need for ambitious action on both climate change mitigation and adaptation.

In September of 2016, a non-partisan group of 43 military and foreign policy experts (the Climate and Security Advisory Group), released a briefing book on how a new administration should address climate change. The expert group recommended that a new administration should:

comprehensively address the security risks of climate change at all levels of national security planning, elevate and integrate attention to these risks across the US government strengthen existing institutions and create new ones for addressing them.”

#3 The many effects of a changing climate require the military to be prepared

I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation. I will ensure that the department continues to be prepared to conduct operations today and in the future, and that we are prepared to address the effects of a changing climate on our threat assessments, resources, and readiness.”

Yes, the Union of Concerned Scientists agrees with Defense Secretary Mattis on the consequences of a changing climate such as maritime access to the Arctic, and that it is critical that DoD continues to address these. On our Arctic Climate Impact Assessment page, among other changes, we speak to how the Northern Sea Route navigation season is likely to increase from the current 20 to 30 days per year to almost 100 days per year by 2080.  And in this blog, Global Warming in the Arctic: A Sensitive Climate Gone Off the Rails, Erika Spanger-Siegfried notes that:

The degree to which current Arctic conditions are straying from the norm may prove to be the greatest change yet measured there—the latest signal from the Arctic that all is not well.”

For more on the impacts of a changing climate on the Arctic, see the Arctic Report Card and watch this video.

The DoD and retired Military understand the security issues of a changing Arctic as well. DoD’s Arctic Strategy outlines how the DoD will prepare for the changing conditions. Back in 2009, National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD)-66 established U.S. policy on the Arctic and documented both the national security and homeland security interests in the region.

The age of the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean at winter maximum in March 1985 (left) compared with March 2016 (right). The darker the blue, the younger the ice. The first age class on the scale (1, darkest blue) means “first-year ice,” which formed in the most recent winter. The oldest ice (7+, white) is ice that is more than seven years old. Historically, most of the ice pack was many years old. Today, only a fraction of that very old ice reamins. NOAA Climate.gov maps, based on NOAA/NASA data provided by Mark Tschudi.

Stanford University’s world renowned Hoover Institution has the Artic Security program dedicated to this very issue because “the changing Arctic is the most significant physical global event since the end of the last Ice Age.” For an in-depth overview of the national security issues see the Hoover Institution’s video of Admiral Gary Roughead.

Regarding planning, the Department of Defense’s Environmental Research Programs, which includes the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) and the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP), released a report entitled Regional Sea Level Scenarios for Coastal Risk Management that provides a scenario planning tool for 1,774 military sites worldwide to plan for sea level rise.

DoD’s 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap provides actions and plans to increase its resilience to the impacts of climate change. DoD sharpened its efforts last year with Directive 4715.21 Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience, which assigns responsibilities to each of the branches.

Navigating the Anti-science Administration

Secretary of Defense Mattis’ unpublished testimony underscores that climate change is a national security issue, it requires a whole of government approach, and the DoD needs resources to adequately prepare for these changes. While it can be argued that President Trump has a wrecking ball that is aimed on climate, it can also be argued that the DoD has climate change mainstreamed into all it does (as do other agencies).  For instance, in my recent blog, I speak to how climate change is a backyard issue for Naval Station Norfolk.  But Naval Station Norfolk is just one of many installations that have climate mitigation and adaptation measures embedded in their operations.

So whether or not we see congressional attempts again to halt the Pentagon’s climate change work, my guess is that “Mad Dog Mattis” won’t back down on ensuring the readiness of the military in the face of climate change.

(For more background on what the implications of the skinny budget and what you can do, see this blog.)

CSPAN www.climate.gov

Budget Proposal Throws Coal Communities under the Bus

This morning the president released his “skinny” budget, an initial cut at the new administration’s priorities for government spending. This proposal will be nearly impossible to pass through Congress, but there are still many reasons to be alarmed about the proposed funding cuts (especially at NOAA, FEMA, and EPA).

One thing is absolutely clear from the proposals outlined in the skinny budget: despite many campaign promises to bring back coal jobs and support coal miners, the president doesn’t actually care about Coal Country.

What gives?

On the campaign trail, the president wooed coal miners, promising to get them back to work, and he remains wildly popular in Coal Country.

But here’s the thing about his new budget: throwing away decades of environmental safeguards isn’t going to bring back coal jobs. Instead of empty promises, the president should instead focus on increasing investments in programs that really benefit people and coal communities in the region. This budget proposal does exactly the opposite by eliminating critical funding, and taking those programs away will do real damage in coal communities.

The skinny on the skinny

How exactly would the proposal hurt coal communities? Just to name a few:

  • Appalachian Regional Commission: The budget proposal would eliminate entirely the Appalachian Regional Commission, an independent agency created decades ago “to address the persistent poverty and growing economic despair” in the Appalachian region. In just the last year and a half, from October 2015 through January 2017, ARC supported 662 projects with $175.5 million invested in Appalachian communities—matched by $257.4 million and attracting an additional $443.3 million in leveraged private investments. And the agency is meeting and exceeding its performance goals. For FY 15, ARC created or retained 23,032 jobs—surpassing its goal of 20,000 (see p.53 in this report).
  • Economic Development Administration: The Economic Development Administration within the Department of Commerce is also slated to be eliminated entirely. EDA is the only federal agency focused exclusively on economic development, and is designed to build sustainable job growth and robust and competitive regional economies. EDA’s budget has hovered near $250 million per year over the last few years and has funded projects in every state, offering grants, technical assistance, trade adjustment support, and even support for research on strategic planning for cash-strapped communities lacking the capacity for economic planning. EDA was also the lead agency in the Obama administration’s POWER Initiative, which specifically sought to drive investments in communities hurt by changes in the coal economy.
  • Department of Agriculture: The budget also proposes a $95 million cut to the Rural Business and Cooperative Service at USDA.
  • Department of the Treasury: The administration proposes the elimination the Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) Fund, claiming it “was created more than 20 years ago to jump-start a now mature industry where private institutions have ready access to the capital needed to extend credit and provide financial services to underserved communities.” Some of those “underserved communities” are located in Coal Country, and many remain in dire need of support and investment.

Hal Rogers, the Republican Congressman who has represented the coalfields of eastern Kentucky since 1981, released the following statement:

“While we have a responsibility to reduce our federal deficit, I am disappointed that many of the reductions and eliminations proposed in the President’s skinny budget are draconian, careless and counterproductive. In particular, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) has a long-standing history of bipartisan support in Congress because of its proven ability to help reduce poverty rates and extend basic necessities to communities across the Appalachian region. Today, nearly everyone in the region has access to clean water and sewer, the workforce is diversifying, educational opportunities are improving and rural technology is finally advancing to 21st Century standards. But there is more work to be done in these communities, and I will continue to advocate for sufficient funding for ARC and similar programs, like the Economic Development Administration.

And there’s more…

I’ve only scratched the surface. This proposal is only the opening gambit in what promises to be an interesting budget cycle, to say the least. In my mind, the question is: who will speak up to ensure that those workers—who helped keep the lights on for generations—and their communities get the support they need?

Meanwhile, on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress can’t seem to agree on addressing the imminent crisis of the miners’ health insurance and pension funds, and for some mystifying reason, no Republican Senator has stepped forward to cosponsor the RECLAIM Act—a commonsense solution using existing funds to clean up abandoned mine lands and create opportunities for long-term economic development.

And then there’s this little gem—the West Virginia Senate is considering eliminating mine safety enforcement altogether.

Given the rhetoric around all these issues, and the fact that the administration’s budget process is being driven by folks from the anti-government Heritage Foundation, these proposed cuts are not surprising. But they would be devastating to working families in Coal Country—and they must be stopped.

President Trump Has a Wrecking Ball (and it’s Aimed at the Climate)

The wrecking ball that is the Trump presidency is taking aim at the foundation of our country’s response to climate change. Today, the Trump Administration is announcing a re-opening of the fuel efficiency/emissions standards for cars, which can only mean one thing—weakening or repealing them. And it is expected that he will soon issue a directive to EPA to repeal the Clean Power Plan, and may also order EPA to rescind a waiver that it granted to California to set its own vehicle standards.

If the Trump administration succeeds in rolling back all three, the effect will be to increase by billions of tons the emission of global warming gases and other pollutants that endanger our health; burden our children with much higher costs of fighting climate change; cede the United States’ clean energy prominence to other countries, and make it much harder to meet the goals we set for ourselves as part of the 2015 international Paris Agreement on Climate.

We must fight this reprehensible rollback with everything we’ve got.

Global warming pollution and fuel economy standards

In 2012, the Obama Administration issued standards to cut global warming emissions and improve fuel economy for passenger cars. These standards are expected to increase the number of miles per gallon (mpg) for passenger vehicles from about 26 mpg on average today to approximately 36 mpg by 2025. (The figures are based on “real world” driving conditions, and differ from the EPA estimate of achieving approximately 54 mpg).

The first phase of these standards are in effect now, and are working. The second phase of these standards (from 2022-2025) are projected to save consumers approximately $1,500 per car (net savings), reduce oil use by over a billion barrels, and cut carbon pollution by over 500 million metric tons.

The automobile manufacturers were key architects of these standards. But now some are trying to back out of their commitment, even though they are experiencing record sales and new technologies are coming on line that will help them meet these standards more quickly and inexpensively.

Doing the bidding of these car makers, Trump has directed EPA to “reopen” the standards that govern cars built in 2021-2025. While we can’t know for sure what the outcome of this re-opening will be, we have to prepare for the worst—that the intent is to severely weaken or even repeal the standards.

Note that this cannot be achieved with the stroke of a pen. In order for EPA to do this, it must provide notice, issue a draft regulation repealing the plan, take public comment on it, and issue a final regulation. That final regulation would likely be challenged in court, and the Trump administration will have to demonstrate that there is compelling new information that justified changing course. During the rulemaking process that will follow, we must make clear to the Trump administration that these standards are working, and that Americans want lower-polluting and more fuel efficient cars. And we must loudly register our displeasure with those automakers which received massive taxpayer assistance during the last recession, agreed to build more efficient cars in return, and are now reneging on their promise.

