Combined UCS Blogs

Election Night: Your Guide to the End of Democracy as We Know It

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Democracy in America will be transformed Tuesday night, for better or worse. Or both. In the worst-case scenario, numerous voting rights and electoral reforms will go down in flames across the country, new barriers to voting will be erected, and despite winning millions of more votes, the more popular political party will fall short of winning governing control over the House of Representatives, designed to represent “the People alone,” as James Madison put it. Popular Sovereignty is but a quaint memory, the pillars of democracy crumble, and we submit to our oligarchic overlords.

In the best-case scenario, majority rule operates as designed, several states upgrade their deficient electoral systems, and a series of innovative upgrades to improve participation and representation are passed by broad coalitions of citizens. November 7th is a new day in America, with a higher quality of democracy and improved institutional performance to look forward to in 2020.

In the most likely scenario, there will be victories and defeats. To help the inquisitive keep track of what kind of democracy we will be waking up to, I’ve prepared a Democracy Scoreboard for easy download that I will be updating from Twitter into the night, but hopefully not into the morning. I’m focusing on three areas of performance: Congressional elections, state redistricting and voting rights initiatives, and local electoral system reforms.

In order to provide a manageable list of indicators, I’ve chosen ten of the more competitive Congressional races in the Eastern time zone, according to latest updates from Cook Political Report, Fivethirtyeight and The Economist. These include Maine’s 2nd district, where the outcome may depend on the state’s new ranked choice voting system. The four-candidate race looks to be a dead heat between GOP incumbent Bruce Poliquin and Democrat Jared Golden, but independents Tiffany Bond or Will Hoar could get enough 1st place votes to necessitate the transfer of 2nd place votes.

Other Congressional races to watch include New York’s 19th and 22nd districts, New Jersey’s 3rd, Pennsylvania’s (newly redistricted) 1st, Virginia’s 2nd, North Carolina’s 9th (the most Republican leaning), Kentucky’s 6th, and Florida’s 15th and 26th districts. If the Democratic Party takes these seats with margins of 2-3 points, they are poised to win a House majority along with the popular vote. While Democrats are up approximately 8 points in the generic partisan ballot, there is still a 10-15% chance that the Democratic Party wins more votes but fewer than 218 seats, due to gerrymandering and the geographic concentration of voters.

Therefore, the more of these seats the GOP picks up, the more likely we are to see a popular vote/seat majority split due to gerrymandering and/or restrictive election laws. There is less than a 1% chance that the Republican Party wins the popular vote but fails to win a majority of seats. If the Republican Party picks up the majority of these seats, it is an indication that it will be a better night for their voters than forecasting models have predicted.

For the statewide initiatives, I’ve chosen the five state redistricting propositions designed to eliminate gerrymandering (Colorado has two, plus Michigan, Missouri and Utah), Florida’s felon enfranchisement initiative (which needs 60% support to pass), as well as Maryland, Michigan’s and Nevada’s attempts to reduce registration barriers. In South Dakota, voters are being asked to amend their constitution to reinstate previous campaign finance and ethics reforms that the legislature killed.

Conversely, a number of states are trying to restrict ballot and voting access, which will count against democratic performance: Arkansas (voter ID), Montana (restrictions on who can turn in ballots), North Carolina (voter ID and legislative control over state election board) and South Dakota (proof of citizenship requirement). A full list of statewide and local election related initiatives can be found here at Daily Kos.

Locally, a number of initiatives to improve democratic representation are being considered. Baltimore, Denver, New York and Portland, Oregon are giving voters the opportunity to improve campaign finance. Fargo, North Dakota is considering the adoption of approval voting, a single-winner system where voters mark all candidates they support, and the most popular candidate wins. Lane County, Oregon may adopt the “STAR” voting system, a form of instant-runoff preferential voting. Conversely, reformers in Memphis, Tennessee are trying to defend the establishment’s efforts to repeal ranked choice voting there, even though strong evidence suggests that RCV would increase participation and representation for the city’s less affluent voters.

Keep an eye out for regular election night updates at @mlatner soon after 8pm on the East Coast. And remember, no matter how the night goes, we are looking at a historic level of voter turnout for a midterm election already. We won’t know final turnout estimates for a while after the election, but this itself is a good sign about the health of  democracy. It is a prerequisite. Now get out there and VOTE!

Unmasking the Waukegan Coal Plant Reliability Myth

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More than 150 Lake County residents march to call on NRG Energy to set a retirement date for its coal-fired-power plant. Waukegan, near NRG coal plant, November 2015. Photo by Karen Long MacLeod for CPLC

Oftentimes the coal industry and utilities will raise the false specter of the lights going out if their aging, polluting power plants are shut down.

Last week UCS released a new report entitled Soot to Solar: Illinois’ Clean Energy Transition. Among our key findings was that the coal-burning power plant owned by NRG in Waukegan, Illinois, can be retired with no impact on electric grid reliability.

When asked about our report, NRG implied similar sentiments as the above in saying it hadn’t had the opportunity to review our study or our “assumptions on impact to grid reliability.”

In this post, I highlight Soot to Solar’s analysis of electric reliability and retiring the Waukegan plant to further explain our process and what we found.

Chicago’s ring of fire

As recently as ten years ago, the Chicago region was surrounded by six coal-fired power plants. Today the Waukegan plant is among the last to continue operating. The Fisk, Crawford, and State Line plants have been retired and the Joliet plant was converted to run on natural gas (another coal-fired unit continues to operate in nearby Will County).

For several years, local residents and the grassroots organization Clean Power Lake County have been pushing for the retirement of the Waukegan coal plant and creation of a just transition plan for workers and the community. The Waukegan effort is featured in a companion case study to Soot to Solar.

The Waukegan coal units were built in 1958 and 1962. In recent years they have only operated at around a 30% capacity factor, which is a measure of how much electricity a plant produces compared to its full potential output. This is a sharp reduction from the 60-70% range in 2011 as shown in the charts below (“ST 7” and “ST 8” are unit designations for the two coal boilers):

Data from S&P Global Market Intelligence

While the Waukegan plant is burning less coal than it used to and did install some equipment to reduce emissions in 2014 and 2015, we analyzed what effects, if any, there would be on the power grid if the plant was retired.

Retiring the Waukegan coal units does not affect electric reliability


Community leaders stand with local residents at Waukegan Municipal Beach to demand healthier clean-energy economies. At Clean Power Lake County’s (CPLC) Hands Across the Sands event, September 2014. [Photo by Karen Long MacLeod for CPLC]

For this part of our Soot to Solar analysis, we retained PowerGEM, an electric engineering and transmission firm, to conduct a retirement analysis of the existing generation at the Waukegan site. In addition to the coal units, there are also four oil-fired combustion turbines at the site totaling about 100 megawatts of capacity. These turbines run only a handful of hours a year.

