UCS Blog - Clean Energy (text only)

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?

Resist this: The Trump Administration’s Control+Alt+Delete Strategy on Climate Change

The first days of the Trump Administration have caught many of us by surprise with the volume of contestable statements, controversial orders, and provocative media appearances. Amidst this, the Administrations attacks on science are now fully underway.

At least, though, we’re clearer now what their climate change strategy is going to be, and can more effectively organize to fight it.

Tactic 1: CONTROL

If one’s goal is to undermine climate science and create an environment where the public is too uncertain to demand federal action (action that today a majority of Americans say they want), then the first thing you need to do is silence the relevant scientists under your purview.

This control is coming down swiftly in the new Administration’s first few days. First, an emboldened Congress revived a rule on January 3rd allowing them to reduce federal employee’s salary to $1. Shortly after taking control on January 20th, the Administration began ordering federal agencies to cease communication with the public. First reported were restrictions at the Department of Interior and its National Parks Service. On Monday, January 23rd, the EPA received similar orders. On Tuesday, USDA scientists joined their ranks. though outlets report that order was rescinded later in the day. By Wednesday, news broke that EPA work may be subject to review by political appointees. Bewildered scientists and citizens are watching and waiting for what comes next.

These orders can affect scientists working on a range of vital scientific inquiries and areas of public interest. But based on other of the Administration’s policy priorities, like fossil fuel development and regulatory rollbacks, control of scientists working on climate change appears to be the target.


With scientists muzzled and the flow of tax-payer-funded data, information, and science halted, it becomes difficult for the public to access solid, accessible, publicly-translated information on climate change. It also weakens our ability to check and verify an alternative narrative on climate that the new Administration might put forward.

In essence, control the science and you can begin to control the public narrative or conventional wisdom around climate change. Just when that appreciation of the climate threat is finally gelling, will they seek to dissolve it?

Tactic 2: Offer an ALTernative Reality  and ALTer science-based policy

On a recent drizzly Friday, the clouds suddenly parted and “it became really sunny” for President Trump’s inaugural speech. The rain “stopped immediately” and “a million, a million and a half people” stood on the mall to take in his speech, making this “the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period”. This didn’t actually happen; anyone watching can attest, and both crowd scientists and meteorologists would support them. But when the nominal leader of the free world tells you green is blue, you can be forgiven for missing a beat. It is still not.

Why the Administration is still investing in pointless lies now that Donald Trump is installed as President, others can speculate. But doing so is only preposterous of them if we take note each time and call it out. If we stay silent or get falsehood fatigue then it’s perfectly strategic and their Alt-reality eventually wins.

This tactic is being showcased, though more subtly, in the confirmation hearings for the President’s cabinet nominees. Rex Tillerson (nominated for Secretary of State), Scott Pruitt (for EPA administrator), Rick Perry (for Secretary of Energy), and Ryan Zinke (for Department of Interior), among others, have all acknowledged the reality of climate change but insisted in one way or another that we don’t really know why it’s happening or the degree to which humans are responsible. In the face of such uncertainty, the logic goes, inaction is the only reasonable approach. This is a brilliant new way of winding down the clock on climate action and watching the window of opportunity close—and it’s dangerous as hell.

The facts are the facts. There are no alternatives. In the media, those are called falsehoods; on the street, lies.

Under the threat of gag orders, some federal employees have gone rogue on social media, setting up mirror (but unfettered) profiles to keep speaking truth to power.

Tactic 3: DELETE

Next up, if you’re trying to roll back the clock on climate progress, you make things disappear. On day 1 of the new administration, the White House climate pages disappeared. No surprise, really; a new administration gets to start fresh with some new content. But people (like those of us here at UCS) have been watching other sites with trepidation. More recently, much of the State Department’s climate change policy content vanished. And on Thursday, the Department’s entire senior management team resigned.

What is next to go? And who else will decide they have to bail?

Today, Americans own a wealth of vital climate information, made accessible on federal websites. Data.gov/climate provides users, including local communities, with rich datasets for use in analyzing climate risks and adaptation options. The resilience toolkit organizes and connects users to the large array of resilience planning tools in an accessible, manageable platform. The EPA’s climate change web content alone covers climate change science and indicators, emissions reduction tools, climate justice, and climate adaptation training for local governments.

Because of resources like this, we’ve become a country with the means to assess and plan for climate change and to reduce global warming emissions at the local, state, and national level.

Conflicting reports have been circulating about the impending removal of additional federal climate web pages. Interviewed around the time of this posting, Myron Ebell, until recently Trump’s EPA transition lead, spoke of the Administration’s goals for deep cuts to EPA staff numbers.

A key effect of taking sites down and, more broadly hobbling the science capacity at these agencies is a populace with diminished access to climate change expertise and information—and perhaps motivation to act. The benefits of this accrue only to those interested in a fossil-fuel, business-as-usual future. The costs on the other hand—a diminished ability to address climate change—are paid by all of us.

As my colleague, Alden Meyer, said recently, “Any legitimate analysis shows that the costs of climate impacts to communities and businesses are huge and mounting, while the benefits of the clean energy revolution that offers a major part of the solution to the climate crisis are clear. The agenda being pursued by the Trump Administration is designed to benefit the fossil fuel industry and other polluters, at a tremendous cost to the rest of the economy and to the health and well-being of all Americans.”

The EPA is one of several federal agencies that, together, house the bulk of our federal climate change resources and information.

The Resistance:

Many Americans clearly don’t want to take it. This administration is finding itself facing resistance (and scrutiny) like no other.

Just a couple of examples :

Climate change impacts everyone—black, white, gay, straight, Democrat, Republican. It's time for action. #resist https://t.co/O86UeUaOkC

— Rogue NASA (@RogueNASA) January 26, 2017

Stand Up for Science

Each of us can help resist the attacks on science, scientists, and those immutable but easily suppressed facts. These attacks are likely to grow. In addition to this helpful list, some suggestions:

Show up:

Pick up the phone:

  • Call your legislator and urge them to help safeguard federal scientific research, datasets, tools, reports and websites. Read my colleague’s blog for more background. As he says “It’s important that your elected officials hear your voice directly about what’s at stake in your state or local community, especially since in a few days confirmation votes for cabinet positions will be coming up. Follow our guide below to get contact information for your Senators, and tips for a successful call with their staff members: http://www.ucsusa.org/action/phone-calls.html”
  • Ask your Senators, specifically, to question Pruitt on the EPA scientist gag and science review orders. Political appointees shouldn’t decide what science gets published and whether federal scientists can speak to tax-payer funded science. Does Pruitt commit to supporting the flow of EPA science, including climate science, and the public speech of scientists?
  • Tweet or otherwise share your support for government agencies (specifically, today, EPA, NPS, USDA, and NIH) and the freedom of federal scientists to be transparent about their work with their colleagues and the public.
  • Know a federal scientist? These may be difficult times for many. Reach out in some way and let them know you’ve got their back.

Stay up-to-date and engaged. This is a fast moving environment. There will be LOTS TO DO and the priorities will shift. UCS and other organizations can help keep you informed and supplied with actions. If you’re an expert, you can sign up for the UCS Science Network. If you’re a concerned citizen, you can join our Action Network.

Wherever you go for updates and to-dos, thank you for staying informed and engaged. We all need each others’ sustained energy, ideas, and action in the coming months.