California waiver

When the Clean Air Act was passed in the 1970s, it gave the federal government exclusive authority to regulate tailpipe emissions from cars, but it included one exception: California retained the authority to issue its own, stricter standards, provided it received a “waiver” from the EPA. Since that time, California has received approximately 50 waivers from the EPA, which have helped the state dramatically improve air quality for its residents.

As part of the 2012 agreement on joint global warming pollution and fuel economy standards, the Obama Administration worked with California to set national standards sufficient to meet the state’s greenhouse gas emission reduction needs. This avoided separate state and federal standards for reducing global warming pollution from vehicles– a goal of the auto industry.

However, California also set its own standards for deploying electric vehicles and tailpipe emission standards for gasoline and diesel to combat CA’s poor air quality – something it has done several times to protect the health of its citizens. California was granted a waiver to implement all of these standards in January 2013

Reports indicate that Trump may soon direct the EPA to rescind this waiver. The reason for this is simple: it won’t satisfy car makers to relax the EPA’s fuel economy standards while still leaving California’s standards in place.

Over the past 50 years, no EPA Administrator has ever rescinded a waiver granted to California, and there is no provision in the Clean Air Act that allows it. This radical move is not only destructive, it is hypocritical. EPA Administrator Pruitt has called himself a protector of state’s rights and pledged to give states greater latitude to address their own needs. Yet now, in one of his first moves as administrator, he is working to take away California’s right to set its own standards.

Here again, a public process is required. Rescinding this waiver directly affects not only California, but also twelve other states (NY, PA, MA, ME, NJ, CT, DE, OR, WA, VT and DC) that have adopted California’s standards (which they are allowed to do once a waiver is granted). Many of these states are counting on these standards as a means to meet climate change goals and air quality targets required by their own state laws. California and these other states can be expected to challenge the waiver rescission in court, and will have a strong argument that it is arbitrary to rescind a waiver that was granted five years ago, merely because the federal government has decided to weaken its own standards.

Clean Power Plan

In 2015, EPA issued the first-ever limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants—which are among the largest sources of this heat trapping gas. The plan would cut CO2 emissions by approximately 32 percent off 2005 levels by 2030 by relying on proven and effective tools, such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, switching from coal to gas, and market-based emission trading. The Clean Power Plan will ensure that all states and utilities advance together towards a cleaner energy sector. It is particularly important to have this rule in place in 2021, when tax incentives for wind and solar energy expire.

Trump’s anticipated presidential directive is likely to call on EPA to repeal this regulation. As is the case with the vehicle standards, the repeal will have to go through a formal rulemaking process. The repeal may seem like a foregone conclusion, because candidate Trump pledged to do away with the plan and Scott Pruitt, the new EPA Administrator, previously sued EPA to block it.

But participating in the public process is extremely important nonetheless. Among other things, we should demand that, if Trump abolishes the Clean Power Plan, he replace it with an alternative that achieves the same level of emission reduction. If he does not, the next step will be the courtroom. It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that EPA has a mandatory duty to address carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act, so killing Obama’s plan without a viable replacement is not only irresponsible, it is illegal.

The stakes are high

Over the past eight years, the United States has become a clean energy leader. We’ve accomplished a massive expansion of wind energy in the great plains, solar in the southwest and southeast, breakthrough battery technologies making electric cars better (and soon less expensive) than their gasoline-fired counterparts, switched to LED lightbulbs, and implemented a wide array of building materials and techniques to cut energy use. With these powerful changes, our country has risen to the challenges posed by climate change while creating millions of jobs in the process.

Some of this progress will continue no matter what the Trump administration does. But Trump’s anticipated three-way rollback will slow this progress down, probably significantly.

To get a glimpse of how high the stakes are, the graph below depicts estimated energy sector CO2 emissions. We focus on the year 2030, when both the Clean Power Plan and the fuel economy standards would be in full effect.

The graph shows that repealing the Clean Power Plan and the fuel economy standards (nationwide and for California) will increase energy-related emissions in 2030 by 439 million metric tons, or approximately 9%.

Cumulative through 2030, the repeal will increase emissions by 2.5 billion metric tons. The graph also shows that without these two policies, energy related emissions will actually increase overall from current levels. Yet under the Paris Agreement that we signed in 2015, we pledged to decrease emissions on an ongoing basis, based on the overwhelming scientific consensus that we are running out of time to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. By taking off the table these emission reductions, the Trump administration makes meeting these goals much more difficult, and transfers to the next generation the burden of billions of tons of carbon-cutting from one generation to the next.

It is a travesty that the Trump administration seeks to undo the progress we’ve made, but it is not surprising. Candidate Trump called global warming a “hoax.” He picked Scott Pruitt to head EPA due to Pruitt’s legal expertise in obstructing EPA with litigation, and Mr. Pruitt has now gone on record saying that he does not believe carbon dioxide emissions are a primary cause of climate change. And he seems to think that virtually all government regulations are detrimental, blind to the positive economic and environmental changes they can achieve.

Any false hope that President Trump might moderate some of his more radical rhetoric once in office must now be laid aside. We can see the wrecking ball and the direction it is swinging. And we must stop it before it is too late.

Photo: Rhys A/CC BY (Flickr)

What’s the Skinny on President Trump’s Skinny Budget? All Bark, No Bite

It’s alarming to read headlines like: “EPA budget may be cut by 25% under Trump;” “DOE targeted for massive cuts in Trump draft budget;” “White House proposes steep cut to leading climate science agency;”and  “Trump wants 37% cut to State, USAID.” But if you find yourself getting swept up in the hysteria, just remember that the president doesn’t rule by fiat; he’s president, not emperor.

There is certainly reason for concern about the vulnerability of specific federal programs and line items to spending cuts. People who care about science and research, public health, innovation and clean energy, international diplomacy, extreme weather and climate change need to be vigilant in articulating the importance of these priorities to their congressional delegations.

But the reality is that our system of checks and balances, as well as good ole’ fashioned local politics, will make enacting the president’s budget nearly impossible.

Running the gauntlet of congress is hard

The president only controls one of the three co-equal branches of government. He doesn’t make law and he doesn’t hold the purse strings; that’s congress. And congress can’t pass a spending bill to fund the government without bipartisan support; 60 votes are needed and that means the Republicans need at least 8 votes from the other side of the aisle.

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Photo: Wikimedia

Reaching agreement on federal spending has always been challenging and congress is more divided now than ever. That’s why federal legislators have relied more and more in recent years on “continuing resolutions,” which keep the government going at the previous year’s spending levels.

More to the point, the kind of budget cuts the administration is proposing have the potential of uniting Democrats and Republicans in opposition, since they negatively impact both red and blue states indiscriminately. Fiscal conservatism, like talk, is cheap when it’s your own constituents threatened by proposed budget cuts.

Budget 101

How does the budget process work, in theory?

  • The president releases his annual budget request, which typically happens in early February, kicking off the budget process. Current budget law says that it should be submitted between the first Monday in January and the first Monday in February, although it’s not uncommon for this process to be delayed when a president is serving in his first year.
  • Congress then holds hearings on the budget, and the house and senate budget committees report out their own “non-binding” budget resolutions, which set the overall spending caps for the spending bills.
  • Congress passes the budget resolution, usually in April, and that kicks off the appropriations process.
  • The 12 Appropriations Subcommittees develop 12 separate annual bills that fund the government. Consideration of these bills begin in May and they are usually voted out of committee before the August recess.
  • Congress then has until September 30th (the end of the fiscal year) to pass the 12 appropriations bills. Differences between the senate and house bills must either be reconciled in conference, or one of those bills must pass both chambers, prior to reaching the president’s desk and being signed into law, or the government effectively shuts down.
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Photo: Wikiwand

Budget 102

This is 2017, though, and things are more likely to work like this:

Breaking from the tradition of a comprehensive budget request, President Trump is taking a piece-meal approach to the budget this year, the first piece of which is expected this week, focuses on defense and “discretionary spending.” We are likely to see a request for big increases in defense spending, paid for with steep cuts to other agency spending, like what we’ve been reading in the headlines. Additional pieces of his budget focused on “mandatory spending,” including big programs like Medicare and Social Security, are expected in April.

Congress doesn’t always pass a budget resolution, especially when one chamber is controlled by Republicans and the other is controlled by Democrats. But even with their own party currently in control of both the house and senate, the administration may have a hard time garnering the support of some Republican budget committee members, who have already publicly expressed opposition to draconian spending cuts at some agencies. If congress does pass a budget, it will likely contain very different spending levels from the president’s budget.

All indications are that the budget committees will move forward without the president, their only guidance being the fiscal year 2018 (fy18) sequestration caps in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which they will probably try to get rid of so they can increase military spending.

Appropriators in both chambers have indicated a desire to pass a spending package that avoids a government shutdown before April 28th, when the continuing resolution passed last year for fy17 expires.  But big differences between the house and senate make it just as likely that congress has to pass another continuing resolution to keep the government operating at level spending for the rest of fy17.

Appropriators will develop their fy18 bills and move them out of committee (in most cases along party lines), but controversial amendments, known as “riders,” and the 60 vote filibuster, all but assure that many of those 12 funding bills won’t pass the senate. Even in the Republican-controlled house where only a simple majority is needed to pass legislation, the “Freedom Caucus,” consisting of conservative Republican members who advocate for smaller government, has sometimes made it hard for Republican spending bills to move forward without receiving Democratic support.

Congress hasn’t made the September 30th deadline in over 20 years, so they’ll probably need to pass another continuing resolution to keep the government operating when the regular appropriations process again falls short.