The power grid functions across the eastern U.S. with electricity flowing throughout the Eastern Interconnection, under the control and management of grid operators like PJM and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO). The needs of the Northern Illinois area are met from power plants both nearby and distant, based on the economics of supply and demand, and the limits of the transmission system.

PowerGEM used what is known as a power flow model from PJM which details what the electric grid will look like in 2022, and what will limit the delivery of energy to the Chicago area. So, what happened when PowerGEM removed the existing Waukegan power generation from the model? It was replaced by uniform increases from other resources in the PJM system.

In other words, the test for removing the Waukegan plant was to verify that other power generators could pick up the slack with no problems showing up in several technical categories designed to ensure the grid functions properly (known as base thermal, voltage, generator deliverability, and load deliverability). The Waukegan plant passed this test.

Another part of the analysis, known in the technical jargon as N-1-1, looked at what would happen to the power grid in the ComEd/Chicago service area during a sequence of events such as loss of a large power line, followed by system adjustments, followed by loss of another transmission line or plant.

PowerGEM found that needs shown in the N-1-1 analysis for the retirement of existing Waukegan generation could be solved by placing a new 100 megawatt generator at the Waukegan site to replace the oil-fired combustion turbines. As discussed in Soot to Solar, it could also be solved through installing the same amount of clean energy options like solar, storage, demand response, efficiency improvements, and other distributed generation located across many cities and towns surrounding downtown Chicago.


Retiring the Waukegan plant opens the door to clean energy and cleaner air

As we discuss in detail in our report, coal-fired power plants emit numerous harmful air pollutants and carbon pollution, create troublesome coal ash waste disposal areas, and use up valuable land that could be put to other important uses for communities.

Thanks to the Future Energy Jobs Act, clean energy is expanding across Illinois. Opportunities abound for places like Waukegan. Now is the time for NRG and local officials to respond to the desires of community members and develop a plan for closing the plant, cleaning up the site, and providing support for economic development to create good jobs for the community and replace lost tax revenue.

The myth that the Waukegan coal plant is needed for grid reliability should not stand in the way of this important transition.

There is a Standard for Comparing Power Plant Closings with Energy Shortages; Let’s Use it!

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As we change the power grid, we need to keep the standards that have guided good utility practice. Photo: Mike Jacobs

The debate about modernizing our energy system has been marred by shifting claims that we need old power plants. We are replacing fossil fuels with steady and rapid adoption of clean renewable energy, and more efficient buildings and appliances and we need to keep the basic reliability principles front and center. The latest analysis from the electricity grid operator in the Mid-Atlantic US, leaves out a crucial piece.

We do need a reliable electric system and we need professional managers guided by clear policies. No one is served by rhetoric when facing the decisions ahead. However, we do have an industry standard that has been formally applied to address how much reliability, and how much money we spend, for the electric power supply. In 1968, the Mid Atlantic Area Council (MAAC) set a standard for planning and maintaining the supply of power plants. Here it is:

“Sufficient megawatt generating capacity shall be installed to ensure that in each year for the MAAC system the probability of
occurrence of load exceeding the available generating capacity shall not be greater, on the average, than one day in ten years.”

For decades, regulators have guided utilities to plan the electricity supply with a defined and very small possibility that there could be a shortage.

State utility regulators have asked what this means in terms of how much consumers are paying for electricity, and is this the right standard. Here’s what they got for an answer. I will let you read that report, but suffice it to say the state regulators who are responsible for the health and safety implications of a power outage did not change the one day in ten years standard.

PJM, the grid operator for 13 states and the District of Columbia, yesterday unveiled a body of work examining the reliability of the grid. Reliability and MAAC standards are not new to PJM. But their discussion of what’s new in thinking about reliability was missing a reference to the existing standard.  PJM described scenarios with multiple, compounding events, but there was no probabilities associated with the events and no attempt to tie this work on reliability back to their own, long-standing standard for acceptable risk of outages.

For this discussion of power plant closures and reliability to fit into the professional, legal and clear context of government regulation of electric utility decision-making, we are going to need the engineering debate to refer to their own standards which have been vetted and relied upon for 50 years.

Photo: Mike Jacbos

Washington’s I-1631: A Chance to Choose Hope, Not Fear

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It has been a tense and tragic time in the runup to the midterm election next week, and voters nationwide have reasons to feel fear about what may happen next, but we need to remember that there are also opportunities for great hope in the election next Tuesday.

For example, few issues have generated as much excitement for climate action as the Washington State carbon pricing initiative, I-1631.   This initiative, developed after a painstaking and highly inclusive planning process that has  garnered enthusiastic support from a large, diverse coalition of constituencies, would create a groundbreaking carbon fee on polluters that would be reinvested in Washington’s communities, businesses, and clean energy industries.  (UCS describes the initiative and how it would work in detail here.)  At a time when Washington DC is in retrograde motion on climate change, even after a summer when extreme heat, storms, and wildfires made more devastating by climate change have pummeled the nation and the world, the chance for state and regional progress on climate change in this election is not only a reason for hope but a possible harbinger of greater state and regional action to come.

And Washington carbon reductions matter.  Washington is already warming up, and is experiencing impacts associated with climate change including increasingly destructive wildfires, decreased water runoff from snowpack, and rising sea levels, all resulting in devastating impacts to people and property.   While opponents to I-1631, mostly out-of-state oil companies, claim that Washington can’t afford to price and reduce carbon emissions, the fact is that individuals, businesses, and taxpayers are already footing a very large bill for the damage done by global warming pollution and the price tag will continue to grow unless emissions can be dramatically reduced.

Big oil’s campaign of disinformation

The opposition has made I-1631 the most expensive initiative campaign in Washington history.  The six out-of-state oil companies that are financing 99% of the more than $30 million pouring into the state to defeat the measure have also mounted one of the most cynical disinformation campaigns I’ve ever seen, saying the measure unfairly “exempts” polluters!

The oil industry’s desperate tactic of campaigning against “polluters” is absurd on its face and gives an indication–along with their eye-popping electoral investment–of how desperate the industry is to not let this initiative happen.  The No campaign has been characterized by exaggerations and disinformation, including listing Latino business owners as opponents to the measure who actually support it. We’ve seen lies and disinformation from the western states oil industry many times before, as UCS has documented.

One issue that Big Oil is hammering on is the idea that the I-1631 polluter fee will cause gas prices to go way up.  The initiative will definitely cost the oil industry money, but whether drivers feels those increases at the pump is another matter, as California learned in 2015 when it put a carbon price on oil.  Big Oil promised in a huge PR campaign that the carbon price would cause California gasoline prices to spike, but instead prices actually decreased.  This was an important lesson–that because oil is a global commodity, local fees and taxes are limited in terms of influencing what you pay at the pump.  Far more important is what is happening to global supply and demand for oil (and by the way we can’t pump our way out of that situation domestically because the price of oil is set as a global commodity.)  Significant oil price spikes are often the result of events we can’t control, like global conflicts in oil producing regions, supply chain disruptions- sometimes caused by climate change-influenced extreme weather- and refinery shutdowns or accidents.