Our Democracy has always depended on science; it does as much now as ever. And with science under assault, we need to stand up. To paraphrase a popular chant from recent marches: this is what patriotism looks like.

Scott Pruitt and Anti-Science Activity at the EPA

The first week of the Trump administration is underway and, suffice to say, it has been a bad week for science. Scientists at several federal agencies have been told they can no longer speak to the media or use social media; staff at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was notified that scientific work will be reviewed by political appointees, that climate web content was being removed, and that all contracts and grants by the agency were on hold.

It seems relevant to ask President Trump’s nominee for EPA administrator if he supports these actions. To that end, I sent the following letter to the Senate this afternoon.

Dear Senators,

As you review EPA Administrator nominee Scott Pruitt’s written answers to numerous questions for the record and consider whether or not to support his confirmation, you should be aware that over the past several days, the Trump administration has attempted to undermine science at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Specifically, the news media reported the administration ordered:

  • Removal of Web content on climate change
  • Vetting of scientific work by political staff before public release
  • A freeze on many grants and contracts

These actions are very concerning, and if Mr. Pruitt supports them, that should disqualify him as administrator. Each of these actions directly undermines the EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment.

Orwellian demands to shut down informational websites and prevent the release of scientific findings don’t change the reality of climate change: seas will keep rising, more communities will be flooded more often, storms will be stronger, and wildfires will be more likely and more damaging when coupled with higher temperatures and more frequent droughts.

While it appears that exposure by the news media has prompted the administration to at least temporarily rescind its order to remove Web content on climate change, there is no guarantee that new orders will not emerge unless we have pledges from Mr. Pruitt to safeguard public access to scientific information about climate change and other issues. Indeed, several climate change–related Web pages and reports have been removed from the State Department website.

Public servants should be free to state simple scientific facts. Americans have the right to see and benefit from taxpayer-funded research, and scientists have the right to share their findings openly and honestly, without political pressure, manipulation, or suppression. Political staff should never be in charge of deciding what scientific conclusions the public is allowed to see.

Freezing grants and contracts would almost certainly increase health risks for children and other vulnerable people in our country. American taxpayers would not receive the science-based information we all invest in to protect public health and our environment. This freeze means, for example, that the community grant program for safe drinking water may be delayed, increasing health risks in those communities that need help the most. It also means that the EPA’s AirData website, which provides access to air quality data collected from outdoor air monitors around the nation, is no longer collecting and posting data, jeopardizing the health of children, the elderly, and people with respiratory illness. Parents, families, communities, and research institutions that rely on this information to make health-related decisions (everything from letting children play outside on a bad air day to developing municipal plans to improve air quality) would be in the dark. And it means student interns and young researchers may lose opportunities in the STEM education fields that are so critically important. These are just a few of the consequences of this reckless decision.

Without research and monitoring, it becomes harder for states and communities to hold polluters accountable, and unfairly penalizes the majority of businesses that play by the rules and care about the health of their communities.

The Senate needs a clear answer about whether Attorney General Pruitt was aware of these actions and approved of them—and whether he’ll actually enforce the EPA’s scientific integrity policy. To ensure that Mr. Pruitt is intent on upholding and advancing the mission of the EPA to protect Americans’ health, he must commit to preserving and honestly presenting scientific information and defending the right of government scientists to do their work unimpeded. If he is unwilling to do so, that is all the more reason to vote no on his nomination.


Kenneth Kimmell

President, Union of Concerned Scientists

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

You Can’t Delete Climate Change

And so it continues… today brought news that the Trump administration had directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remove its climate change web page and clamped down on any public communication from agency staff.

As of now, key EPA sites are still online and there is news that there is, at least temporarily, a ‘stand down’ of the order to scrub the web page. Is this a sign that scientists calling attention to this quickly caused a change of mind? (Meanwhile, another related update: a news story (paywall) and a google search of the Department of State’s website indicate that much of the climate-related information seems to have been removed.)

I am stunned that we Americans should even have to be concerned about these types of edicts: Are we in the Middle Ages again?

Why are President Trump and his administration afraid of science?

There’s no getting around the facts of climate change

Despite these Orwellian attempts to remove climate change from agency websites, prevent staff from speaking up, and generally slow or stop federal climate action, there’s no getting around the facts. Climate change is real, our carbon emissions are causing it, it’s already having a costly and harmful effect on our lives, and those risks will grow if we fail to act.

That’s why everyone from the US Department of Defense to the World Economic Forum is taking the risks of climate change seriously.

The president has previously called climate change a “hoax.” His cabinet nominees (including Rex Tillerson, Scott Pruitt, and Rick Perry) used talking points at their recent hearings that basically amount to a dangerous new type of climate denial. They acknowledged that climate change is real but continued to sow doubt about its human causes, setting up yet another reason to avoid taking serious action now to curtail our carbon emissions.

Lest there be any doubt, there is overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is happening AND that the primary cause is carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. America’s premier scientists at the National Academy of Sciences agree, and this is the near-universal consensus of scientists around the world.

We also know that if we make deep cuts in our carbon emissions, we can slow the pace of climate change and limit its harmful impacts. But we have to act quickly.

There’s only one reason for this dangerous censorship of science: Pandering to fossil fuel interests, and putting their profits ahead of the health and well-being of all Americans. And then there’s that padding of the cabinet with appointees with strong links to the industry.

Science is stubborn

As my colleague Alden Meyer put it:

“President Trump and his team are pursuing what I call a ‘control-alt-delete’ strategy: control the scientists in the federal agencies, alter science-based policies to fit their narrow ideological agenda, and delete scientific information from government websites.”

But science and facts have a way of coming out on top despite the best attempts of politicians to duck inconvenient truths and distort reality. As President John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Meanwhile these insidious attempts to undermine climate science are causing us to lose precious time in our response to it, slowing down our transition to a clean energy economy and impeding our efforts to protect communities from climate impacts.

The EPA and climate science 

So what’s at stake at the EPA? Along with other federal agencies like NOAA (part of the Department of Commerce), the EPA is on the front lines of our nation’s response to climate change. Some of the crucial work the EPA does includes, among other things:

Widespread support for tackling climate change

There is widespread support from businesses, labor, faith groups, health professionals, environmental justice groups, environmental groups, and scientists on the urgent need to tackle climate change.

Poll data repeatedly points to strong bipartisan support for renewable energy, including wind and solar power. Yet, ironically the new administration’s America First Energy Plan simply perpetuates our dependence on fossil fuels and completely avoids any mention of renewable energy. Hopefully, the administration’s big infrastructure package will include investments in grid modernization and renewable energy.

With the costs of wind and solar dropping dramatically, now is the time to double down on these clean, homegrown forms of affordable energy. Else we will cede leadership to China and other nations that are stepping up to act on climate.

Yes, we also have to ensure that our transition to a clean energy economy includes policies to help coal mining communities and other communities that depend on fossil fuels for their livelihoods. And clean energy and clean energy jobs should also be available in low-income communities and communities of color.

But we can’t avoid dealing with climate change.

Part of a larger trend of anti-science rhetoric from the Trump administration

The anti-science rhetoric from the new administration is dangerous and without precedent.

Scientists are alarmed. They are working together to preserve critical datasets and research that are at risk of censorship from the Trump administration. They’ve held protest rallies at scientific meetings and sent letters to the administration.