And at some point, this will likely come down to a showdown where Republicans can’t pass a bill that is acceptable to both their right-wing base in the house and senate Democrats, who will hold tight in opposition to a budget that doesn’t reflect their interests.  Reaching agreement is going to be extremely difficult, and I can already see the blame game over the government shutdown. Will the country blame the Democrats or the Republicans? Personally I think they’re likely to blame the party in control.

Cutting federal spending impacts red states Image result for wiki gulf coast damage

Photo: Wikimedia

If the president wants to gut National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite programs, he’s going to have to convince Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee of jurisdiction, that his constituents in Mobile and along their coast won’t be harmed by reduced capacity to forecast hurricanes and plan for extreme weather that floods communities, destroys homes and ruins livelihoods.  He’s also going to have to convince subcommittee members and coastal senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) of the same thing.  These senators are also likely to have concerns over impacts these cuts would have on fishing commerce, which is a big industry in all of these states.

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Photo: Wikimedia

If the president wants to gut Department of Energy (DOE) programs, he’s going to have to convince Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the Chair of the Energy & Water Appropriations Subcommittee, that his constituents at Oak Ridge National Laboratory won’t be impacted; which will be a tough argument to make, since a diverse and large amount of DOE’s work is carried out at the national laboratories. The Chair of the House Energy & Water Appropriations Subcommittee, Mike Simpson (R-ID), will also be looking out for his constituents at Idaho National Laboratory. Less funding means less work, which means fewer jobs, which means unhappy constituents in those states. Not to mention, both Chairmen, and many others, have articulated a vision of the absolute necessity of the science and energy innovation work spearheaded by DOE.

What can ordinary citizens do?

The president can’t get 60 votes for anywhere near the kind of budget cuts he’s proposing. But if the American people aren’t speaking up loudly in opposition and raising concerns with their members of congress, the likelihood of cuts to essential areas of science, research, innovation, and programs that protect public health and the environment increases significantly. What can ordinary citizens do?

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Photo: Wikihow

Call, write and meet with your members of congress and/or their staff, and tell them that:

These are the things congress needs to hear, and they need to hear them from constituents, to be empowered to stand firm in opposition to the Trump administration’s budget proposal. As long as the public stays engaged, the president is going to find out very quickly that if you don’t have a plan to work with congress—including Democrats—you’re not going to be able to advance your domestic agenda.

So what’s the administration’s plan?  That remains to be seen.

Photo: Wikimedia

The Latest on Solar’s Sweet Success, in 4 Great Graphs

Winter is a great time for solar—solar data, that is. Even if the panels themselves are covered in snow (which mine haven’t been, given our spring-like winter), this is the time of year when the industry’s progress over the previous year becomes clear. The annual stats for 2016 have just been released, and they offer still more proof that clean energy momentum is quite a thing to behold. Here are four graphs of solar progress to celebrate.

The U.S. Solar Market Insight, 2016 Year in Review, the product of a regular collaboration between GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association, is rich with insights:

1. Solar went in faster than ever before—by a huge margin.

Source: GTM-SEIA Solar Market Insight, 2016 Year in Review

The graph above shows how solar’s annual installations have been climbing, year after year. The industry installed almost 15,000 megawatts of solar photovoltaics (PV) last year.

Here are a few ways to think about that data point:

  • That’s a 97 percent increase over what went in during 2015, more than got installed in 2015 and 2014 combined, and 17 times what got installed during 2010.
  • While that number is made up of residential, commercial, and large-scale systems, if you were to think of it in terms of rooftop PV systems, at 5 kilowatts each, that would be 3 million homes’ worth.
  • And in terms of the electricity, that’s enough solar energy to fully power 2 million American homes.
2. Solar is a bigger piece of the picture than ever.

Source: GTM-SEIA Solar Market Insight, 2016 Year in Review

Solar not only grew with respect to its past performance, it also dominated the electric sector as a whole, in terms of new “power plant” additions. The graph above shows how that portion has been steadily increasing. In 2016, for the first time ever, solar was the number one resource for new capacity, at 39%—30% more than natural gas.

  • The 2016 installations brought the U.S. solar total, counting both solar PV and concentrating solar power (CSP), to more than 42,000 megawatts—20 times what we had in 2010.
  • According to GTM-SEIA, a new solar project went in every 84 seconds, adding up to another megawatt of solar every 36 minutes.
  • 22 states added at least 100 megawatts of solar in 2016, and California added more than 5,000 megawatts, including 1,000 megawatts of large-scale solar alone in each of the last two quarters of the year.
3. Solar costs just keep getting lower.

Source: GTM-SEIA Solar Market Insight, 2016 Year in Review

The pairs of columns in the graph above—residential vs. residential, non-residential (commercial) vs. non-residential, and utility vs. utility—show serious cost reductions in every sector compared to just one year earlier. And those drops in costs come from pretty much every piece of the equation, from PV modules (solar panels) and inverters to the balance of systems (BOS) and the labor costs.

Overall, solar costs fell almost 20% from the end of 2015 to the end of 2016.

4. Solar’s future is bright.

Source: GTM-SEIA Solar Market Insight, 2016 Year in Review

A deadline for an important federal tax credit to expire meant a lot of solar squeezed into 2016, even after the tax credit got extended. That, GTM and SEIA predict, will lead to a temporary drop in new utility-scale installations for a bit.

But residential and commercial systems will continue to grow. And utility-scale solar will be back on the rise within a couple of years.

All in all, another great year for solar. And the solar data at this time of the year always offer another reason to love winter, with the promise of more sunshine.

Real Help for Coal Miners Requires Real Solutions

Any day now, the president is expected to sign one or more executive orders aimed at rolling back environmental safeguards that improve our public health through protecting clean air and clean water. It will likely include the beginning of the new administration’s efforts to rescind the Clean Power Plan, the first ever limits on global warming emissions (or carbon emissions) from existing power plants. That’s in addition to signing a bill revoking the stream protection rule and an executive order reviewing the Waters of the United States rule.

Much of the rhetoric around these actions has been focused on supporting fossil fuels—and especially about bringing back lost coal jobs. But how realistic is this promise to the nation’s coal miners?

In a word, unrealistic

Simply put, it’s hard to imagine that rolling back those critical protections would do much to boost coal production, and it certainly won’t bring back lost coal mining jobs. Coal industry executives know this. The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, made exactly this point only two days after the election, backing away from years of saying that President Obama’s supposed “war on coal” was killing jobs.

A quick explanation of why folks in Coal Country are worried. Source: EIA, and Annual Coal Report 2015.

 

The truth is that the coal industry has withered away in a perfect storm in recent years. Market forces, primarily, have made natural gas and renewables generally the best option for our energy needs. The US electricity system has shifted from around 53% coal-fired (avg. 1980-2005) to 34% in 2015. This trend is largely the result of cheap and abundant natural gas (thanks to the shale gas revolution).

While coal production is expected to rise in short term, it won’t change the fundamental trend, particularly in Central Appalachia, where the highest quality and easiest-to-mine seams are mostly gone. One has to appreciate the irony that by doubling down on natural gas production (through pipeline development and relaxed environmental rules), the administration will help accelerate the demise of coal.

Sure, environmental safeguards have been one of the pressures facing the coal industry. But they haven’t been driving the fundamental shifts in our electricity system. Simply put, coal is increasingly uneconomic compared to cleaner sources of energy.

Another subtlety is the impact of the slowing Chinese economy, which has changed from 10 percent growth per year to around 7 percent last year. That shift represents a decline in industrial activity—and a commensurate decrease in demand for metallurgical (met) coal, which is used to make steel. Major US coal producers bet big on the met coal market at its peak around 2011; slumping Chinese demand erased their balance sheets in a matter of years, leading to a spate of high profile bankruptcies.

It’s also important to remember the long term trends at play. In the late 1940s and early 1950s coal mining employment in West Virginia stood at around 120,000. In 2015, the number was 15,540 (see Table 18 here). The bulk of that shift has nothing to do with environmental rules. Instead, it represents a dramatic shift toward mechanization of Appalachian mining operations (the advent of longwall mining) and a shift toward large, low-cost surface mining operations in the West.

And yet, outrageous claims continue to be made about the return of coal jobs. For example, opponents of the stream protection rule claim that repealing it has saved 77,000 coal jobs—a figure that simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Repeating a lie doesn’t make it true.

It’s not as if there was a “war on the horse and buggy” a hundred years ago. The truth is that something better came along—the automobile. We are in the midst of a similar transition today; the technology has advanced and the costs have fallen so much that we can now envision a future where we power a large share of our energy needs from non-polluting renewable sources like wind and solar.

Real solutions

What’s really needed now is to focus on providing support to coal communities in the midst of this ongoing transition away from coal.

Congress is considering real options to support coal miners and coal communities. One key priority is the critically-needed fix to the pension and retiree health care funds of United Mine Workers of America. Another example is the RECLAIM Act, introduced last session, which would release $1 billion of existing funds over 5 years to support the cleanup of abandoned mine lands across the country, prioritizing projects with the potential to spur local economic development. The bill garners support among a wide range of environmental groups and labor unions.

Congress and the president have an opportunity to do much more to support worker retraining and economic development in coal communities. These valuable programs are dispersed in multiple federal agencies, and we will be watching closely to see if the new budget proposed by the president will reflect the critical needs for these programs at agencies like the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Economic Development Administration, and the Employment and Training Administration, to name only a few.

This isn’t just a US phenomenon. In early 2016, China announced plans to reduce overcapacity in the coal and steel sectors, laying off 1.3 million coal miners. Beijing planned to allocate over $15 billion over two years to support relocate affected workers.

Reality check

Look, I get it. I come from a third generation coal mining family in West Virginia. I understand that many folks back home not only make their living in the mines, but see their livelihoods as a source of great pride, as well they should. Families like mine have helped keep the lights on in this country for generations.

But it is dangerous to imply that removing science-based environmental protections will bring back jobs. It further divides us and emphasizes the false and tired narrative that we must choose between jobs and the environment.

Instead, we have to figure out how to ensure that everyone—including coal miners—can prosper in the transition to a clean energy economy.