One way to protect ourselves from oil price increases that we can have some control over is reducing our demand for gasoline, using low-carbon and carbon-free transportation fuels and alternatives that reduce our need for petroleum-derived and other carbon-intensive fuel sources.  The kinds of measures that will help reduce carbon fuel demand are exactly the types of investments that can be funded by the polluter fees under I-1631–yet another reason that oil money is flowing to stop this measure.

Believe scientists, not oil companies

If it passes, Washington will be the second west coast state after California to put a price on carbon. In 2019 Oregon could become the third.  The combined carbon reduction influence of these three economic powerhouse states is enormous.  The three states combined are in the top five largest economies globally, so to claim, as opponents of I-1631 have, that Washington’s contribution to carbon emissions reductions under the initiative wouldn’t make a difference are not looking at the bigger picture.

Scientists have led the way on climate action for decades while the oil industry has stood in their way and drowned out their warnings. More than 200 of Washington’s scientists are asking us to vote yes on 1631. We must accept the facts about climate change and listen to their warnings, not the lies of the fossil fuel companies, or the myths they are promulgating about I-1631.

Scientists understand that Washington’s actions alone won’t prevent global warming but will contribute to both desperately needed emissions reductions in the United States and to momentum to the global movement to dramatically reduce emissions if we are to have a positive future. UCS urges Washington voters not to succumb to the negative and misleading propaganda of the oil industry, but to believe the science, choose hope over fear, and support I-1631.

Will This Case Finally Bring Down ExxonMobil’s Culture of Climate Deception?

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On October 24, New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood filed lawsuit against ExxonMobil for defrauding investors regarding the financial risks the company faces from climate change regulations. Photo courtesy of New York attorney general's office

New York State Attorney General Barbara Underwood recently filed what could be an enormously consequential securities fraud lawsuit against ExxonMobil, exposing in great detail the company’s long history of lying about issues related to climate change.

According to the findings of the AG’s investigation, ExxonMobil kept one set of numbers internally about the likely future costs of carbon-emission rules while using another set for its shareholders that it knew to be false. For internal planning purposes, the company low-balled estimates for the cost per ton of carbon that would likely be imposed by regulation to make its projects appear to be more profitable. Meanwhile, the company told its shareholders it was using a higher, more plausible, price when determining its projects’ long-term economic viability. By doing so, the complaint charges, ExxonMobil deceived its investors, falsely assuring them that its oil and gas reserves would not become unusable for economic reasons—what the industry refers to as “stranded assets.”

The 97-page legal complaint is chock-full of examples of ExxonMobil reports and statements that deceived shareholders about the likely cost of carbon-emission standards. It charges the company with “a longstanding fraudulent scheme” that “was sanctioned at the highest levels of the company.”

Just as the notorious Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone was ultimately brought down on tax fraud charges despite a long rap sheet of murder and mayhem, the case raises the prospect that New York’s unique securities fraud law, the Martin Act, could be the legal tool that holds the company accountable for a culture of deception about climate change that spans decades.

The legal complaint cites one notable corporate statement titled “ExxonMobil and the carbon tax” in which the company reiterated its dubious contention that it supports a carbon tax. In fact, ExxonMobil has never publicly supported an actual carbon tax bill and has consistently funded members of Congress who oppose the idea. The company did get some positive press recently for pledging to donate $1 million to Americans for Carbon Dividends, a new lobby group promoting a revenue-neutral carbon tax, but the group’s plan would pre-empt climate-related lawsuits against fossil fuel companies and roll back federal regulations curbing carbon emissions.

ExxonMobil also has long lied about its ongoing support for climate science denier groups. In 2007, a company vice president claimed it stopped funding them after the Union of Concerned Scientists revealed that ExxonMobil had spent millions of dollars on dozens of groups to sow doubt about the reality and seriousness of climate change. The company’s own corporate giving reports show that it continues to fund them to this day. From 1998 through last year, ExxonMobil spent at least $36 million on climate science disinformation groups, more than any other funder besides Charles and David Koch, the multibillionaire owners of Koch Industries.

The bottom line of the New York AG’s complaint is that, when calculating costs for major projects, ExxonMobil “assumed, contrary to its representations [to investors], that existing climate regulation would remain in place, unchanged, indefinitely into the future.”

What would make ExxonMobil so confident that currently weak-to-nonexistent carbon-emission standards would remain the same? Likely its success over the past 20 years in stifling meaningful government action. After all, ExxonMobil and the rest of the US fossil fuel industry have spent enough money on their friends in Congress that a critical mass of them deny the reality of human-driven climate change. So, as long as fossil fuel industry-funded groups continue to provide lawmakers with bogus studies and ply the news media with industry mouthpieces, it is not surprising that ExxonMobil believed it could maintain the status quo.

As the New York AG complaint shows, however, ExxonMobil’s strategy relied on the belief that it could get away with privately counting on business as usual while telling investors it was taking into full consideration the risks to its business posed by the global effort to dramatically curb carbon emissions. When it comes to defrauding investors in New York state, this looming court battle may prove the company wrong.

Photo: NY attorney general's office

Fighting Climate Change: You’re 4x As Powerful As You Think

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Photo: UCS/Audrey Eyring

The latest news on climate change is incredibly sobering stuff, and talking with my family about it hasn’t made for uplifting dinner conversation. But once you get past the initial shock, episodes like that can get you thinking about what more each of us can do. When I did, I realized that the answer is a lot—and in more ways than might occur to us. We might, in fact, be four times as powerful as we think.

Us as consumers

We’re consumers of a big range of goods and services, on timescales ranging from daily to less than annual—figuring out how to get to work or school in the morning, making choices about our meals, or thinking about where we live and how, for example. Acting in that capacity is certainly a big factor in how we contribute to climate change.

Every time we make a decision about buying something, in fact, we’re voting with our wallets. About the thing we’re buying. About the company that makes it. About the other things we’re not doing with that money.

What we can do about the carbon implications of our consumer choices is the topic of our book Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living. Cooler Smarter analyzed where the carbon comes from in our lives, and offered lots of information, ideas, and inspirational examples for doing meaningful things to fight climate change at home, and beyond. The “smarter” part is about finding opportunities to cut carbon that also save you money, or help you live more healthily—things like making your home more energy efficient (lower utility bills, happier residents), using renewable energy (solar panels, for example), having efficient cars (or walking, biking, or using public transportation).