They are also concerned about budget and staffing cuts at key agencies charged with providing data critical for our economy (including weather and tide forecasts), and crucial for our understanding of how our climate is changing.

Amidst it all, Commerce Secretary nominee Wilbur Ross has emerged as a beacon of hope, asserting in his hearing and in a letter to Senator Bill Nelson that he would support the work of NOAA scientists.

The letter says:

I believe science should be left to scientists. If confirmed, I intend to see that the Department provides the public with as much factual and accurate data as we have available. It is public tax dollars that support the Department’s scientific research, and barring some national security concern, I see no valid reason to keep peer reviewed research from the public. To be clear, by peer review I mean scientific review and not a political filter.

President Trump and the other agency heads he appoints should take a similar approach. What’s at stake are core values—including freedom of speech, scientific integrity, and the importance of basing our policies on sound science. These are not partisan issues, and neither is climate change.

What’s your plan for climate change, President Trump?

The new administration should take the climate threat seriously and propose solutions, not pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. These solutions could look different from those of the Obama administration but simply overturning all our existing climate policies and undermining climate science at federal agencies is not a plan.

President Trump, what is your plan to protect us and our children and grandchildren from climate change?

Gutting the EPA Hurts Real People

News reports indicate that the Trump administration has big plans underway to undermine the work of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the lead agency working to protect our health and the environment from pollution. One troublesome development has already happened: last Friday the EPA was instructed to freeze all its grants and contracts, a move that could seriously impede the agency’s work the longer it is in place.

This is bad news for all Americans, especially our nation’s children.

Instead of blatantly attempting to put fossil fuel interests ahead of our clean air and clean water, the Trump administration must instead show us how it will protect our health and well-being.

Why we need the EPA

Clean air and clean water are not just “nice to have.”

Pollutants like smog, ozone, and mercury contribute to worsening asthma attacks (especially in young children), heart and lung ailments, and even premature death. What’s more, pollution imposes billions of dollars in costs to the economy in terms of hospital and other health costs, lost work days, lost school days, and other burdens, in addition to pain and suffering.

The EPA was established nearly 50 years ago, under President Nixon, with a mission to protect human health and the environment. Since then, across Republican and Democratic administrations, it has played an important role in responding to environmental disasters, from the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident to the catastrophic 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee.

Equally important, the EPA has worked to implement major environmental laws passed by Congress, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which have helped to significantly to drive down harmful pollution and improve the health of Americans.

We need only look to the air quality in Beijing or New Delhi to understand where our country would be without these fundamental protections. Americans need and depend on the EPA to be our watchdog and guardian.

Gutting the EPA hurts real people

Efforts to gut the EPA—via budget and staffing cuts, cuts in research grants and activities, or by stopping the implementation of key public health safeguards—will hurt real people. These actions would almost certainly mean more children getting sick and American taxpayers not getting the science-based protections and information we have invested in.

When big car companies like Volkswagen and Fiat Chrysler evade our nation’s emissions laws, it is the EPA that takes the lead in bringing them into compliance (using science and methods that sometimes come from independent investigators such as the West Virginia University team that first discovered the so-called defeat device in VW vehicles).

The EPA works with Tribal communities to help with the cleanup of toxic waste sites, reduce pollution from fossil fuels, and expand access to information such as the toxic release inventory that helps all communities know their risks.

The EPA’s AirData website provides access to air quality data collected from outdoor air monitors around the nation, a vital source of information for communities and researchers.

The EPA’s Brownfields grant programs helps communities around the country to safely clean up and reuse properties contaminated by pollutants and hazardous wastes. These type of actions have helped revitalize neighborhoods and foster thriving communities in places once considered “blighted.”

These are just a few examples of the valuable work the EPA does. ­­­­­­­­­­­­There’s a lot more work to do to continue our progress on cleaning up our air and water, particularly in low-income communities, communities of color, and tribal communities—which bear a disproportionate burden of pollution from fossil fuels and industrial sources. There’s always room for improvement, including in beefing up enforcement of existing laws.

But there is no good reason to undertake drastic measures to undermine the fundamental work of the agency, except to pander to the interests of polluting industries that care more about their bottom line than the costs they are imposing on society at large.

Health vs. economic growth is a false choice

We shouldn’t have to choose between our health and a thriving economy—and past experience shows we don’t need to. For example, the data show 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.

In fact, if we act in a short-sighted way and reduce commonsense safeguards, we will undermine future economic growth and have to divert more and more resources to dealing with health problems and cleaning up environmental harms.

We can and should reduce pollution in a fair way that integrates economic prosperity and a cleaner, healthier environment. Americans deserve no less.

Using science and economics to tackle pollution

The EPA’s work is informed by robust science. For example, in setting pollution standards the EPA must take into account what the latest medical studies show about the impacts of pollutants like ozone or mercury on human health. Regulations are also informed by the latest science on cost-effective pollution control technologies and practices.

And for many pollutants the EPA must also do a cost-benefit analysis to ensure that the standards are being set in a way that takes into account the costs of pollution controls relative to the public health benefits. These types of cost-benefit analyses have been a mainstay of regulatory policy dating back to the Reagan Administration, and use very standard mainstream economic methods.

Of course, for toxic pollutants that pose an acute risk to human health, such as mercury, standards are set based on public health criteria as the law requires.

Additionally, the EPA administrator regularly solicits expert opinions from independent scientists and experts, including through the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) and the Science Advisory Board (SAB), both of which were created under direction from Congress in the late 1970s. The CASAC has weighed in on issues such as the appropriate setting of ozone standards and standards for nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides. The SAB has been tapped to provide input on several key issues including the economy-wide modeling of the benefits and costs of environmental regulation and a review of the impacts of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas on drinking water.

What’s your plan for clean air and water, President Trump?

Setting smart cost-effective public health standards has helped improve our air and water, drive innovation in clean technologies, and allowed robust economic growth to continue alongside. Let’s not turn back the clock on progress, putting our kids at risk of breathing dirtier air or drinking unsafe water.

President Trump, what’s your plan to protect our children from pollution?

California Dreamin’ of a Clean Electricity Grid

My daughter is almost a year old, so lately I’ve been reading a lot of books about farm animals. It’s been fun to practice animal noises, but it has also felt a little strange to teach my daughter about a lifestyle that fewer Americans experience. It’s gotten me thinking about what else in our daily lives might look different by the time my daughter is a teenager.  For instance, is everyone going to own their own car in the future? Or even drive their own car, for that matter?