Photo: Ryan/CC BY (Flickr)

A Tribute to Kenneth J. Arrow, Nobel Prize Winner and a Giant Among Economic Thinkers

Earlier this week, Kenneth Arrow, a Nobel prize-winning economist passed away at the age of 95. Dr. Arrow was a prolific thinker, truly a giant among economists. His research spanned areas as diverse as welfare theory, innovation, labor market networks, public health, and risk. Many extensive obituaries to Dr. Arrow have been written in major newspapers. He was also a great champion of ideas and values we hold dear at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Credit: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

The incredible breadth of Ken Arrow’s work

As students of economics will attest, it is difficult to find a field of economics that hasn’t been influenced in some way by Dr. Arrow’s thinking. As a graduate student, I recall being introduced to ‘Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem’ and discussing its real-world implications for voting and social choice. That’s also when I first read about his work on learning curves and its bearing on technological progress. In a seminal paper, titled The Economic Implications of Learning by Doing, he wrote that:

“Learning is the product of experience.” And “The role of experience in increasing productivity has not gone unobserved, though the relation has yet to be absorbed into the main corpus of economic theory.”

Today these insights can help explain some of the extraordinary decline we’ve seen in the costs of renewable energy.

Right until the end, he was engaged in cutting-edge work, including coauthored research on the risks of climate change, the social cost of carbon, appropriate discount rates for decisions with long time horizons, and public health.

In a recent paper on the social cost of carbon, he and his coauthors argued that, “Costs of carbon emissions are being underestimated, but current estimates are still valuable for setting mitigation policy.” (An insight which is highly relevant for an upcoming hearing on the social cost of carbon in the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology!)

To get a fuller sense of the amazing breadth of Ken Arrow’s work, take a look at these resources:

Engagement with the Union of Concerned Scientists

Dr. Arrow shared common interests with UCS, especially in recognizing the threat of climate change and the need for swift, cost-effective solutions. He also had a lifelong commitment to issues related to peace and security.

As far back as 1997, he was a signatory to the World Scientists’ Call for Action at the Kyoto Climate Summit, a statement initiated by UCS. The statement included this exhortation to world leaders, one that resonates poignantly even today:

We, the signers of this declaration, urge all government leaders to demonstrate a new commitment to protecting the global environment for future generations. The important first step is to join in completing a strong and meaningful Climate Treaty at Kyoto. We encourage scientists and citizens around the world to hold their leaders accountable for addressing the global warming threat. Leaders must take this first step to protect future generations from dire prospects that would result from failure to meet our responsibilities toward them.

Closer to home, he signed on to a 2015 UCS-sponsored letter to California legislators urging the adoption of strong climate and clean energy policies to help ensure a reduction in the state’s global warming emissions of 80 percent below 1990 levels.

In December 2016, Dr. Arrow was one of over 5,500 scientists who signed An Open Letter to President-Elect Trump and the 115th Congress, calling on them to ensure that science continues to play a strong role in protecting public health and well-being.

I had the honor of meeting him briefly when he attended a UCS reception at the American Economic Association meetings in January 2009. He was gracious and encouraging of our work to engage more economists in designing and advocating for solutions to climate change.

A social scientist of the highest order

Dr. Arrow took the charge of a social scientist with great seriousness. He received the highest honors in the economics profession, including the Nobel Prize and the National Medal of Science, and was a widely published academic researcher. But he was no ivory tower academic.

Ken Arrow engaged widely and deeply with the real and urgent problems of the day. What’s also striking is the strong global perspective he brought to his work. He was a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Second Assessment Report in 1995. He was also a founding trustee of Economists for Peace and Security, an organization of economists, other social scientists, and citizens concerned about issues of peace, conflict, war, and the world economy.

In an email tribute, Geoffrey Heal, UCS Board member and the Donald C. Waite Professor of Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School wrote this:

Ken Arrow dominated the social sciences for half a century, just as in their eras Newton and Einstein dominated the physical sciences. In addition to being the giant on whose shoulders we all stand, Ken was a charming, modest, friendly and unassuming person. I knew him for over half a century, and will miss his friendship, his encouragement to think differently and his unparalleled intellectual insights.

Governor Dayton Must Step Up to Protect Energy Consumers

Two bills are making their way through the Minnesota legislature that would hack away at the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s (MPUC) authority to protect consumers. Given the unnerving level of bipartisan support these bills are receiving in the legislature, it’s time for Governor Dayton to step up and protect consumers, as well as Minnesota’s long legacy of clean energy achievements.

Setting a dangerous precedent in Minnesota’s oversight of utility monopolies

Perhaps the most dangerous bill in the bunch (HF113/SF85) would legislatively approve Xcel’s proposed natural gas plant to replace two retiring units at the Sherco coal-fired power plant in Becker, Minnesota. The bill would strip the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s (MPUC) traditional role of reviewing plans to ensure investments are in the best interest of consumers.

While Xcel included the proposed natural gas plant in its latest integrated resource plan, the MPUC declined to approve it, expressing concern that other alternatives might be more beneficial to ratepayers over the long term. Significant doubt remains whether the investment makes sense, but that debate will be silenced if this bill becomes law. The House voted to pass the bill on February 9, and last week the Senate voted to pass a similar bill as well.

The House will now take up the bill to reach a compromise. Governor Dayton has signaled his support for the bill despite the risks to ratepayers, but he should reconsider.

Despite the Governor’s good intentions to help protect the local Becker economy,  this bill sets a dangerous precedent for future utility investment decisions. What happens next time the MPUC declines to approve a proposed billion dollar (or more) investment by Xcel? Do they come back to the legislature for another blank check? Protecting ratepayers from paying for bad investments is a core function of the MPUC. If this bill becomes law, Minnesota ratepayers face an uncertain and potentially costly energy future.

Closing the door on rural ratepayers

Another legislative proposal, HF234/SF141, would remove the MPUC’s authority to resolve disputes between Minnesota’s rural electricity cooperative utilities and their members. The weak rationale for this proposal suggests that somehow cooperative members don’t need this dispute resolution venue because they have local control over their utilities.

In reality, disputes do occur between electric cooperatives and their members, and without an objective arbitrator to resolve them, the co-op holds all the cards. This bill is particularly directed at disputes that have arisen over the exorbitant fees that cooperatives are charging members to connect solar PV systems to the grid.

These fees are an attempt by cooperative managers to maintain the status quo and only serve to slow Minnesota’s transition to cleaner, lower-risk energy sources. Maintaining the MPUC’s role as arbitrator of these disputes provides protections for cooperative ratepayers as well as Minnesota as a whole.

Commission’s role

The MPUC’s role is to protect and promote the public’s best interest in safe, adequate, and reliable utility service at fair and reasonable rates. This is done by providing much needed independent and comprehensive oversight and regulation of utilities. Unfortunately, these bills seek to erode the MPUC’s mission, and authority.

Governor Dayton can’t have it both ways. He must stand by his word not to accept any bill that limits or weakens the Commission’s authority to protect the interests of Minnesota’s energy consumers.

Creative Commons/Mulad (Flickr)

Will New Mexico Join the Next Generation of Clean Energy Leaders?

More and more states across the country are redefining what it means to be a clean energy leader by doubling down on their commitments to deploy solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources. Now the New Mexico legislature wants to add their state to the growing list. Recently introduced legislation would increase New Mexico’s successful renewable electricity standard (RES) from its current level of 20 percent by 2020 to 80 percent by 2040. Adopting the measure would capitalize on the state’s tremendous renewable energy resources and deliver substantial economic, health, and environmental benefits to all New Mexicans.

A renewable energy economy is achievable and affordable for New Mexico

The New Mexico Wind Energy Center, located in the southeast part of the state, generates clean, renewable power for energy consumers. Photo Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Introduced as SB312, the legislation builds on New Mexico’s current RES (also referred to as a renewables portfolio standard or RPS) and would require investor-owned utilities like PNM, Southwestern Public Service, and El Paso Electric to increase their supply of electricity from renewable energy sources to 80 percent by 2040.

Rural co-ops would have to achieve a slightly lower target (70 percent renewables by 2040).

While this newly proposed commitment is substantial, transitioning New Mexico’s economy to one powered primarily by renewable energy is certainly achievable. That’s because New Mexico is home to some of the best and most diverse renewable energy potential in the country, including vast untapped wind, solar, and geothermal resources.

A 2016 National Renewable Energy Laboratory analysis found that New Mexico’s economic renewable energy resource potential, which accounts for the renewables’ cost as compared with the typical regional cost of electricity, is more than 2.6 times total state electricity sales in 2015 (see figure). That means there is more than enough cost-competitive renewable energy resources available today to comply with the proposed targets that utilities have more than two decades to achieve.

Of course, New Mexico’s technical renewable energy resource potential far exceeds these economic potential estimates. As technology costs continue to decline, more and more of the untapped technical resource potential will also become cost-effective over time.

New Mexico’s Renewable Energy Economic Potential vs. Electricity Sales.
New Mexico has more than enough cost-effective renewable energy potential to achieve an 80 percent RES. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates the state’s economic potential at more than 260 percent of total electricity sales in 2015.
Sources: Economic Potential from Primary Case 3a in NREL’s Estimating Renewable Energy Economic Potential in the United StatesElectricity Sales from U.S. Energy Information Administration’s New Mexico State Electricity Profile 2015.

 

Wind and solar costs, in particular, are falling rapidly. The most recent comparison of costs by the energy consulting firm, Lazard, shows new wind and solar to be cheaper than new fossil fuel generation, even without subsidies.

This trend is reflected in recent power purchase contracts for wind and solar projects in the region. For example, Southwestern Public Service signed a contract for a 140 megawatt (MW) solar project near Roswell for about 4 cents per kilowatt-hour (c/kWh). Similarly, reported costs for recent wind projects in the Southwest have been as low as 2.3 to 3.8 c/kWh.

For context, Lazard estimates the cost of power from a typical new natural gas combined cycle plant ranges from 4.8 to 7.8 c/kWh.