Our research found that in this country addressing carbon in our own lives typically comes down to (1) what and how we drive, (2) how we use energy at home, and (3) what we eat. And there are loads of carbon-cutting opportunities in each of those areas.

So our power as consumers is clear.

We can’t all put solar on a roof, but as consumers, we have choices, and those choices can make a difference when it comes to climate change. (Photo: PublicSource)

Us in the community

Dealing with the carbon in our lives is key, but it’s a starting place, not an end. As we’re tackling our own opportunities, it’s important to take the knowledge and experience we’re gaining and spread them far and wide.

Family and friends are great places to start. They may well know something about climate change, but maybe not know what to do about it. The important thing is to inspire, not frighten. They should understand the seriousness of climate change, but it’s essential that they also understand the seriousness of our potential responses.

And they should understand the opportunities that those responses present, that these days, those responses are increasingly attractive from our wallets’ perspective, too. You might be motivated enough without the “smarter” part of being Cooler Smarter, but it sure can help motivate action by others.

And then there’s the broader community—your office, your school, your faith community. The Rotary meeting. The bowling alley. The bus stop. Anywhere that you’re interacting with people, actually, probably presents chances to slip in something about climate change and solutions.

Fighting climate change in your own life and working to help others do it makes you twice as powerful.

Making a difference by speaking up (Photo: UCS/Audrey Eyring)

Us as advocates

Then there are decision makers at all levels of our democracy—local, county, state, and federal. Elected leaders and others in government need to hear from you that “I care about climate solutions, and I want you to care about them (and act on them)” and “I’ve done these things in my own life; I want you to make it easier for others to do them.”

Because there’s a lot we can do on climate change as individuals, from the bottom up, but there’s a whole lot more that needs to happen with the support of well-designed laws and policies. Like ones that accelerate the power sector’s move to renewable energy, or that make it easier for homes and businesses to embrace energy efficiency, or that make cleaner cars and buses more accessible to a broader swath of society.

Your advocacy efforts can also tackle those corporations that you interact with as a consumer. Companies can be forces for good on climate change, given their buying power, societal heft, and customer bases, including in response to customer campaigns. But it’s certainly not a given.

Folks who are fortunate enough to be shareholders have another route for impelling corporations in the right direction on global warming, and letting companies—think oil and gas types, for example—know that we care about honest treatment of issues, that we don’t look kindly on efforts to obscure the truth to forestall action on important issues like climate change.

Add your voice to efforts to move government, and corporations, in the direction of climate action and you just might find you’re three times as powerful.

Power at the polls (Photo: Element5 Digital/Unsplash)

Us as voters

And then there are times like right now, when many of us are getting a chance to exercise the most powerful role we have in our democracy—stepping into voting booths, and being part of making decisions that are key.

Key to determining whether the ship of state stays on its current disappointing (in many cases) course or turns toward progress on climate change… or further away from it. Whether we can count on the checks and balances that our Founders wisely put in place two centuries ago, so that we have rational policies (on climate change and more), sensibly implemented. Whether science is at the center of our decision making, or pushed aside or attacked for political gain.

It’s not a coincidence that the Union of Concerned Scientists focuses on science at times like this (as at all other times), and even has a whole initiative around standing up for science in the upcoming elections, and is part of a broad effort to make sure that “science is front-and-center in the decision-making processes that affect us all.”

Because whatever issues you care about, around public health, say, or justice, or economics, or the environment, having sound science available and appropriately considered is crucial for good decision making. “Science—free from political interference—is fundamental to building a healthier planet and a safer world,” UCS says.

Apart from the important candidate races across the country, this election cycle offers some really interesting ballot initiatives for fighting climate change. In Washington State, for example, Initiative 1631 lets voters choose to tackle climate change head-on, with a fee on carbon pollution and investments in clean air, clean energy, healthy communities, and more. In Nevada, Question 6 offers voters a chance to up the state’s renewable energy standard to the robust 50% renewables by 2030 that nearby states have embraced. Arizona’s Proposition 127 aims at the same clean energy goal.

Our roles as voters can build on each of the other ways we can be fighting climate change, or can serve as a platform for more progress in those areas.

Great power, great opportunity

Add up all those roles, and you’re four times as powerful as you would think if you were focusing on just one.

Actually, you’re at least four times as powerful, since there are other avenues for making a difference. If you’re a teacher, for example, you have an incredible power to instill a sense of respect for science, and a belief in our ability to bring about positive change. (And if you’re a student—especially a STEM major—you have a particular chance to boost the voting numbers among your fellow students.) If you’re a parent, or an aunt or uncle or grandparent,…

Climate change demands real action from a lot of people in a whole lot of roles. We’ll make better progress if we remember that our own multiple roles make us a lot more powerful than we might think.

So on Tuesday, vote for science. And don’t stop there. With great power comes great responsibility, but also great opportunity. Carpe diem, indeed.

Photo: PublicSource

My Experience with the Science Network Mentor Program: Finding the Path to Advocacy that Works for You

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The path to advocacy may involve getting your hands dirty. Photo via Good Free Photos

About 12 years ago, in the basement of a poorly-attended Jewish temple in upstate New York surrounded by stale goldfish crackers and glasses of apple juice, my 15-year-old self was torn between listening to Al Gore’s video-taped message that climate change was the biggest issue of our time and not wanting to be persuaded by anyone about anything, especially not in a semi-religious setting. Since then, I’ve pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees in ecology, worked on several studies documenting the effects of climate change on the natural ecosystem, and taught courses on climate change and environmental sciences to challengingly politically diverse classes of students in the Midwest. In retrospect, Al Gore (with backup from sad, skinny polar bears floating on melting ice to melancholy music) did make a serious impression on that 15-year-old.

But in the past 10 years, emissions and temperatures have continued to rise and politicians continue to face a stalemate on climate change, particularly in the United States. So, near the end of my master’s degree program, I was ready to try something else—political advocacy. I saw a posting about the UCS Science Network Mentor Program and thought, what the heck, I should give it a go.

Diving into science advocacy

As I was thinking about my science advocacy interests, I realized I had spent the last three years studying soils and knew that they were a fairly non-controversial way to sequester carbon while increasing sustainability in other areas. My plan was to forge ahead and advocate for soil health in Nebraska. A long move and thesis defense later, I was meeting with an excellent scientist advocate mentor in a café in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska, head spinning with ideas for how I was going to be the great pioneering advocate for soil health in the Midwest.

Six months later, I’ve learned a lot, including that advocacy does not always play out as planned. Believe it or not, strategic advocacy is hard! It is something that you have to learn, and it requires time, mental energy, and a willingness to put yourself in a position where people might get angry with you, or worse, you might declare something and become a good student’s worst nightmare—publicly wrong. Furthermore, I was missing three major things that would have made advocacy much, much easier—a clear vision of what I wanted to do (turns out that Corporate America’s obsession with SMART goals isn’t as misguided as many of their other ideas), a local group (not just one person) of other advocates who could help and encourage me, and a network of people who could direct me to the right person of influence.