I am an energy wonk, so inevitably my thoughts about the future turn to what the electricity grid will look like. The technologies that keep our lights on, heat and cool our homes, and run our appliances may look different in the next 15 to 20 years. Indeed, they will need to be different if California is going to do its part to rein in climate change and avert the catastrophic impacts of extreme heat, droughts, floods, fires, and sea level rise. Thankfully, our state passed a bill last year—Senate Bill (SB) 32—that established strong targets to dramatically cut carbon emissions: 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

 Sharon Danke

Source: Sharon Danke







In the next year, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) will map out a plan for how the state will achieve these critical carbon reduction targets. That plan, called the 2030 Target Scoping Plan, will identify on how the different economic sectors in the state, including the electricity sector, will need to evolve by 2030. Together with my climate, water, and clean vehicles colleagues at the UCS, in December 2016 we submitted details of our vision for how California can succeed in achieving the ambitious climate targets. Here are elements of my vision for the modern, upgraded, and clean energy grid:

  • Much more of our electricity will come from clean, renewable energy generation. At the end of 2015, California was satisfying about 27% of its electricity needs with renewables. By 2030, this will grow to at least 50%, thanks to SB 350, a law that California passed in 2015. The cost of renewables, especially solar PV, continues to drop, so it’s feasible that by 2030 we could rely on renewables for an even higher percentage of our electricity needs.
  • Many more buildings will host rooftop solar. There are more than 625,000 small-scale solar PV projects installed in the state, representing nearly 5 GW of generation capacity. There is no end in sight to the state’s appetite for rooftop solar, and I think it’s safe to say that by 2030, it will be hard not to spot rooftop solar panels in any city.
  • We will heat and cool many of our homes with electricity, not natural gas. A key strategy for reducing carbon emissions is reducing our reliance on natural gas. In addition to replacing gas-fired electricity generators with renewables, we need to be swapping our gas furnaces and water heaters for electric heat pumps and electric water heaters.
  • Batteries and other energy storage technologies to make the most of wind and solar power. Energy storage will help us to rely on electricity from wind and solar resources, even when the sun is shining or the wind not blowing. Tesla’s Gigafactory has begun to churn out lithium-ion batteries and there is no question that production at this scale will help to bring down the cost of this technology.
  • Appliances will be smarter about when, and when not, to run. Companies like Stem and OhmConnect are already tapping into the vast potential benefits of reducing electricity demand when the cost to generate is high, when the generation sources are dirty, or when slight adjustments in electricity demand can mimic grid reliability services traditionally provided by fossil fuels. Consumer tools, e.g. time-varying rates and programmable appliances, can help shift electricity demand towards times of the day when renewables are most plentiful (like the afternoon when solar power is at its peak).
  • Electric vehicles will be a much larger part of the vehicle fleet. Moving away from gasoline powered cars and light-duty trucks and buses and towards ones powered by clean electricity will make a dramatic dent in the carbon and air pollution that these vehicles emit today. If done the right way, EVs can actually help to integrate larger quantities of renewables.

California already has policies in place to achieve many of the carbon reduction measures I’ve described. The state has established goals for energy efficiency and at least 50% renewables through 2030, and has made increased vehicle electrification a priority. But other objectives such as installing more energy storage may need additional policy support to gain momentum so UCS is urging the CARB to pay greater attention to areas where the state still has work to do.

[Note: My UCS colleagues Adrienne Alvord and Don Anair with expertise in specific sectors are also writing blogs describing our vision for achieving California’s climate goals by 2030 through a deep decarbonization roadmap and better transportation choices.]

I’m grateful my daughter lives in a state that is leading the transition to an electricity system that provides clean, safe, and reliable power for all of its residents. I want her to be able to recognize a solar panel and electric car as quickly as she can spot a cow or a pig from her farm books today. Anyone know of a kid song about programmable smart thermostats?

A Climate Action Roadmap: California Steps Up in Uncertain Times:

The New Year ushers in a new U.S. presidential administration and a lot of uncertainty and angst for people who care about taking decisive action on climate change ( polls indicate that’s most of us.)  It’s not clear whether the incoming administration is willing to fulfill U.S. commitments for the Paris Climate Accord and since the nominee to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has sued to overturn the Clean Power Plan, which dovetails with Trump campaign promises to kill the plan, it appears the signature federal policy actions of the last decade to tackle climate change are in grave danger.

Of course, UCS will fight hard any actions to reverse progress on climate change and we will also continue to work for further progress. But unfortunately, it looks like we’re heading into an era when climate action at the federal level will be on the defensive. Does this mean the end of U.S. climate action for the foreseeable future?

No way, would be my answer.  There’s a great deal that can be and is being done by states, regions, and cities to aggressively decarbonize our economy, notably our energy and transportation systems that are the source of the majority of emissions, and these actions can be very far-reaching indeed.

As has been true for well over the last decade, some of the most comprehensive and aggressive climate action is being taken by California, currently the world’s sixth largest economy.  California is not alone, as Oregon and Washington made impressive progress to address climate change last year and are poised to do more, and the three west coast states together could well be on the verge of creating a strong, prosperous regional bulwark in the national struggle to address climate change. I will address the actions and opportunities in the Pacific Northwest in future blogs.

A New Roadmap for Deep Decarbonization Image result for sb 32 signing

Governor Jerry Brown signs SB 32 and AB 197 into law, adopting the nation’s strongest carbon emissions reductions in the country, surrounded by SB 32 bill author state Senator Fran Pavley and AB 197 author Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia and other legislators.

In 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown created an executive order  to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and last year the State Legislature passed a pair of bills, SB 32 (Pavley) and AB 197 (E. Garcia) that Governor Brown signed in September 2016, giving those targets the force of law.  And now, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) is about to publish the roadmap to guide California on how it will achieve and enforce those reductions.

This roadmap, called the 2030 Target Scoping Plan, covers the entire economy and includes specific sectors like energy, transportation, water, agriculture, and manufacturing.  The 2030 Target Scoping Plan is enormous in its range and ambition, building on the success of California’s previous law to reduce global warming pollution emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, a goal that the state is currently on track to achieve.

The 2030 Scoping Plan lays out a future where the state is powered largely by clean renewable energy, transported by electric vehicles and fueled by low-carbon and non-fossil alternatives to oil-based fuels, and where energy efficiency and sustainable water management reduce greenhouse gas emissions while saving consumers money.  It ramps up requirements for the dirtiest emitters, and recommends a price on carbon (a continuation of the state’s cap-and-trade program) to help achieve some of the most difficult and expensive reductions at lower cost.  And it seeks to ensure that frontline communities that have already suffered a disproportionate burden from pollution get cleaner air and tools they need to meet the threats posed by climate change.

Reducing Emissions and Growing the Economy

These are the kinds of big-picture approaches the entire country and the world will need in order to tackle climate change. Having California – with a very large and complex economy and diverse population – demonstrate successful climate action is both timely and sorely needed.  Since passing its first economy-wide greenhouse gas reduction law in 2006, the state has already proven climate naysayers, who frequently oppose climate action with dire predictions of economic catastrophe, completely wrong by demonstrating that emissions can be reduced while growing the economy.

The last few years have seen disturbing signs of a dangerously changing climate, including record-breaking annual temperatures, wildfires destroying millions of acres of forests, extreme drought like the one in California, and increasingly rapid melting Arctic and Antarctic ice, which could trigger dangerous rates of sea level rise and other dire consequences for the planet.  Climate change is occurring faster than some had predicted, and it is already destroying lives and property, fueling wars and civil discord, and putting severe stress on local and national economies.  So the actions that California takes– bold, ambitious, and transformative– are necessary. The lessons we learn from paving the road to a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable, economy that lowers risk from climate change will have benefits far beyond the state’s borders.

Stay Tuned for Progress and Pushback

Of course, in such a large plan the devil is in the details, and with such a vast undertaking there are always improvements that can be made.  UCS has sent our comments on the 2030 Scoping Plan draft to the Air Resources Board in December describing ways the draft version of the plan could be strengthened to ensure California reduces emissions and builds resilience. My UCS colleagues Laura Wisland and Don Anair with expertise in specific sectors are also writing blogs describing our vision for achieving California’s climate goals by 2030 through a clean electricity grid and better transportation.