The proposed 80 percent by 2040 RES expansion ramps up gradually over time, with interim targets for public utilities of 35 percent in 2025, 50 percent in 2030, and 65 percent in 2035. That level of increasing targets affords utilities plenty of time to plan for new renewable energy development as older fossil fuel generators retire. What’s more, the legislation builds in consumer protections should compliance costs prove to be higher than anticipated.

New Mexico’s renewable energy transition is already delivering benefits

New Mexico’s current RES is already successfully driving new renewable energy deployment and delivering economic and environmental benefits throughout the state. Today, more than 1,500 MW of wind and solar power capacity is cranking out clean power for New Mexico’s energy consumers. The wind power development alone represent more than $1.8 billion in investments and provide up to $5 million annually in land lease payments for local residents.

Another 1,500 MW of wind and nearly 1,400 MW of solar are either under construction or in various stages of development in the state. When completed, these projects combined with those already operational will exceed the state’s current renewable energy targets. Further diversifying New Mexico’s power supply with additional renewable energy can provide much needed investment and tax dollars to local economies and the state government’s struggling budget coffers.

Combined, the wind and solar industries are supporting 4,000 to 5,000 good paying jobs in the state, and that number continues to grow. Earlier this month, Albuquerque-based solar manufacturer SolAero Technologies announced plans for a $10 million expansion that will add more than 100 jobs. New Mexico’s excellent and affordable solar energy resource is also an important reason that Facebook decided to build a new data center in the state. An investment of $45 million will fund three new solar facilities that will fully power the new facility and create hundreds of new jobs.

Photo Source: U.S. Department of Interior

In addition to jobs and local economic benefits, New Mexico’s existing renewable energy development is helping to curb power sector carbon emissions—the principal contributor to global warming— and other air pollutants like sulfur dioxide and particulates that harm state residents. These toxic pollutants are responsible for numerous health problems including aggravated asthma attacks, breathing problems, heart attacks, and premature deaths, especially in vulnerable and disadvantaged communities closest to the sources.

In strong contrast to fossil fuel generation, wind and solar power generation also use virtually no water, an incredibly valuable benefit in a water-constrained state like New Mexico. The American Wind Energy Association estimates that in 2015, the state’s wind projects avoided the consumption of 264 million gallons of water.

All of these economic and environmental benefits are poised to grow substantially if SB 312 is adopted and New Mexico accelerates its shift away from a heavy dependence on coal for power generation.

Joining the 50 percent (plus) club

New Mexico is not alone in its pursuit of a cleaner, safer, and more affordable energy system. Several states—including California, Oregon, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Hawaii—have already expanded their RES targets to at least 50 percent (100 percent, in Hawaii’s case), and are implementing effective solutions to reliably integrate significant amounts of renewable energy on their power systems. Nevada is considering similar RES expansion legislation this year as well.

With a new federal administration seemingly determined to stay stuck in the fossil fuel age, this kind of state leadership is needed now more than ever. New Mexico should adopt SB 312 and set a course to fully embrace its renewable energy future. Doing so will deliver significant rewards for the state’s residents and set an example for other states to follow.

The Man Who Sued the EPA is Now Running It. What Does That Mean for the Environment?

Voting largely along party lines, Congress just confirmed Scott Pruitt as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—an attorney who has spent his professional career suing the EPA to stop the agency from performing its fundamental mission of ensuring clean air and water for all Americans. This confirmation marks a sharp break with precedent; most EPA Administrators from both parties have come to the office with a demonstrated commitment to the EPA’s mission.

One might even say that this vote signals the end of an era of bipartisan congressional support for a strong federal role in protecting our environment, as this newly confirmed Administrator is likely to dismantle the safeguards that both parties have supported since the 1970s.

What that means for all of us who care about clean air and water and the protection of our environment is this: It is up to us to monitor carefully what happens next, and to be prepared to spring into action as needed.

Here are some of the key developments I’m watching for:

Will Scott Pruitt recuse himself?

As repeatedly noted in his nomination hearing, Pruitt has represented the State of Oklahoma in numerous lawsuits against EPA. Many of these cases are still active today, directed at major EPA regulations, including the Clean Power Plan (which limits carbon emissions from power plants); national air quality standards; mercury emissions from coal plants; methane limits for the oil and natural gas excavation; and a Clean Water Act rule that clarifies federal jurisdiction over bodies of water.

During the nomination hearing, Pruitt did not commit to recusing himself from these cases, but he did say he would rely on advice from the EPA ethics counsel. Common sense tells us that he cannot possibly be impartial on these issues, and conflicts of interest abound. For example, the state attorneys general who joined him in the suit against the Clean Power Plan have written a letter to the Trump Administration, asking the President to issue an executive order declaring that the rule is unlawful. Responding to this request would, in the normal course of business, require EPA input, since it is an EPA regulation. How can Scott Pruitt possibly participate in any review of that request given that, just a few weeks ago, he himself was one of the attorneys general making this claim?

He must recuse himself, as thirty senators have made clear in a recent letter.

Will Scott Pruitt cut federal law enforcement?

As a candidate, Mr. Trump pledged to dismantle the EPA. He lacks a filibuster-proof majority to change the laws that created the EPA, such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Act. But he could cripple the EPA with budget cuts, which are much harder for a minority to stop.

By wide margins, most Americans favor enforcement of laws that protect our air and water. Cutting EPA enforcement will therefore be unpopular—but Scott Pruitt is likely to argue that we can rely on states to enforce environmental laws, so cutting the EPA’s budget won’t do any real harm.

This is a dangerous myth.

Having served as a state environmental commissioner, I know from personal experience that state environmental agencies are already strapped. They typically lack the technical experts employed at the EPA, and stand in no position to take on additional enforcement responsibilities shed by the EPA.

In Massachusetts where I served, for example, my former agency’s staff was cut nearly in half between 2002 and 2012 due to budget cuts, even as the agency’s responsibilities grew. That occurred in a state well known for its strong commitment to environmental protection. As a result, my agency was forced to cut back on important and effective programs, such as water sampling to locate sources of bacteria that pollute rivers. If the EPA’s budget is cut, it will mean even fewer resources for states, because states now receive a significant share of the EPA’s budget to cover enforcement activities.

Second, state environmental agencies sometimes experience political pressure against enforcement that might harm a large employer or impose significant costs on residents. We saw some of this in play in Flint, Michigan, where a state agency did not enforce a law requiring corrosion treatment of pipes to reduce lead contamination; it took an EPA staffer and outside scientists, as well as the residents themselves, to blow the whistle on lax state enforcement.

Third, states are not equipped to deal with the widespread problem of interstate pollution. To cite one of the most egregious examples, the state of Maryland could shut down virtually all in-state sources of air pollution and yet still not be in compliance with health-based air quality standards due to pollution from neighboring “upwind” states. A strong federal law enforcement presence is needed to address the simple fact that air and water pollutants do not honor state boundary lines.

We and others stand prepared to fight crippling budget cuts at the EPA, and explain that the protection of our air and water requires both federal and state environmental law enforcement.

Scott Pruitt will likely gut the Clean Power Plan; what will he replace it with?

Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA (Flickr)

During the campaign, President Trump called for abolishing the Clean Power Plan, the EPA regulations that limit carbon emissions from power plants. And as noted, Administrator Pruitt sued to block it. It now seems nearly inevitable that he will move to drastically undermine the plan.

The question is, what will he propose to replace it? The EPA does not have the option of doing nothing. The United States Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA has a duty to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act if it makes a determination that such gases endanger public health and the environment. In 2009, EPA made such a finding (which Mr. Pruitt fought, though unsuccessfully).

Thus, EPA remains obligated to regulate carbon dioxide emissions in general, and in particular with respect to power plants, which are among the nation’s largest source of these emissions.

One predictable approach would be a revised regulation that reduces emissions, but by a much smaller percentage. The current litigation over the Clean Power Plan could serve as a roadmap for a diminished rule. The Clean Power Plan relies on three strategies to reduce emissions—improving efficiency of coal plants, switching from coal to gas, and switching to renewables. During the litigation, Scott Pruitt conceded that the EPA had the authority to require improvements to coal plant efficiency, but claimed that the other two strategies, which go “beyond the fenceline” of an individual source, were unlawful.

Thus, one might expect that a revised rule will mirror what Mr. Pruitt called for in court. If so, rather than cutting carbon emissions by approximately 32 percent by 2030, the rule would result in barely noticeable emission reductions.

If this happens, litigation will be necessary. The court that mandated the EPA to address greenhouse gas emissions should not be satisfied with a rule that does little to cut one of the nation’s largest sources of CO2 emissions.

How about vehicles?

The second biggest carbon cutting program of the Obama Administration is the UCS-backed fuel economy standards for cars which, it is estimated, will roughly double fuel economy between 2012 and 2025. Those standards were agreed to by the automakers at the time. They are projected to cut billions of tons of CO2, reduce oil use by billions of barrels, and save consumers an average of $8000 over the lifetime of a vehicle.

When the standards were put in place, they included a “mid-term review” provision in which the EPA would assess whether changes in technology, costs, or factors might warrant a change to the standards. The review was to be completed by April 2018, but the Obama administration in its closing days completed the review and determined, based on a thorough review, that there was no reason to change the standards, since automakers are ahead of schedule in meeting these standards, and at a lower cost than originally predicted.

Some automakers are calling for this determination to be re-opened, presumably so that the rules can be modified and perhaps weakened. And one can justifiably be anxious that they could offer something that the Trump administration is keen to secure—a commitment to increased manufacturing in the United States—in exchange for relaxing these standards.

It would be a disaster for these historic standards to be rolled back, and we’ll fight any such rollback along with many allies.

How about science?

As I wrote recently, Mr. Pruitt’s record shows little evidence of deference to scientists. After all, he sued the EPA for relying upon the world’s most prominent climate scientists, including many employed by the federal government, in finding that greenhouse gases endangered the environment. And he claimed that the question of climate change and the role of human causes of it are still an open question for debate.