By some metrics, I failed (my first failure since I got an “E” for effort in handwriting). But the thing is, opportunities to advocate for science-based decision making are always ongoing, the key is finding the path to advocacy that works for you.

I also learned: 1) Don’t take people working on science advocacy and communication for granted. Seriously, what they do is hard! 2) It is helpful to have a well-established network and a clear vision of what you want to do. Attempting to change the political landscape in a region you just moved to with a few spare hours on weekends may be a smidge too ambitious. 3) Trying to do too much isn’t helpful—you are much better off using a call script to call your representative than you are trying to do something massive and being paralyzed with fear and indecision. 4) At this point in my life, spearheading a science advocacy campaign more or less on my own might not be for me. I may try something (more manageable) again in the future once I’ve become more established somewhere (and the resources provided to me by the Science Network Mentor Program have left me positioned to be much more successful next time).

There is always more time to figure out what kind of science outreach and advocacy works for you, and to plug into the communities fighting for our collective future that will sustain you as an advocate for the long-term.


Jessica recently graduated from the University of Toledo with a M.S. in soil ecology. She currently lives in Lincoln, Nebraska where she is taking a sabbatical from academia and working in biotech.

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

Photo via <a href="">Good Free Photos</a>

China and the INF Treaty

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Some US analysts and officials argue the United States should withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty because it prevents the United States from responding to China’s deployed short and intermediate range ground-based missiles. They argue the United States should abandon a bilateral arms control agreement intended to prevent Russia from threatening Western Europe to make it easier for the United States to threaten China.

These are dubious arguments. The US nuclear arsenal is more than 10 times larger than China’s and Chinese military strategists already believe the United States possesses conventional military superiority.

The push for the INF treaty emerged in the late 1970s in response to Soviet deployment of the SS-20, a new road-mobile missile with a range of 5,000 kilometers that could carry three nuclear warheads to Western European targets from eastern Soviet Union bases. The missile could reach targets in many other parts of the world, including Asia, but that was not a concern. At one point during the negotiations the United States and NATO were willing to let the Soviets continue to deploy some SS-20s if they moved them far enough east to be out of range of many Western European targets. Japan’s prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, was so angry that US and NATO negotiators were sacrificing his country’s security concerns that he personally pressed President Ronald Reagan to take that option off the table.

As discussions were proceeding, the United States and NATO simultaneously moved forward with plans to deploy hundreds of nuclear-armed, ground-launched cruise missiles and Pershing II ballistic missiles in Western Europe to restore a perceived balance of nuclear forces that Soviet SS-20 deployments had upset. That balance could be achieved by either limiting the number of Soviet missiles with the treaty or increasing the number of new US-NATO missiles. Public opposition to the proposed US-NATO deployments helped tip the scales in favor of negotiations.

One of the reasons Asia was not a concern to US INF negotiators is there was no comparable imbalance between US and Chinese nuclear forces. The United States possessed significantly more then and still does today. China currently has a few hundred nuclear warheads and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make several hundred more. The United States has 4,000 nuclear warheads (deployed and reserve) and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make approximately 5,000 more.

China could deliver 75 to 100 of those nuclear warheads to targets in the United States via ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and a maximum of 60 more on its soon to be 60 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). It can deliver 50 to 100 more nuclear warheads to targets in Asia with nuclear-capable intermediate-range missiles. The United States could deliver as many as 800 nuclear warheads on its 400 ICBMs and a maximum of 1,920 warheads on its 240 SLBMs. The United States also currently deploys 452 nuclear gravity bombs and 528 nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missiles. China does have several hundred nuclear-capable cruise missiles, but US intelligence agencies believe they are assigned conventional missions. Even if they were assigned nuclear missions, the balance of nuclear forces would remain heavily skewed in favor of the United States.

So, scrapping the INF threatens to upset the balance of nuclear forces with Russia in Europe in order to widen an already large US nuclear advantage over China in Asia.

Since that’s an obviously bad trade, US analysts and officials who tie the fate of this decades-old US-Russia nuclear arms control agreement to China may be more worried about balance of conventional forces. If that’s true, the question for President Trump is whether acquiring the freedom to target China with this class of conventionally armed missiles is worth giving Russia the freedom to target both Western Europe and Asia with the same class of nuclear-armed missiles.

Before he makes up his mind, Trump should know that the current conventional military balance between the United States and China does not inspire much confidence among Chinese military strategists. In China’s most recent assessment, US conventional military capabilities in Asia are consistently described as far superior to the capabilities of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The only Chinese generals who talk with some enthusiasm about a future military conflict with the United States are the political officers who appear on television and write propaganda pieces to buck up the troops and assuage the general public.

Chinese generals with actual military responsibilities are not at all optimistic about the outcome of a conventional war with the United States. They say they’ll fight if US politicians give them no other option, by supporting independence for Taiwan, for example. But the idea that China is a rising military power preparing to kick the US military out of Asia is a uniquely US perception based more on highly questionable theories of international relations than objective assessments of Chinese military capabilities or intentions.

China has been spending a consistent 2 percent of its annual gross domestic product (GDP) on its military every year since 1988. Because China’s annual GDP has grown significantly over the past several decades, Chinese military spending may be narrowing the conventional military gap to the same degree the growth of China’s economy is narrowing the economic gap. China’s per capita GDP has ballooned from a paltry $283 (in current US dollars) in 1988 to a little more than $9,000 today. That’s an impressive achievement. The per capita GDP of the United States went from $21,483 to $61,690 in the same period.

How much China’s economic growth has allowed its leaders to close the conventional military gap is very difficult to assess. One thing that should be clear, however, is that comparing totals of one class of armaments—ground-based missiles—is meaningless. There are many discrete capabilities that must be considered in assessing the conventional military balance between China and the United States, including the quantity and quality of aircraft, naval vessels, space assets, cyber skills and the education and training of troops. That last category is the one brought up most frequently in personal conversations with Chinese military professionals. Consistent with the traditional Maoist view that people, not munitions, determine the outcome of wars, the gap in the quality of the average soldier is the benchmark Chinese military strategists worry about the most, and Chinese military officers work most diligently to close.

The INF treaty is a bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia intended to do one thing and one thing only: preserve nuclear stability between the two nations that account for more than 90 percent of all the nuclear weapons in the world. US concerns about Russian violations of the treaty may be legitimate. But China does not possess any constellation of nuclear weapons that threatens to upset the balance of nuclear forces in Asia, which is very heavily weighted in favor of the United States and will continue to be for the indefinite future, despite China’s nuclear weapons modernization program.