And, as usual, we will also need to work hard to thwart the inevitable pushback from opponents of climate action, especially those in the fossil fuel industry who are profiting from the status quo.  UCS will keep you apprised of when and where we need to stand up to those efforts.

We Must Seize the Moment to Achieve a Better Future

California’s climate goals present an opportunity to build a low-carbon economy that supports growth and innovation, enhances our health and quality of life, and lifts up disadvantaged communities that have suffered the most from the legacy of pollution. We now have a roadmap — it’s time to get moving. And we hope this roadmap can help inspire new journeys in other states, regions, and cities all over the nation for how we can make real and significant progress, regardless of what happens in Washington, DC.

3 Reasons Why Federal Energy R&D is a Wise Investment

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry will head into confirmation hearings in the next few days to become the next Secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE). A colleague of mine penned a great piece about what we might expect from Perry as head of the DOE. One key thing to highlight is that the DOE is responsible for investments in research and development (R&D), particularly related to energy. In an era where Congress is looking to trim federal spending, they should keep in mind that investments in energy R&D are a wise and proper use of limited federal government resources. Here’s why.

What exactly is R&D, and how much does it cost?

First, what exactly do we mean by R&D? Research and development generally refers to basic and applied research that leads to the creation of new products or the improvement of existing products—companies, for example, typically invest in R&D to maintain their leadership and market share.

So why should the federal government care about R&D? In short, there are many examples of innovation and discoveries that are simply too big and too risky for any single private enterprise to undertake. In these cases, the federal government recognizes the importance to society of research and development and advances technologies to the point where businesses and entrepreneurs can take over.

The benefits to society are broad, ranging from medical technology to clean energy. Federal investments in R&D have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support, and that should continue.

And, the investments are small, compared to the overall federal budget. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which has been tracking federal investments in R&D for decades, the federal government spent about $64 billion on non-defense R&D in FY16, amounting to about 1.6 percent of the total federal budget. The DOE received about $14.4 billion in total R&D in FY16, a mere 0.36 percent of the total federal budget. And that includes a lot of important basic research that is not what we typically think of as “energy.”


Federal agency spending on R&D, including both defense and non-defense programs.

Federal agency spending on R&D, including both defense and non-defense programs.

H/T to AAAS and their cool interactive data page, where I pulled the chart above, and where you can geek out over different ways of looking at this information.

So, here are the top three reasons why Congress should maintain support for federal energy R&D programs, even as they consider tightening the federal purse strings.

1 – Federal investments in energy R&D strengthen the economy

Federal R&D stimulates the economy and creates jobs.

  • For starters, some 110,000 people are employed by our national labs, which are managed by the DOE;
  • Universities currently receive some 60 percent of their research funding from the federal government, helping to train the next generation of scientists and engineers in STEM education;
  • Research conducted at the DOE and the national labs leads to ideas and technology that entrepreneurs can pick up and run with. There is so much demand for new technologies that Oak Ridge National Laboratory last year opened an office in Chattanooga in order to “link local companies to the national laboratory’s resources and expertise.”
  • Signed into law by President Bush in 2007, the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has been successful in overcoming the long-term and high risk barriers to developing innovative energy technologies. Since 2009, ARPA-E has funded over 400 energy technology projects. As of October 2016, ARPA-E teams have formed 30 new companies and 45 projects teams have attracted more than $1.25 million in private-sector follow-on funding.
2 – Federal investments in energy R&D are critical to advancing new life-changing technologies

I can’t possibly list in one short blog post how much our collective lives have been improved and changed because of federal investments in energy R&D. Just to name a few:

  • At the DOE, decades of investments in R&D on hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques have opened up unconventional oil and gas resources, leading to a dramatic decline in natural gas prices over the last ten years. One can argue about the positives and negatives of this technology (for example, we are very worried about an overreliance on natural gas), but there’s no question that these investments have fundamentally changed our electricity system.
  • R&D for carbon capture and sequestration is critical to making this technology cost effective, which is needed if coal and natural gas are to play a significant part in our energy system moving forward in a carbon-constrained world.
  • In the category of “things most of us never think about,” exhibit A is flipping on the lights. Here too, the DOE’s work modernizing the electricity grid is critical—and Rick Perry understands a thing or two about energy infrastructure.
3 – Federal investments in energy R&D demonstrate and maintain American leadership

Finally, federal investments in R&D ensure that America maintains a competitive advantage globally.

  • Back in 2015, the U.S. signed on to Mission Innovation, which is a global initiative to accelerate public and private clean energy innovation. Twenty countries signed onto the initiative seeking to double R&D investments in clean energy over five years. Even though this commitment was made during the Obama administration, it should receive bipartisan support because it will help maintain American leadership in the clean energy space.
  • Drastic reductions in the cost of wind energy are, in part, a result of the $2.4 billion dollars invested by the DOE in wind R&D between 1976 and 2014, which has enabled many key innovations such as the taller turbines, longer blades, and improved electronics.
  • The DOE estimates that the $4.1 billion investment in PV technology research and development (R&D) from 1975 through 2008 accelerated the cost reduction progress by an estimated 12 years, while providing a net economic benefit of $16.5 billion.
  • Public-private partnerships R&D investments have also been critical in bringing down costs for LED lighting by 90 percent since 2008

For those last three bullets, check out this DOE report from 2015.


Governor Perry should recognize the importance of federal R&D investments in energy; from his time in Texas, he certainly understands the value of these investments in terms of local economic development. I’ve highlighted only a small sample of ways that federal investments in energy R&D have benefited society—there are many, many more. And those benefits have come at a relatively small cost to taxpayers.

And the benefits of all federal R&D investments extend beyond the energy sector. America won the space race back in the 1960s because the federal government made it a priority, and ponied up the cash to make it happen. The benefits to society have been far-reaching, not the least of which was inspiring an entire generation of men and women to pursue careers in science and engineering. Congress should remember that federal investments in R&D represent some of the biggest bang-for-the-federal-buck of any use of taxpayer money.

Can Trump Revive the Coal Industry? Lessons from the Petra Nova and Kemper Projects

During the campaign, President-elect Trump promised to revive the coal industry.  As others have reported, gutting EPA regulations designed to protect public health and the climate will have little impact in reviving the industry since the recent decline in burning coal to generate electricity is primarily due to low natural gas prices and cost reductions for wind and solar power. Ironically, rolling back regulations on the oil and natural gas industry would likely make it even more difficult for coal to compete economically.

Trump has also supported the development of so-called “clean coal” as a way to revive the industry. A key component to making coal cleaner is the process of capturing the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from burning coal in power plants or industrial facilities, and transporting and storing the CO2 underground so that it cannot add the to atmospheric build-up of carbon emissions that is driving climate change (a process otherwise known as carbon capture and storage, or CCS). While UCS supports CCS as a potential climate solution, we believe the term “clean coal” is an oxymoron because of other environmental and public health impacts of using coal across its fuel cycle.

CCS is not a new idea.  The Obama Administration invested about $4.8 billion in CCS and the Bush Administration spent millions on R&D, tax credits and loan guarantees for CCS. Since the primary reason to do CCS is to reduce carbon emissions, one big question is will Trump support funding for CCS if he truly believes climate change is a hoax?

With the Petra Nova project in Texas beginning commercial operation on January 10, and the Kemper project in Mississippi currently scheduled to go online by January 31, coal with CCS technology has reached an important milestone.