As EPA Administrator, he will hear from EPA scientists whose expert judgment will not align with his deregulatory agenda in some cases. Will these scientists’ findings be suppressed or disregarded?

We call on Mr. Pruitt to declare that scientific integrity is a core guiding principal for the EPA, that he will abide by the existing EPA scientific integrity policy, and even look for ways to improve it, as recommended by UCS.

Vigilance required

Scott Pruitt comes to his new position with the heavy baggage of having devoted a good part of his career to opposing EPA, not to mention the apparent antipathy of his boss towards the agency. The Trump transition team, composed of career ideologues, further fueled anxiety over the EPA’s fate, with threats of gag orders on agency scientists, deletion of climate data from the website, and draconian budget cuts. This is why we see, for example, hundreds of career civil servants risking their jobs by publicly protesting Mr. Pruitt’s confirmation.

Scott Pruitt has a chance now to push the reset button, and position himself as an open-minded and principled conservative, rather than a deregulatory ideologue. Most helpful to him will be to invest significant time in hearing from the agency’s talented scientists, engineers, policy analysts and attorneys.

No matter what, we will be watching his actions vigilantly and stand prepared to fight to retain key protections of Americans’ health and safety at the agency he now oversees.

Photo: justice.gov Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA (Flickr)

Solar vs Nuclear: Is this the Last Chapter?

Last year’s solar deployment numbers just came in, and they are, in a word, phenomenal. Utilities bought more new solar capacity than they did natural gas capacity: an astounding 22 states added more than 100 MW of solar each.

At the same time, there is grim news about delays in construction and associated cost over-runs  for nuclear plant construction projects in Georgia and South Carolina. SCANA—owner of South Carolina Electric & Gas and sponsor of the VC Summer Nuclear Project—has just reported new delays in the in-service dates of its new reactors to 2020. Construction started more than 7 years ago, with energy deliveries promised to begin in 2016.

Neighbors with solar. Courtesy of Grid Alternatives.

Past hopes for a “renaissance” in nuclear power in the United States, with four to eight new nuclear plant facilities projected to come on line in America between 2016 and 2018, have been overwhelmed by competition. UCS predicted this trend in costs many times.

Great solar news

Meanwhile, there is much to say about the solar boom. Just ask one of your 1,300,000 neighbors who have solar on their property.

To put these achievements in perspective, let’s talk about solar jobs and productivity. The solar industry employs more than 260,000 people in the United States. The continuous improvement in know-how in construction techniques and in manufacturing drives down solar deployment costs every 3 months. The pricing for new solar projects is coming in the range of 4 cents (Texas) to 5 cents (California) per kilowatthour.

In comparison with nuclear, the amount of solar power built in 2016, taking into account how many hours each can operate each day, is the equivalent of more than 3 new nuclear plants.

To dive in a little deeper: let’s use a 25 percent capacity factor for new solar, making the 14,626 MW installed equivalent to 3,650 MW of theoretically perfectly running nuclear plants. The Westinghouse AP 1000 units under construction for the last 7-10+ years produce about 1,100 MW.  So, in one year, solar additions were equal to what takes more than 7 years to build. The difference in speed of deployment is why UCS is clear that nuclear power isn’t a near-term climate solution.

The demise of the nuclear option

In the energy business, nuclear is fading fast. Struggles to keep existing plants open in competitive markets are roiling the electricity markets. But the recent news about the very few manufacturing firms supplying nuclear construction illustrates how very different the nuclear industry is from solar.

Cost over-runs in the US plants are so large that when state regulators finally put a cap on what South Carolina and Georgia consumers would pay, manufacturer Toshiba (owner of Westinghouse) found itself with $6 Billion in losses and the likely end of its business in nuclear power plant construction.

The concentration of nuclear component manufacturing in so few companies has shown how a problem with quality led to a “single point of failure” plaguing the fleet of French nuclear plants. Policy in the US has been to shield the utility companies from the risks of their business decisions to construct nuclear plants, continuing with the Vogtle plant in Georgia.

Would we ever go 100% solar?

Would we ever build only solar? Maybe, but that’s not the right question. “What can we do with lots of solar?” is a better one.

We can keep absorbing the solar pattern of production with the tools we have. We can plan to adjust to cheap energy in the middle of the day with time-varying rates. And if we can get energy storage further along, we can get to the end of this debate.

Public Source

Can Republicans Find Their Voice on Climate Change via a Carbon Tax?

Earlier this week a group of conservative opinion leaders and experts launched the Climate Leadership Council, championing a national carbon tax to cut emissions and help achieve climate goals.

As with any carbon pricing proposal, the politics are complicated and there is no telling how much traction this particular initiative will get. There are also definite concerns about some of the details of the proposal. But it’s very encouraging to see a meaningful solution to climate change put forth by conservatives. I look forward to seeing where this will go, especially with Republican lawmakers and the Trump administration.

Starting from the facts

This proposal begins with recognizing the scientific facts about climate change and the urgency of acting on solutions. To see leading conservatives articulate those basic realities is important, and I hope Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration are listening.

Climate change should not be a partisan issue. There’s no time to waste on the dangerous new types of denial or delay tactics that were in evidence during the nomination hearings for Rex Tillerson and Scott Pruitt, for example.

Just like the near-universal consensus among climate scientists about the facts of climate change, there is an overwhelming consensus among economists that a carbon price is an essential policy tool for driving down carbon emissions. The CLC proposal’s starting price of $40/ton CO2, escalating over time, shows the seriousness of their proposal.

What’s more, the authors of the proposal recognize that we have to act on climate as a global community and the US must live up to its international commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement. Yes, to meet long term climate goals countries will have to do a lot more than they have currently committed to, but walking away from the Paris Agreement would be a serious mistake.

Notes of caution

There is obviously room for discussion about ways to improve the policy proposal, as and when it gets serious consideration from policymakers. Some aspects of the proposal that could definitely use further scrutiny include:

  • Regulatory rollbacks that harm public health or undermine key legal protections are cause for concern. The EPA’s authority to regulate global warming emissions is a critical safeguard that cannot be negotiated away. There may be middle ground possible here but further conversations with a wide set of stakeholders, including environmental justice groups, are critical.
  • A carbon price alone will not be sufficient to deliver on the deep emission reductions consistent with climate goals; we need complementary policies to address other market failures. For example, policy incentives for innovation in low carbon technologies are important. In sectors like transportation, a small surcharge on fuel prices won’t be enough to drive the big changes needed in vehicle fleets and the investments in infrastructure for public transit or electric vehicles so other policies are needed. And we need policies to address non-CO2 emissions, such as methane.
  • What happens with the (considerable) carbon revenues is obviously a hugely important policy choice that must be made in consultation with lawmakers, with the interests of the broader public squarely in mind. Priorities—such as appropriately offsetting the disproportionate impacts of energy price increases associated with a carbon tax; transition assistance for coal workers and coal-dependent communities; assistance for communities facing climate impacts, especially frontline low income and minority communities; and investments in low-carbon infrastructure—require dedicated funding which could come from carbon revenues, or would require appropriations from Congress.
Getting (back) to bipartisan approaches on climate policy

In recent years, views on climate change have become politicized to the point that climate denial has become a form of tribal identity for most conservative-leaning politicians, and one more instance of the ‘just say no’ approach to any issue championed by the Obama administration.

Given the anti-science rhetoric from many Republicans in Congress, it’s hard to remember that there was a time when climate change was not a partisan issue. There was a time when Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and other leading Republicans not only openly accepted climate science but worked hard, together with Democrats, to find bipartisan solutions.

We got tantalizingly close to a national climate policy in the form of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (aka the Waxman-Markey bill), which passed the House but was never brought to a Senate vote because of insufficient support. The failure of that legislative effort is what led to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan as an alternative. Regulation was not the first choice of the Democrats or of the Obama administration.

There is lots of blame to go around about how and why bipartisan approaches to addressing climate change have failed thus far. But we don’t have the luxury to wallow in past mistakes; we have to break through the partisan divide and act on climate now.

And that’s why I am particularly encouraged by a proposal from conservatives that attempts to bridge that divide, albeit imperfectly.

The future can be different

Call me a delusional optimist, but I fervently hope that Republicans in Congress will now feel free to acknowledge the reality of climate change because that position will no longer be associated with a Democratic administration. And that they will work to advance solutions that can help meet the urgency of the challenge we face.

Even during the Obama years, there were some who stepped out of the party line, including a group of Republicans who joined the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in the House and those who signed on to the Gibson Resolution.

Yesterday, along with the news of the CLC carbon tax proposal, we also heard news of four new members added to the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. The Caucus now has 12 Republican members and 12 Democratic members.

Maybe these types of bipartisan efforts will grow in strength and size and we will get to a political tipping point on climate action. Maybe climate science and smart solutions can take center stage instead of partisan politics. One can hope this happens soon…

Actually, no. Hope is simply not enough. We need action urgently.

Republicans (and Democrats) must step up

We cannot afford another four years of denial, obstruction, artful lies, and ‘just say no’ politics, aided by fossil fuel interests. Climate impacts are already imposing harms on Americans and a costly burden on our economy. The recent climate data are stunning and sobering. Just a few examples:

Meanwhile, solutions like ramping up wind and solar energy are getting cheaper every year, and bring the promise of huge new economic opportunities IF we accelerate the momentum already underway.

Let’s build that clean energy infrastructure and create jobs. Let’s cut pollution from fossil fuels that causes numerous health problems including exacerbating asthma in children, and contributing to other types of heart and lung ailments, and even premature death. Let’s help coastal communities struggling with flooding worsened by sea level rise.

And let’s put a price on carbon while we’re going about it. There’s nothing partisan about any part of this bright vision for our future.

Still waiting for Republican leadership on climate change

Of course, President Trump must also show leadership from the top. His administration’s threats to dismantle existing climate and energy policies without any clear alternative plan are not a promising start. Thus far, the administration doesn’t show any indication of an interest in helping Americans facing the impacts of climate change, or recognizing the serious consequences of our continued dependence on fossil fuels.