Withdrawing from the INF treaty and forgoing the preservation of nuclear stability with Russia because of concerns about improvements in China’s conventional military capabilities is unwarranted, especially since Chinese military professionals believe they still lag far behind.

PFAS Contamination on Military Bases Is A Scary Reality—And For Me, It’s Personal

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Across the country, families are exposed to dangerous chemicals in their water—and the families most at risk are those living on or near military bases. This threat concerns me not just as a researcher, but as the child of a military family.

PFAS, or poly- and perfluorinated alkyl substances, are a class of synthetic chemicals that are silently ubiquitous and persistent in the environment—and highly toxic. Their ability to repel oil and water and persist at high temperatures makes them attractive for use in everyday items like nonstick cookware and food packaging, in water-repellent gear, and in firefighting foam used primarily by the US military.

UCS recently released a factsheet that investigated PFAS contamination at US military bases, and the results were unsettling. A new report from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) says that the threshold for danger from PFAS starts much lower than previously suspected—and that sites across the country are at risk. According to ASTDR, PFAS exposure studies have indicated certain PFAS may have negative health effects: developmental issues in infants and children, increased cancer risk, high cholesterol levels, hormone disruption, lowered immunity.


Unfortunately, this does not come as a surprise to me. Last November, I wrote about how appointing chemical industry apologist Michael Dourson to head the EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention would be terrible for the public, particularly for military families, due to his conclusions that PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), a type of PFAS and a widespread drinking water contaminant on military bases, should have an even weaker safety standard than that already recommended by the EPA. Luckily, he withdrew his nomination, a victory both for science and public health. However, Dourson’s withdrawal was one small victory in the fight to stop toxic contamination at military bases, a fight that began years ago. Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), UCS obtained email correspondence between the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Department of Defense (DoD). These emails suggested that the administration was interfering with the release of the ATSDR report on PFAS. An unnamed intergovernmental affairs aide at the White House said, “the impact to EPA and DoD is going to be extremely painful.”

The impact will be painful, it’s true—but for whom?

Me at age 12, when we were stationed in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. My dad had me on Jeep detail.

Respecting the military

Every politician brags about their support for the troops, and trust in the military is high among the public. But what does that mean in practice?

For a long time, military personnel and their families have been exposed to heightened chemical risk. But this administration has added insult to injury and taken us further from solving the problem. Intentionally stopping a study from being published because it would be a “public relations nightmare” could be, instead, a nightmare for those affected.

As of August 2017, DoD identified 401 active and BRAC installations in the United States with at least one area where there is a known or suspected release of PFOS/PFOA.

In all, 25 Army bases; 50 Air Force bases, 49 Navy or Marine Corps bases and two Defense Logistics Agency sites have tested at higher than acceptable levels for the compounds in either their drinking water or groundwater sources. Additionally, DoD tested 2,668 groundwater wells both on and in the surrounding off-base community and found that 61 percent of them tested above the EPA’s recommended levels.

Military communities deserve our support—but they’ve gotten insufficient attention in the conversation about water pollution, despite their elevated risk. Fortunately, the administration’s attempt to bury the PFAS report has backfired, drawing more attention to the issue.

This issue isn’t just scientific to me—it’s personal.

I think of my father, getting stationed in Korea at age 19, a stone’s throw from the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) – a place former President Bill Clinton called “the scariest place on earth.” When I asked my dad about it, he said only three words – “it was scary.” These are the realities many active members of our armed forces face, whether in training on US soil or deployed abroad. And while people join the service for many different reasons, I am positive none of those include “I would like to unwittingly bear the brunt of toxic chemical exposure.”

I think of my grandfather. My uncle. My aunts. My cousin. All served in the military, putting themselves and their families at risk.

If we’re not listening to science and basing our decisions on the best available information, public health and safety can be compromised and the public’s ability to engage meaningfully suffers.

Members of the military and their families deserve better than having the risks they face concealed.

We can do better. Our leaders need to act on the information they have about the dangers of PFAS. Ask your elected officials to push EPA and DoD to do more to protect their constituents from toxic contamination.



Charise Johnson

Supporting Science Policy Advocacy and Outreach through Microgrants

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The Science Policy Initiative at Notre Dame.

The National Science Policy Network (NSPN) unites groups of early career scientists and engineers nationwide who want to elevate the voice of scientific evidence in policy. We champion the value of science and evidence-based decision-making and believe it is critical for scientists and engineers to step outside of the research lab and communicate the importance diverse perspectives in the policy process to the rest of the scientific community, policy makers, and the general public.

NSPN member groups engage in diverse outreach including seminars, workshops, movie nights, discussion groups, public outreach, registration drives, and conferences!  These events reflect hours of dedication, time lost from the lab, and are a primary way for academic communities to put on their other hat – informed citizens.

Despite this, they receive minimal support. Based on a national survey conducted by NSPN in early 2018, over half of these student-led science policy groups operate on meager budgets of less than $1,000 per year. Recognizing that small financial contributions can catalyze significant improvements in group productivity, NSPN recently launched a microgrant initiative to facilitate growth and sustainability of these science policy groups.

The Science Policy Initiative at the University of Virginia

NSPN received over 25 proposals for the first round of microgrant funding, and was able to provide awards to 7 of them. The review committee for this microgrant initiative consisted of several students from the NSPN leadership as well as 3 external reviewers including Kate Stoll (Senior Policy Advisor, MIT Washington Office), Mahlet Mesfin (Deputy Director, Center for Science Diplomacy at AAAS), and Bill Bonvillian (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). The review committee was impressed with the quality and creativity of all the proposals and ultimately the following groups were selected to receive funding:

  • Science Policy Initiative at the University of Virginia
  • Forum on Science Ethics and Policy (FOSEP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder
  • Penn Science Policy and Diplomacy Group (PSPDG) at the University of Pennsylvania
  • Science Policy and Advocacy at Rutgers University (SPAR)
  • Science Policy Initiative at Notre Dame
  • Emerging Leaders in Science Policy and Advocacy (ELISPA) at the University of Florida
  • Missouri Science and Technology (MOST) Policy Fellows at the University of Missouri

Penn Science Policy and Diplomacy Group (PSPDG) at the University of Pennsylvania

The proposals address key themes of professional development for early career scientists and engineers as well as advocacy opportunities to interact with policy makers and the public. Several groups proposed workshops to offer training in areas such a writing policy memos and op eds, writing skills that are essential in the world of science policy, but not a skill taught to graduate students. They also address gaps in training on science communication to a wide audience, and effective science advocacy. ELISPA at the University of Florida, for example, is planning a memo-writing workshop where students will learn how to write policy memos and practice by writing a memo on an issue relevant to their local community.