Both projects received federal incentives from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that were vitally important to their development. Below I discuss some key lessons learned from these projects, the implications for future projects if Rick Perry becomes DOE Secretary, and the longer-term outlook for CCS as a potential climate solution.


Petra Nova post-combustion CO2 capture project at an existing pulverized coal plant near Houston, TX. Source: NRG.

The tale of two CCS projects

The Petra Nova and Kemper projects have a few similarities and several differences that offer valuable lessons and insights for future CCS projects. Both projects will inject CO2 into depleted oil fields for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), sequestering the CO2 while increasing pressure at the aging field to produce more oil and help offset costs. However, the projects use different generation and capture technologies, burn different types of coal, and have considerably different costs (see Table 1).

Petra Nova is a 240 Megawatt (MW) post-combustion capture facility installed at an existing pulverized coal plant near Houston that’s designed to capture 90 percent of the total CO2 emissions. A joint venture between NRG and JX Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration, the plant uses low sulfur, sub-bituminous coal from the Power River Basin in Wyoming.

Petra Nova was completed on time and on-budget in 2 years for $1 billion. It will also receive up to $190 million in incentives from DOE’s Clean Coal Power Initiative. In addition, NRG and JX Nippon have equity stakes in the oil field where they will be doing EOR, allowing them to capture more value.

Kemper is a new 582 MW integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) power plant in Kemper County Mississippi that’s designed to capture 65 percent of the project’s CO2 emissions prior to combustion when it is still in a relatively concentrated and pressurized form. Owned by Mississippi Power (a subsidiary of Southern Company), the plant will use low-grade lignite coal from a mine next to the plant.

Kemper has been under construction for 6.5 years, is nearly 3 years behind schedule, and the capital cost has more than tripled from $2.2 billion to over $7 billion. It will receive up to $270 million from DOE’s Clean Coal Power Initiative.

One reason for Kemper’s high cost and delay is that they added CCS to a brand new coal IGCC power plant, whereas Petra Nova added CCS to an existing pulverized coal plant. Another reason cited by the New York Times is Southern Company’s mismanagement of Kemper, including allegations of drastically understating the project’s cost and timetable and intentionally hiding problems.

Southern Company’s December filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) shows cost increases of $25-35 million per month from Kemper’s most recent delays. They also lost at least $250 million in tax benefits by not placing the plant into service by December 31, 2016.  This is on top of $133 million in tax credits they had to repay the IRS for missing the original May 2014 in-service deadline. In November, they also increased the estimated first year non-fuel operations and maintenance expenses by $68 million.

Customers could pay up to $4.2 billion for Kemper under a cost cap set by the Mississippi Public Service Commission. Southern Company shareholders will absorb nearly $2.7 billion of the cost overruns.

Kemper is also having a negative impact on Fitch ratings for Southern Company. In contrast, Fitch ratings for Cooperative Energy (formerly the South Mississippi Electric Power Association) were recently upgraded from A- to A after bailing out of their 15 percent ownership stake in the project and moving from coal to natural gas and renewables.

Comparison of Kemper and Petra Nova Coal CCS Projects Kemper Petra Nova Type of power plant New integrated gasification combined cycle plant Existing pulverized coal plant retrofit Generation Capacity 582 MW 240 MW Ownership Mississippi Power and KBR NRG and JX Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration Power Plant Location Kemper County, Mississippi Near Houston, TX Type of coal Mississippi Lignite WY Powder River Basin sub-bituminous, low sulfur CO2 Capture Rate 65% 90% CO2 Capture Volume 3.5 million tons/yr 1.6 million tons/yr CO2 Capture Type Pre-combustion Post-combustion CO2 Capture Method Absorption physical solvent-based process (Selexol) Absorption chemical solvent-based process (Amine) CO2 Storage Enhanced Oil Recovery Enhanced Oil Recovery CO2 Transportation 61 mile pipeline to storage site 82 mile pipeline to storage site Construction Period 6.5 years 2 years Schedule Delay 3 years No delay Original Capital Cost $2.2 billion ($3,780/kW) $1 billion ($4,167/kW) Final Capital Cost $7 billion ($12,027/kW) $1 billion ($4,167/kW) DOE Incentives $270 million $190 million

Sources:  MIT, Global CCS Institute, NRG, Kemper project site.

How many CCS demonstration projects are needed?

In 2008, a UCS report titled Coal Power in a Warming World called for building 5-10 full-scale integrated CCS demonstrations projects at coal-fired plants in the U.S. to test different generation and capture technologies and storing CO2 in different sequestration sites. Our recommendations were consistent with recommendations from MIT’s 2007 Future of Coal report and a 2007 report by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. In 2009, former DOE Secretary Steven Chu set a goal for the U.S. to have 10 CCS demonstration projects in-service by 2016. In 2010, the White House Interagency Carbon Capture and Storage Task Force also recommended bringing 5 to 10 commercial demonstration projects online by 2016.

Unfortunately, the U.S. is lagging behind these targets.  While there are 8 large scale CCS projects currently operating in the U.S., Petra Nova is the only large scale CCS project operating at a power plant, according to the Global CCS Institute. Besides Kemper, the only other power plant project listed under development is the Texas Clean Energy Project, which recently lost its DOE funding because of escalating costs and missed deadlines (see more below). The high profile FutureGen project in Illinois was also cancelled after DOE discontinued funding in 2015 because of cost increases and construction delays.

The 110 MW Boundary Dam project in Canada is the only other large-scale power plant coal with CCS project currently operating outside of the U.S.  After encountering several problems during its first year of operation that reduced the capture rate from 90 percent to 40 percent, the project performed much better in 2016.  Before declaring success at Petra Nova and Kemper, these projects will likely also have to go through a similar teething process to work out any bugs in the technology.

Eight more power plant CCS projects are in different stages of development in China, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.

Rick Perry’s support for coal

Under the Obama Administration, the DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy and the National Technology Laboratory (NETL) have administered a robust Carbon Capture R&D program. The primary goal of this program is to lower the cost and energy penalty of second generation CCS technologies, resulting in a captured cost of CO2 less than $40/tonne in the 2020-2025 timeframe. Given Perry’s record of supporting coal as Governor of Texas, there’s a good chance he would support continued R&D funding for coal with CCS projects if he becomes DOE Secretary.  Here are a few examples:

  • In 2005, Perry issued a controversial executive order to fast-track the permitting process for 11 coal plants (without CCS) proposed by TXU, now called Energy Futures Holdings. UCS and other groups strongly opposed this coal build-out, which would have been disastrous for the climate. Only 3 of the plants were ultimately built.
  • In 2002, he supported setting-up a clean coal technology council in Texas.
  • In 2009, he signed a bill with tax incentives for clean coal to support projects like the Texas Clean Energy Project, a 400 MW coal gasification with CCS project in West Texas proposed by Summit Power Group. After missing several key deadlines and with the cost nearly doubling to $4 billion, the DOE discontinued funding in May 2016 (after spending $167 million) and asked Congress to reprogram $240 million of the incentives to other R&D efforts. Summit Power said this move would basically kill the project.
The high cost of coal with CCS

CCS advocates often dismiss the high costs of recent projects, arguing that this is expected for first-of-a-kind projects. They claim costs should come down over time through learning, pointing to other technologies like wind and solar as examples.