If the president won’t lead, then Congress—including members of his own party—needs to have the courage to hold him accountable and advance their own climate solutions, perhaps along the lines of the CLC proposal.

The future will not be kind to this Congress and this administration if all they do is continue to find new creative ways to deny the science and dodge their responsibility to act on climate. We the people—Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike—deserve much better from our government.

Electricity Rates Are Sorely Outdated. Let’s Give them an Upgrade.

Last month, to great and enthusiastic email fanfare, my utility presented me with a redesigned electricity bill. One meant to help me better understand the various costs and components that make up the final amount due. In an entirely relatable manner, my household met such news with chortles of joy. What a day!

But the utility’s trick? Colors and a stacked bar chart. They were nice colors, and yet…it proved a letdown. If our electricity bills contained just a bit more of the right information, we could collectively be saving billions of dollars a year, reducing air pollution all around us, and helping to bring ever more renewables online—a true step forward toward our vision of the modern grid. Now tell me that’s not a neat trick.

Shining a light on system costs

So what’s the right information, and how do we get it? Time-varying electricity rates, or rates that go up and down to let us know when it’s costlier and less efficient to be using electricity, and when it’s cheaper and cleaner.

As my colleagues and I explain in a new issue brief Flipping the Switch for a Cleaner Grid, with that extra information, we can make more informed decisions about how and when to use electricity, and save money and clean our air in the process.

Right now, most of us get charged the same flat rate for electricity no matter when we use it. But in reality, the actual cost to the system varies widely over times of day, days of week, and even seasons. These fluctuations in price are driven in large part by the need to meet ever-changing customer demand.

In particular, though we can’t see it with flat rates, our last bits of ill-timed load can mean sky-high prices as the system powers up inefficient plants, which we pay to build and maintain even though we use them for just a small amount of time each year. Talk about a wasteful design. By using price signals to mobilize flexible demand, time-varying rates flip this operations paradigm on its head.

Rates as guides

Time-varying rates use price signals to encourage customers to use electricity at some times and not others. Credit: UCS.

Time-varying rates are designed to encourage customers to alter when and how they use electricity. Different structures go about it in different ways to target different points of inefficiency. The figure on the right shows three of the most common forms: time-of-use (TOU) rates, critical peak pricing (CPP), and real-time pricing.

  • TOU rates (top right) target daily repeating patterns of peak and off-peak periods,
  • CPP rates (middle right) focus on just those few hours a few days a year when electricity use is at its very highest, and
  • Real-time pricing (bottom right) approximates the actual system cost in 5-minute to 1-hour intervals, which allows interested customers to best take advantage of the dynamic up-and-down swings of prices.

Time-based rates are not new; in particular, TOU and CPP rates have been around for a long time, especially for commercial and industrial electricity customers. However, it’s only been with the recent deployment of tens of millions of smart meters over the last few years that wide-scale, administratively low-cost programs have been more readily attainable at the residential level.

Still, except for a few places where state-wide implementation of time-varying rates is on the table (see California and Massachusetts, for example), most utilities continue to see these rates as a boutique approach.

Put me in, Coach!

Despite their simplicity, time-varying rates can create significant outcomes for the grid by shepherding lots of individuals into taking small actions at the same time—in aggregate, all these little contributions can add up to major effects. Take a look at the below example out of New England to get a sense:

New Englanders move as one when the Patriots are in the Super Bowl–namely, to in front of the TV at start time, and into the kitchen at the half. Credit: ISO-NE.

The left panel shows the load curve, or total electricity demand, for a regular winter Sunday in 2012; the right shows Super Bowl Sunday of that year, when New England played New York. Notice the narrowing of the peak and the spikes on the far right of the Super Bowl curve around 6:30, 8, and 10 p.m.? They correspond with the start, half-time, and end of game, respectively.

Now the half-time spike might look small, but it’s actually in the range of a whole natural gas generator needing to come online. Time-varying rates provide a mechanism for coordinating that type of chip-and-dip-refill fervor in our everyday lives.

In practice, the options for shifting demand run from simple to high-tech. For example, doing something like pressing the “delay start” button on a dishwasher (or just waiting to press start) is an easy, no-upgrades-required fix. On the other hand, some forms of flexibility require a technology intervention before they can be used, like turning water heater tanks—commonly a large residential electricity load—into energy storage devices that heat water during off-peak periods for use whenever needed. Because these resources can be so valuable to the system overall, it can be worth it for utilities to sponsor some of the upgrades themselves.

Excitingly, the recent mass deployment of smart meters means that many new opportunities for shifting electricity use and responding to price signals are beginning to be explored. In particular, innovation around third-party aggregators controlling electricity-dependent devices—from air conditioners to electric vehicles, in ways that are imperceptible to users—could mean even bigger opportunities for savings.

Still, it’s important to look back at that Super Bowl example to remember that it doesn’t actually take much to make a big difference to the grid, and that what we can do today is already a lot.

Fast-tracking our clean energy future

When we talk about the benefits of flexible demand—including those resulting from time-varying rates—we usually focus on the immediate (and persistent) cost savings that occur from not bringing those last costly power plants online. But such benefits are only the beginning of the story. This is especially the case when we consider the needs our grid will have as we race toward a clean energy future supplied by vast amounts of renewable resources.

Time-varying rates can help support a brighter, cleaner, more joyful wind-powered world. Credit: UCS.

Because wind and solar power production is variable, we need ways to fill the gaps when the wind eases or a cloud passes. Additionally, as more and more solar power comes online, the grid can start to run into challenges when the sun sets; solar resources decrease electricity production right around when people are returning home for the night and starting to use lots of electricity.

To manage this variation, we’ve traditionally relied on fossil-fueled power plants. But that reliance comes with a number of strings attached, and often at the expense of renewables, as my colleagues in California have detailed.

Enter flexible demand. If we can guide electricity use to times when our renewable resources are most abundant—and away from when they aren’t—we can take a vitally important step forward on the path to a clean energy future, and make the many and varied goals of our modern, clean grid easier to reach.

Critically, to ensure that access to these benefits is equitable and widespread, it takes a well-designed, well-considered program, as we lay out in our issue brief and as our peers have been diligently monitoring in California.

Think time-varying rates are neat? Take a peek at all the other wonders of an upgraded grid

Here at UCS, we’re working hard to make sure the electricity grid is ready and able to bolster our vision of a clean energy future. Time-varying rates, and their ability to unleash the incredible power of flexible demand, are but one part of this vision. In the time to come, my colleagues and I will be sharing exactly how we see upgrades to the grid enabling this pursuit; for now, though, allow our new video calling for an upgraded grid to brightly shine a light:

What is Oil Used For? What the Super Bowl Commercial Didn’t Tell You…

A commercial during yesterday’s Super Bowl about oil may have given you pause.

Besides the sports car (about to go off-roading), the commercial was about things you probably don’t associate with oil. Like graffiti; makeup; prosthetics; a heart; and outer space.

Is oil really diversifying? Or is this ad just a marketing ploy?

Looking at data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, it is pretty clear that oil and natural gas are still being used overwhelmingly for what they have always been used for—combustion, whether in vehicles or power plants.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) ran the commercial in question. API is the largest oil trade association in the United States. Member companies include BP, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell. You may have heard of API for their role in a concerted campaign to spread denial about climate change. They merged with America’s Natural Gas Alliance last fall, so it now lobbies for both oil and natural gas interests. This merger came about because major oil companies now have large natural gas assets.

As a chemist, I know that many consumable products like asphalt, paint, and plastics have oil or natural gas as a precursor ingredient. And while these products have many positive impacts in society, they are absolutely tiny fractions of the oil and gas industry and should not be used to justify the bulk of their business. Over 90% of oil and gas is used for combustion, either in power plants or vehicles.

Let’s not discount the many benefits energy provides society

But while coal, oil, and natural gas have been our primary sources of energy for many decades, we will not rely on them in the future. We are moving to a world that gets most of our energy from clean, renewable resources like wind and solar. This is in large part because the cleanest sources of energy are becoming the cheapest. Our cars and trucks can plug into that clean grid for their future fueling needs.

There are many chemists exploring ways to make plastics etc. from non-petroleum resources such as plants. This is great work (and tough chemistry) that will lead to a more sustainable world. But if we are going to stop the worst effects of global warming and clean our air, we must remember the most obvious effects oil and natural gas are having on our communities and our world.

We have solutions

While oil may currently play a role in making paint, plastics, or rocket fuel, it doesn’t “gush art,” “pump life,” or “explore space”–that would be artists, doctors, and scientists. And it is artists painting a picture of environmental justice; doctors treating patients suffering from asthma; and scientists discovering clean energy solutions.

The Fate of the Clean Power Plan under President Trump

Shortly, we are likely to see and hear much more about what jurists, Congress, and the new Administration think about the Clean Power Plan, the cornerstone of our nation’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Regardless of how the court rules—and how Congress and President Trump respond—there’s no denying the reality of climate change or the many compelling reasons to double down on the clean energy transition already underway.

Imposing limits on carbon pollution would help the President deliver on two campaign promises—to create jobs and protect clean air.

Protesters rallied outside the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit early yesterday as judges prepared to hear arguments on the Clean Power Plan.

Accelerating the clean energy transition

Market trends are already driving a transition to cleaner energy. The costs of wind and solar energy are dropping dramatically, driving new renewable energy deployment that is outpacing all other new energy resources. This transition is delivering huge health and economic benefits to communities around the country.

The Clean Power Plan would lock in those gains and create a framework for continuous improvement, in the exact same way the Clean Air Act took on pollution problems in previous eras (acid rain in the 70’s, soot and smog in the 80’s, and mercury earlier this century). While these pollutant still cause problems, sometimes concentrated  in low income or racially diverse neighborhoods, the CAA required significant pollution prevention measures to taken. We need to do the same for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

How Tillerson and Pruitt view US Climate Action

As we wait to hear the DC Circuit Court of Appeals Decision, expected to be issued in the near future, we’ll likely see confirmation votes for Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of the world’s largest fossil fuel company, and possibly Scott Pruitt, one of the state AG’s who sued to have the Clean Power Plan overturned.