The winners selected from this competition will travel to the state capitol to present their ideas to policy makers for the state of Florida. FOSEP at the University of Colorado is tackling science communication by producing a series of podcasts that will encourage scientists and engineers to think critically about the intersection of their work with policy, ethics, justice, and diversity. The Science Policy Initiative at the University of Virginia is interested in advocating for state level science policy fellowships for STEM graduate students and postdocs in order to engage scientists and engineers at all levels of government, not simply the federal government.

We are excited about the potential impact of these proposals, both locally and nationally, and believe that this is an essential step to encouraging more scientists and engineers to take a seat at the policy table. NSPN will launch another round of applications for the microgrant initiative at their annual symposium at the Rockefeller University in November. If you have questions or are interested in sponsoring microgrants for student groups in future application cycles, please contact


Michaela Rikard is a Ph.D. candidate in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Virginia. Her research as UVA focuses on cardiovascular disease and improving therapeutic options for wound healing following a myocardial infarction. Michaela is a co-founder and National Co-chair of the National Science Policy Network (NSPN). Launched earlier this year with support from Schmidt Futures, the NSPN is a rapidly growing network of over 60 campus-based student led science policy organizations, representing some of the largest and most prestigious research universities across the United States. She is passionate about changing the paradigm for graduate education and empowering scientists and engineers to be active participants in science policy.

General Motors’ EV Plan May Sound Good, But it’s Bad News for Cars and Drivers. Here’s Why.

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Vehicle pollution is a major issue for human health and the environment.

General Motors has proposed what it’s calling a “National Zero Emission Vehicle (NZEV) program” that would require automakers to sell a minimum volume of plug-in or fuel cell vehicles in the US. While this may sound like an innovative idea, it could dramatically undercut existing programs in states including California that are showing real leadership in cutting vehicle emissions. The GM proposal calls for a 50-state ZEV sales requirement of “15% credits” by 2025, but that doesn’t mean a 15% sales requirement. In fact, it would be far short of that, at best requiring less than 5 percent ZEV sales in the US by 2025, and potentially much less, while potentially undercutting both state-level electric vehicle requirements and federal greenhouse gas emission standards.

What are the main concerns with GM’s proposal?

#1 – Sales requirements through 2025 would be less than existing state standards

While GM’s proposal would call for less than 5 percent of new vehicle sales in 2025, California electric vehicle sales are already at 6 percent in the first half of 2018. The country as a whole is over 1.5 percent ZEV sales so far this year, over double the sales fraction just three years ago. Current requirements in California and nine other states require about 8 percent ZEV sales by 2025. So, if this proposal was adopted and removed state ZEV targets(as we suspect it would), the requirements in these leading states would be slashed and could be lower than current ZEV sales. This would undercut states’ ability to meet their climate and air quality goals and undermine charging infrastructure investments which are being made alongside current vehicle deployment goals.

#2 – Extra credits would further weaken vehicle sales requirements

GM also requests extra allowances for larger ZEVs, automated-drive ZEVs, and those in ridesharing fleets. While some of these vehicles could help reduce emissions, adding these extra credits would further erode the requirement. With these extra credits, the 2025 requirement would likely fall to 3-4 percent sales and 4-6 percent sales by 2030. And it’s not clear that some of these extra credits would be going to vehicles that are reducing emissions. For example, extra credits for larger vehicles could create the perverse incentive for automakers to make less efficient plug-in hybrids, resulting in more gasoline use. Giving extra credits to automated ZEVs assumes that they would drive more miles per year than other cars and therefore displace more gasoline-powered travel than a non-automated ZEV. However, it may be the case that these automated ZEVs increase the total amount of travel and thus either partially or fully negate the climate benefits of switching from gasoline to electricity or hydrogen.

State leadership on vehicle electrification is the reason there are now over 40 electric vehicle models available in some states, and the US is expected to hit the 1 million EVs sold milestone this month. Undercutting state ZEV targets could slow the needed transition away from petroleum to electric-drive transportation. State-level regulations also allow for coordinated incentives, infrastructure investment, and supportive policies that would unlikely to happen at the national level under the current administration. Also, while billed as a national program, there is no assurance that automakers would make efforts to sell ZEV’s outside the states where they currently offer ZEV models.

#3 – Off-ramp on battery-price and infrastructure provides little certainty past 2025

GM also wants to predicate the regulation on the availability of low-cost batteries and ZEV refueling and recharging infrastructure. While automakers are far from the only group that can help push R&D and infrastructure forward, it would be a dangerous policy choice to have a vehicle standard that could be invalidated by lack of effort or investment from automakers.

A national EV effort should complement efficiency and emissions standards, not undermine them.

Advancing vehicle electrification is important and a national effort that complements state EV deployment efforts and national fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards is a worthwhile discussion. But a national ZEV program as proposed by GM is no replacement for the fuel efficiency and carbon emission standards we have on the books today.

GM’s comments on the standards rollback suggests that this proposed NZEV program would replace the EPA’s current greenhouse gas standards for conventional vehicles. Doing so could result in vastly higher emissions as the vast majority of vehicle sales (over 95% in 2025) over the next decade would still be gasoline powered, and EPA would cede its authority to the Department of Transportation’s fuel economy regulations. And just how low would those future standards be?  GM suggests a status quo rate of improvement of about 1 percent per year, far less than the 5 percent per year they’re required to achieve under current regulations.   As they have for decades, they claim that tough rules are “infeasible” even though there are proven, cost-effective technologies available that will reduce emissions and gasoline costs for millions of Americans, and automakers should be implementing them.

Car companies like GM should be focused on meeting and beating existing standards and reject the Trump administration’s proposed rollbacks which would:

  • Result in an additional 2.2 billion metric tons of global warming emissions by 2040—that’s 170 million metric tons in 2040 alone, equivalent to keeping 43 coal-fired power plants online
  • Increase oil use. Cars and trucks will use an additional 200 billion gallons of gasoline by 2040—that’s as much oil as we’ve imported from the Persian Gulf since the standards were first finalized in 2010
  • Cost consumers hundreds of billions of dollars—in 2040 alone, consumers will spend an additional $55 billion at the pump if these standards are rolled back
  • Reduce employment, economy-wide, by 60,000 in 2025 and 126,000 in 2035;
  • Reduce gross domestic product by $8 billion in both 2025 and 2035.
What policies would help reduce emissions and petroleum use?

For a start, we can stop the disastrous proposed rollback of current standards for automobiles.

The federal government should also abandon its illegal and unwarranted attack on California’s ability to set needed policies to reduce air pollution and climate changing emissions. And the federal government should be encouraging ZEV sales in all states, by extending vehicle incentives and increasing R&D spending on ZEV technologies. The world is moving to electric cars and away from gasoline and diesel. Good domestic policy choices can make sure that drivers save money on fuel, manufacturing and research jobs stay in the US, and we get on a path to reduce the worst impacts of climate change.