While it is reasonable to expect that CCS costs will come down, the question is how much and over what time period? Like nuclear power plants, CCS projects tend to be very large, long-lived construction projects that use a lot of concrete and steel, and equipment that is unlikely to be mass-produced in the way more modular technologies like wind turbines and solar panels are manufactured and installed over a much shorter period of time.

Several recent studies project the cost of coal with CCS to be much higher than many other low and zero carbon technologies. For example, the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) projections from Annual Energy Outlook 2016 show costs for coal with CCS plants in 2022 that are 2-3 times higher than the cost of new onshore wind, utility scale solar, geothermal, and hydropower projects, not including tax incentives (see Table 2 on p. 8). The costs for biopower, advanced nuclear plants, and natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) plants with CCS are also somewhat lower. While EIA projects the costs for coal with CCS plants to decline ~10 percent by 2040, they project the costs for other low carbon technologies to fall by similar or even greater amounts.


Source: EIA, AEO 2016.

EIA’s cost projections are consistent with other sources including NREL’s 2016 Annual Technology Baseline (ATB) report and Lazard’s most recent levelized cost of energy analysis.  They all show that adding CCS to natural gas power plants could be much more economic than coal.

Other studies show CCS applications at industrial facilities could also be less expensive. Industrial applications of CCS could also be more apt—for example in industries such as Iron and Steel and Cement production—where alternative low carbon, affordable technologies don’t exist. In contrast, the power sector has many technologies available today that can generate electricity without carbon emissions.

Role of CCS in addressing climate change

Many experts believe that reaching net zero carbon emissions by mid-century, in line with global climate goals, will likely require some form of CCS, along with nuclear power and a massive ramp-up of renewable energy and energy efficiency. Given the high cost of coal with CCS compared to other alternatives, it’s not surprising that recent studies show it playing a relatively modest role in addressing climate change. However, some studies analyzing the impacts of reducing power sector CO2 emissions 80-90 percent by 2050 show that natural gas or even biopower with CCS could make a more meaningful contribution after 2040.  For example:

  • A 2016 UCS study showed natural gas with CCS could provide 9-28 percent of U.S. electricity by 2050 under range of deep decarbonization scenarios for the power sector, but no coal with CCS (see Figure 5 below). Natural gas with CCS provided 16 percent of U.S. electricity by 2050 under a Mid-Cost Case and 28 percent under an Optimistic CCS Cost Case.
  • The November 2016 U.S. Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization study released by the Obama Administration at the international climate negotiations in Marrakech found that fossil fuels with CCS would provide 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation by 2050 under their “Benchmark” scenario. While natural gas with CCS made the biggest contribution, both coal and bioenergy with CCS also played a role.
  • The 2014 Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States report found that gas with CCS would provide nearly 13 percent of U.S. electricity under their “Mixed” case. They also modeled a High CCS case that “seeks to preserve a status quo energy mix,” in which they assumed CCS would provide 55 percent of U.S. electricity by 2050, split between coal and gas. However, this case also had the highest electricity prices.
  • DOE’s 2017 Quadrennial Energy Review found that under a scenario combining tax incentives with successful federal R&D, coal and gas with CCS could provide 5-7 percent of total U.S. generation in 2040. The scenario assumed a refundable sequestration tax credit of $10/metric ton of CO2 for EOR storage, $50/metric ton of CO2 for saline storage, and a refundable 30 percent investment tax credit for CCS equipment and infrastructure.


Source:  UCS, The U.S. Power Sector in a Net Zero World, 2016.

Policy implications

Clearly, more DOE-funded R&D is needed to leverage additional private sector investment and demonstrate coal with CCS on a commercial scale using different technologies and at different sequestration sites, like deep saline aquifers. R&D efforts should also be expanded beyond coal to include natural gas and bioenergy power plants, as well as industrial facilities. We also need to develop a strong regulatory and oversight system to ensure that captured CO2 remains permanently sequestered.

Recent policy proposals to increase tax incentives for CCS could also help improve the economic viability of CCS. A price on carbon and higher oil prices for projects using EOR could also make a big difference, but the likelihood of either happening under the Trump Administration is slim. Given the high cost, long lead time, and limited near-term role of CCS as a climate solution, federal efforts should prioritize R&D and deployment incentives on more cost-effective low carbon alternatives like renewable energy and energy efficiency. While studies show coal with CCS could play a modest role in addressing climate change by 2050, it’s unlikely to be enough over the next four years to fulfill Trump’s promises to revive the coal industry.

Rick Perry and the “Texas Approach” to Renewable Energy and Infrastructure

Rick Perry—Trump’s pick for the Department of Energy—saw how infrastructure can impact energy development when he was governor of Texas.

Texas has a history of success producing energy. Two keys to this success have been infrastructure and markets, which served to make Texas the leading state for wind energy development.

Every energy supply needs infrastructure. Texas has always had a “pro-competition” approach to ensure adequate infrastructure so new electric energy supplies could compete in the market. The approach played out big for windpower, at the direction of the Texas legislature.  In 2005, the legislature set out a framework for “competitive renewable energy zones” designed to provide infrastructure for increased renewable energy expansion.

How does this work?

The process worked this way: First, estimates were made of energy production, costs and benefits. Then Texas required commitments of private development interest. At the time, renewable energy in Texas weighed in at 3,000 MW. (A single nuclear plant is about 1,000 MW.) Today, Texas has 18,000 MW of wind and 5,000 MW under construction. The infrastructure made all the difference.

How well does this work?

Texas has 3x more wind energy production than the next most successful state, Iowa. This is in large part thanks to transmission, which is as necessary for windfarms as a road to market is needed for any farm produce.

So, the “Texas approach” could be a great model for the United States more generally. In fact, a collaboration of utilities has described a transmission plan for the eastern United States.

And what about gas pipelines?

Gas fields don’t deliver gas to markets. Gas pipelines are needed for that, too. When the gas industry started to expand in the US with fractured shale developments, they put out a forecast of pipeline expenses that would be needed. The cost for the gas infrastructure in their plans was much more than what has been described as the transmission expansion cost needed for wind.

The numbers look like a 10-fold increase in renewable energy would require less money for transmission than the cost of pipelines for a doubling of natural gas use.

Energy development is something Texas understands. The electric companies are not required to keeping buying more windpower, but they do. The old power plants are not shielded from competition, so when the cost of electricity from wind can beat coal or natural gas, the electric companies buy what is less expensive. Now that solar panel prices have fallen so much, the grid operator in Texas is predicting that solar farms will be built much, much more quickly than new natural gas-burning power plants.

These are the lessons of Texas infrastructure during the Rick Perry years. Now, will Rick Perry bring this approach to the Department of Energy and make transmission a priority?

The Truth About Pruitt’s EPA Lawsuits is Even Worse Than You Might Think

One well-reported thing about Scott Pruitt, President-elect Trump’s nominee for EPA Administrator, is his penchant for filing lawsuits to block the EPA from enforcing clean air, clean water and climate regulations, rather than suing polluters in his own state of Oklahoma.

This alone ought to provide ample grounds for rejecting his nomination. But a closer look at these lawsuits and the legal arguments Pruitt has advanced (or signed onto) tells an even more disturbing story. The legal arguments are disingenuous, often unprincipled and extreme, and display an unfortunate strategy of saying just about anything to win a case.

Consider these three examples.