On left: Scott Pruitt. On Right: Rex Tillerson

As Secretary of State, Tillerson will be called upon by the foreign ministers of 190 countries to account for how the US plans to meet its commitment to the Paris Agreement. While additional policies to limit harmful global warming emissions beyond the CPP would still be needed to meet the US international climate targets, the CPP  is the down payment.

Tillerson has said he would like to see the US maintain a ‘seat at the table’ of the climate talks. If the Administration is casting aside cost-effective emission reducing actions like the CPP, he’ll find that seat more than a little warm.

As part of the EPA Administrator confirmation process, Scott Pruitt conceded that carbon is a pollutant subject to Clean Air Act regulation, indicating that the CPP has a strong legal foundation. The Clean Air Act itself, and subsequent elaborations through the 2007 Mass v. EPA Supreme Court decision and a 2009 Endangerment Finding by the EPA, make this absolutely clear.

However, when asked if there was an EPA program or rule he supported, he could not or would not cite a single one—which doesn’t bode well for his leadership of the agency.

The Clean Power Plan is the Clean Air fight of this generation

I’ve had the privilege of working with clean air advocates for 20 years. I’ve heard the stories of how they successfully fought for laws that would curb the acid rain contributing to the dying lakes in the Northeast; measures to reduce the emissions of soot that settled on cars downwind of Midwest coal plants; tailpipe standards to reduce smog-choked cities; and limits to mercury that was contaminating fish in our streams.

The pattern is always the same: scientists study the problem and identify the causes; advocates petition EPA and Congress for action; and industry casts doubt about the science and fights the solutions with claims of economic collapse.

Ultimately, when all legal remedies are exhausted, industry complies at a cost far less than predicted and the promised health improvements from cleaner air are realized. My colleague Rachel Cleetus noted in her blog the benefits of EPA for real people and cited the finding that “over a 20-year period from 1990 to 2010 the Clean Air Act helped drive down total emissions of the six major air pollutants by more than 40 percent while GDP grew more than 64 percent.”

While we are far from having pristine air quality, we have a science-based process underlying the Clean Air Act that results in ratcheting down the regulations as better information becomes available and new cost-effective pollution control technologies become available.

My career has largely been spent trying to get carbon pollution treated the same way as these other pollutants.  Carbon is the pollutant driving the most pressing environmental problem of our generation. Its impacts go beyond typical local and regional air pollution effects, like the aggravation of asthma and other respiratory diseases, to threaten the ‘regulator’ of the planet, the very climate that makes human existence possible.

Climate impacts demand a response

As global average temperatures rise, arctic ice melts, sea levels rise, heat waves are more frequent and last longer, and extreme weather events intensify. Scientists and advocates began calling for action to reduce carbon emissions at least as far back as the early 1990s, hoping to prevent these events from coming to pass.  We are now seeing these impacts as our reality. They are becoming more common as every day passes, leaving little room for doubt that our climate is changing.

The predicted impacts are coming to pass, and despite the doubt continuing to be peddled by the likes of Tillerson and Pruitt, scientists do know—with a great deal of certainty—that burning fossil fuels is the primary cause of those impacts and they can predict, with ever improving reliability, what a warmer world would look like.

And it’s not good, it’s not something we can ‘adapt to’ and it’s coming to pass faster than expected.

Both legally and morally, this Administration is compelled to act on clean air and climate. Many local and state governments are fully committed to continuing clean energy and climate progress because it’s good for public health and their local economies, and many businesses will continue to ramp up their clean energy investments because it’s good for their bottom line.

Throwing out the Clean Power Plan won’t bring back coal. Coal is increasingly uneconomic for a variety of reasons, including cheaper alternatives like natural gas and, increasingly, wind and solar. Those market conditions will exist with or without the CPP. That’s why the Trump Administration and the Congress must do something real to help miners/coal dependent communities instead of meaningless posturing around the CPP. The clean energy transition is good for our health and is one of the fastest growing job creators. Now we need to make it work for all Americans.

The Clean Power Plan could also prevent us from becoming over-reliant on natural gas.  A rush to gas would hit consumers the hardest, due to the price volatility that results from the boom and bust cycles of gas exploration.  While I’m sure it is hard for an Oklahoma oil company attorney like Mr. Pruitt to believe, but too much natural gas is bad for the economy and our health.

Natural Gas Gamble

What’s your climate plan, President Trump?

So the real question is, regardless of how the court rules, what will this Administration do to tackle today’s air pollution crisis: the need to reduce the carbon pollution that is fueling global warming?

The Clean Power Plan rule did not come about on a whim. It wasn’t rushed out the door as the Obama Administration was leaving. After decades of inaction by Congress, the EPA crafted these rules over a three year period that included consultation with scientists, state officials, power companies, and public hearings. They reviewed millions of comments from citizens around the country.  Similar to healthcare, this Administration has an obligation to replace if it intends to repeal.

Before Pruitt is confirmed, Senators and all Americans are entitled to know, if not the Clean Power Plan, then what? President Trump, how will your Administration address this huge environmental and public health problem?

Erika Bolstad Ecowatch Union of Concerned Scientists

Half-Not: 8 Things We’d Rather See the Trump Administration Cut in Half

President Trump’s new directive to cut two regulations for every new one makes as much sense as the call from the former head of his EPA transition team to cut our lead environmental agency in half: zero. If Mr. Trump and his team are really in a cut-stuff-in-half mode, there are a whole lot of much better targets for those societal scissors. Here are a few of them.

What we want more of: blue skies, clean water, time with family. At least two of those things require good regulations and a strong EPA. (Photo: J. Rogers)

Mr. Trump’s ill-conceived proclamation on regulations is an idea that Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, has rightly called “reckless”, “absurd”, and “illegal”. With the many (many) ways government agencies and regulations make our lives better, safer, healthier, it seems clear that this proposal hurts us all, from our children on up.

The new executive order echoes a statement by Mr. Trump’s erstwhile EPA transition head and vocal climate change denier, Myron Ebell, who recently advocated for cutting the EPA in half as a starting point: “Let’s aim for half and see how it works out, and then maybe we’ll want to go further.” Better idea: Let’s not.

What should we really target?

There is something appealing, though, in applying that 50% idea to the real ills that plague us in 2017, including in the energy and environment spaces, and particularly related to the EPA, as near-term targets. Here are just a few ideas of where that could work:

Smokestack at coal burning power plant in Conesville, Ohio

One of those half-this targets (Photo: justice.gov)

  1. Half the air pollution – In the power sector alone, we’ve got a range of pollutants like sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and mercury to worry about. We’ve made a lot of progress since Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act into law in 1970, but we’ve still got a way to go—and any improvements will require a robust EPA.
  2. Half the water pollution – While we’re at it, let’s cut down on bad stuff going into the lakes, rivers, and streams that we count on for so much in our daily lives. That includes thermal pollution from power plants that haven’t kicked the water habit. We know how to help. But we’re going to need the EPA, and the Clean Water Act.
  3. Half the carbon emissions – A 50% cut would be a terrific down payment on our long-term need to cut emissions of the heat-trapping gases that cause climate change. UCS has actually looked at much deeper carbon reductions in the power sector, based on ramping up low-carbon options like wind, solar, and nuclear power. A strong tool for achieving real reductions over the next dozen years, the Clean Power Plan, resides with… wait for it… the EPA.
  4. Half the natural gas risk – While renewables like wind and solar have made incredible gains in US electricity production in recent years, low natural gas prices have had a lot of states doubling down on that one fuel. That means that some states are pretty exposed to the risks of natural gas overreliance, with potentially bad implications for their consumers. There are plenty of ways of reducing those risks as we’ve laid out for the incoming head of… well, the Department of Energy.
  5. Half the oil use – If we’re talking energy, let’s not forget petroleum. My colleagues working on transportation practically invented the cut-stuff-in-half genre, with a terrific campaign for just these occasions. Half the Oil shows the way to get there through efficiency and innovation. Who has enabled efficiency standards for cars, trucks, and big rigs? Yup: the EPA.
  6. Half the inequity – While we’re fixing all these other things, we need to keep a strong eye on how the benefits get spread around, and make sure that we’re attacking head-on the unbalances that persist. Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by power plants, and by climate impacts. Environmental justice doesn’t just happen, and we have plenty of reminders that addressing it’ll take smart choices all around—starting with who we get to head the EPA.
  7. Half the monkeying with science – As more than 5,000 scientists (and counting) have declared in an open letter to Mr. Trump and Congress, “…people benefit when our nation’s policies are informed by science unfettered by inappropriate political or corporate influence.” Let’s cut the monkeying—including at the EPA (and including with really important stuff like climate science).

And, as a bonus:

  1. Half the ill-considered tweets – While we’re at it. I’m not actually on Twitter, but somehow each of those 140-character gems from on high keeps wheedling its way into the public consciousness, inciting international and domestic firestorms. I’d be okay with 50% less of that—either half as many tweets or each only half as long. (How much trouble can you possibly get into in 70 characters…?)

The list could go on. This half-it-now methodology could be good in other sectors UCS focuses on—nuclear weapons risks, for example, or unhealthy food policies.

What should be clear is that, in each of the above areas, a 50% cut would be only the next step. We have the tools to go much further.

What should be equally clear is that Mr. Trump’s proposed approach—“using a bludgeon when a scalpel would work better,” in the words of Ken Kimmell—won’t cut it. (Though it could mangle it beyond recognition.) Government regulations play a key role in our society, and we’re going to want them to continue to do that, no matter who’s sitting in the White House.

So, how about it? If Mr. Trump is truly of a mind to cut stuff, how about weighing in with more suggestions about what more could we usefully add to his 50%-off chopping list?

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