Pruitt takes on climate scientists: the 2010 lawsuit challenging the EPA’s “Endangerment” finding

global_surface_tempsIn 2009, the EPA made a long overdue, and wholly unremarkable finding that greenhouse gas emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels may endanger public health and welfare. In this finding, the EPA acknowledged the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community and the multiple lines of independent evidence supporting this conclusion.

While the finding broke no new ground scientifically, it was important legally: when the EPA finds that a pollutant endangers public health or welfare, the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to regulate sources of that pollutant. In this case, that meant power plants, cars, trucks, and other sources that combust coal, oil, and natural gas.

To stop such regulation in its tracks, Scott Pruitt filed a lawsuit to overturn the endangerment finding, which he and his fellow litigants characterized as “arbitrary and capricious.” Believe it or not, Pruitt’s primary argument was that the EPA should not have relied upon the multiple reports on climate change issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)(established by the United Nations which synthesizes the work of thousands of scientists), the US Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) (a Bush administration body of 13 federal agencies that issued 21 reports on climate change), and the National Research Council (NRC)(the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences).

Pruitt’s legal brief never quite explains what is wrong with relying upon the world’s most prominent experts, but it claimed that the EPA in effect wrongly delegated its decisionmaking to these bodies.

Here are the rather sharp words the court used when it unanimously dismissed this claim:

This argument is little more than a semantic trick. EPA simply did here what it and other decisionmakers often must do to make a science-based judgment: it sought out and reviewed existing scientific evidence to determine whether a particular finding was warranted. It makes no difference that much of the scientific evidence in large part consisted of “syntheses” of individual studies and research. Even individual studies and research papers often synthesize past work in an area and then build upon it. This is how science works. EPA is not required to re-prove the existence of the atom every time it approaches a scientific question [emphasis added][Page 27]

Take a moment to digest this: the person nominated to head the EPA sued that agency because it relied upon the work of the world’s most knowledgeable scientists when making a finding regarding the most important scientific question of our lifetime—whether humans are causing global warming.

Pruitt’s lawsuits to block mercury reductions using a rigged cost-benefit analysis  Peggy Davis/CC-BY SA (Flickr)

Photo: Peggy Davis/CC-BY SA (Flickr)

Mercury has long been known to be one of the most potent neurotoxins: ingestion of even very small amounts can have devastating effects, particularly on children. Coal and oil-fired power plants are responsible for more than 50 percent of the mercury emissions in the United States, which travel long distances and deposit in water bodies, leading to ingestion by fish and humans who consume fish. There is effective technology that many power plants use to control mercury and other toxic pollutants, but approximately forty percent of existing power plants do not use it.

In 1990 Congress amended the Clean Air Act to specifically authorize the EPA to address mercury emissions (and other air toxics), but no progress was made due to EPA delays and litigation. In 2011, the Obama Administration issued a rule to cut mercury emissions from power plants.

The rule required approximately 40 percent of existing power plants to install the same proven controls that the other 60 percent had already adopted.

The EPA estimated that it would avert up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks every year.

Scott Pruitt and others launched a lawsuit to prevent the EPA from cutting mercury and toxic air pollutants from power plants. He scored an initial victory on a technicality—the EPA had failed to consider cost of regulation at the preliminary stage when it was considering whether to regulate mercury. (I call this a technicality, because the EPA did perform a formal cost benefit analysis at the later stage when it issued the regulation).

The EPA subsequently complied with the court order and used an updated analysis to support the rule. The analysis showed “monetized” benefits of between $37-90 billion versus a cost of $9 billion.

Unsatisfied, Pruitt filed a second lawsuit, this time taking aim at the cost benefit analysis. As was the case with the endangerment finding, Pruitt’s attack led with an absurd argument – this time about cost benefit analysis.

When the EPA tallied up the costs of the regulation, it included direct costs, like the cost of installing the pollution control, and indirect costs, like higher electricity prices. Similarly, when the EPA calculated the benefits of the regulation, it considered direct benefits, like improved public health from mercury reduction, but also indirect benefits, like reductions in other pollutants such as smog and sulfur dioxide because the pollution control technology used for mercury also reduces these pollutants.

Pruitt’s new lawsuit claims that the EPA cannot consider these “co-benefits.” Instead, he contended that the EPA should only be allowed to count the benefits from mercury reduction. His argument makes no sense—the whole point of cost–benefit analysis is to determine whether an overall societal benefit of a regulation exceeds its overall cost. And nothing in the Clean Air Act or in past practice requires the EPA to use blinders when judging the benefit. In fact, for years, under both political parties, the EPA has factored in “co-benefits” and federal guidance on cost-benefit analysis calls for it to be included.

The court has not yet ruled on this specious claim, but it did reject a request to put the rule on hold while it sorted the question out, suggesting the court’s early skepticism of the argument’s merit. Regardless of the ultimate ruling, the bottom line in the case is this: Pruitt indefensibly favored economic analysis of regulations that considers all of their costs, but only some of their benefits.

Pruitt’s interstate pollution lawsuits reveal further hypocrisy  OK.gov

Photo: OK.gov

It is revealing to note that, at the same time as Pruitt was suing the EPA to count all the costs (but not all the benefits) of its mercury ruling, he also argued against factoring in costs in a separate lawsuit that sought to block an EPA rule that prevents upwind states from sending their pollutants to downwind states in such quantities as to cause the downwind states to exceed heath-based pollution concentration limits.

By way of background, the EPA has tried for years to address the problem of interstate air pollution, but it is fiendishly complex. Many upwind states emit pollutants to multiple downwind states, many downwind states receive pollutants from multiple upwind states, and some states are both upwind and downwind states. Thus, it is difficult to devise a formula to fairly and effectively apportion responsibility.

In 2011, the EPA crafted a “Transport Rule” to address the problem. They conducted extensive analysis of the costs involved to determine how expensive it would be, per ton of pollutant reduction, to ensure that upwind states do not cause downwind states’ air quality to exceed federal standards. They then gave each upwind state a pollution “budget” for the state to use to reduce the pollutants that were wafting beyond their borders, based on this “cost per ton” reduction benchmark.

Scott Pruitt and others challenged this rule, arguing—believe it or not—that costs of compliance should not be the yardstick, arguing instead for an approach that would have been nearly impossible to administer. Not surprisingly, in a 6-2 vote, the Supreme Court rejected his attack.

The bottom line in this case is this: the EPA focused on a problem that states can’t solve on their own (interstate air pollution). They solved the problem using a cost-effectiveness benchmark that is fair to all states, and that conservatives profess to favor. Pruitt’s attack on this approach demonstrates an abandonment of conservative principles in the service of what appears to be his ultimate objective—stopping regulation.

Opposing science to block regulation

Pruitt’s lawsuits clearly demonstrate that he is against regulation, particularly of the oil and gas industry. That much we already knew. But when one looks at the actual cases he has filed and the legal arguments he has advanced, one sees something even more disturbing—a disrespect for science, a penchant for a rigged method of performing cost-benefit analysis, and a lack of interest in helping to police the problem of interstate air pollution—which clearly must be done at the federal level.

This all adds up to someone who uses the law to block good science. This is not acceptable, particularly for the head of the EPA. And that is why I, and twelve other former state environmental protection agency heads, have signed a letter opposing this nomination. Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA (Flickr) Photo: Peggy Davis/CC-BY SA (Flickr)