Sea Level Rise and I-1631: What’s at stake for Washington?

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Photo: Lindsay/Flickr for the WA King Tide Photo Initiative

On November 6th, residents of Washington will be casting their votes on Washington Initiative 1631, also known as the Protect Washington Act. If I-1631 passes, Washington will become the first state in the nation to directly put a price on carbon. The funds raised through I-1631 would be used to promote a cleaner, healthier environment for Washington residents.

While the recent intense wildfire seasons have understandably received a lot of attention, Washington is also at risk from a more insidious, ongoing threat: sea level rise. In the coming decades, sea level rise could put thousands of homes in Washington at risk of chronic flooding, which is flooding that happens 26 or more times per year.

Washington faces a range of climate risks that I-1631 could help to minimize, and Washington’s scientists agree that it’s time to act to minimize these risks (see the UCS-supported letter signed by 200 scientists calling for I-1631 in the Seattle Times). Let’s take a look specifically at the potential impacts of sea level rise and chronic flooding in Washington and how I-1631 could help.

How much has sea level risen in Washington so far?

There are six NOAA-maintained tide gauges that measure water levels along the coast of Washington. The state’s longest-operating gauge is in Seattle and has been in place since 1899. Since then, the gauge has measured an average rise in sea level of roughly 2.1 millimeters per year, for a total rise of about eight inches over the last century. That’s roughly on pace with the global average rise in sea level.

The Seattle tide gauge has measured an average rise of 2.05 mm/year since the turn of the 20th century. Other gauges in the state, brought online in the 1970s, record a slower rise.

Gauges installed in the 1970s at other points along the coast–such as Cherry Point, near the Canadian border, and Port Angeles–have recorded a notably slower trend of roughly 0.4 mm per year. This difference reflects the fact that some parts of the Washington coast are subsiding–such as those in the Seattle area–and some parts are undergoing uplift.

These rising and falling trends on land reflect the region’s tectonic patterns as well as processes such as the compaction of sediments and groundwater withdrawal, which can cause the land to sink. So the pace of local sea level rise is highly variable around the state.

The pace of local sea level rise varies considerably in Washington because some parts of the state are experiencing land subsidence while others are experiencing uplift.

And how much will sea level rise in Washington in the future?

Because of the differing land movement trends in Washington, projections for how much sea level will rise in the coming decades also vary. The state’s most recent sea level rise guidance includes site-specific projections for more than 170 locations along the coast, which is more detailed than anything I’ve seen for any other state in the country. The state reports both a likely range for the amount of sea level rise over time and higher magnitude but less likely possibilities that bracket an upper limit given the latest science.

The state’s guidance gives a likely range of 0.5 to 0.9 feet of sea level rise for the state as a whole by 2050, and states that there’s a small chance the state could see up to 2.0 feet in that timeframe. By 2100 given a high emissions scenario, the likely range of sea level rise for the state is 1.4 to 2.8 feet by 2100, though could be as high as 8.3 feet.

In our recent work on the extent of chronic flooding and its impacts on coastal real estate, we used a set of sea level rise projections based on those developed for the third National Climate Assessment and adjusted to account for the different rates of land movement as measured at the tide gauges around the state. We found that, with a high sea level rise scenario, the state could see an average of 1.9 feet of rise by 2050 and 6.2 feet by 2100. With a low scenario, in which emissions are drastically reduced and future sea level rise is limited, our projections show an increase of 0.5 feet by 2050 and 1.3 feet by 2100.

It’s important to note that our projections use a sea level baseline of the year 1992 while the state’s projections use the average sea level over the period from 1991-2009 as a baseline. Overall, the projections we used for our high scenario fall within the mid- to upper range of the state’s projections. And our low scenario falls below or at the lower end of the state’s stated likely range.

How will sea level rise impact Washington?

A king tide spills over a roadway in Harper, Washington in November 2014.

During above-average high tides or king tides today, impacts on the Washington coast are fairly minor, though high tides can affect access to parking lots, beaches, and other recreational areas.  As sea level rises, however, those high tides will become higher and reach farther inland.

Our analysis shows that by 2045, with our high sea level rise scenario, more than 7,000 homes statewide are at risk of chronic flooding. Nearly half of those are in the Aberdeen-Hoquiam region along Greys Harbor and the Chehalis River.

By 2045, with a high sea level rise scenario, roughly 3,200 homes in Aberdeen and Hoquiam are are risk of chronic inundation.
To explore areas at risk, see our When Rising Seas Hit Home mapping tool.

By the end of the century with that same high scenario, more than 23,600 homes statewide are at risk, including nearly 40 percent of those in the Aberdeen-Hoquiam region and 30 percent of those on the Lummi Reservation, located north of Seattle close to Bellingham. You can explore the number of homes at risk, along with their present day value and other data, using our interactive mapping tool for the state as a whole as well as by community and by ZIP code.

What does Washington have to gain by passing I-1631?

The passage of I-1631 in Washington and the emissions reductions that would result may seem like a drop in the bucket of what’s needed on a global scale. And indeed, limiting future warming will require concerted effort at every level from the individual to the international. But were the world to follow Washington’s example and substantially reduce emissions, there’s a possibility that future sea level rise could be limited.

The low sea level rise scenario we analyzed is predicated on a climate future in which global warming is limited to less than 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. This scenario highlights just how much Washington stands to gain: Compared to the high scenario, in which more than 23,000 homes are at risk of chronic flooding by the end of the century, there are only about 7,000 homes at risk statewide given the low scenario. In other words, roughly 70 percent of the homes that are potentially at risk could avoid chronic flooding were we to achieve this low scenario.

While the emissions choices we make today have a strong bearing on where we land at the end of the century, our past emissions have locked us in to a certain amount of sea level rise in the near term. With that in mind, we need to be helping coastal communities build resilience to the sea level rise-induced flooding they’ll likely see in the next few decades.

And that’s where I-1631 really shines: The funds raised through the initiative could be used for projects that limit community-level harms due to sea level rise. For example, the measure states that “Investments from this account may be used for…relocating communities on tribal lands that are impacted by flooding and sea level rise.” The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, which includes the Lummi Indian Nation, have supported the initiative.

And twenty-five percent of the revenue would go to a “clean water and healthy forests account” that would include projects that “reduce flood risks and prepare for a rise in sea level.” This forward-thinking approach is one that could be a model for other states to follow.

From a sea level rise standpoint, The Protect Washington Act is a clear winner for the state of Washington.

Photo: Lindsay/Flickr for the WA King Tide Photo Initiative NOAA Tides and Currents Miller et al. 2018 Photo: Fletcher Sandbeck/flickr

How Affordable is Your Electricity? Comparing Electric Rates, Bills, and Burden

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Nearly 1 in 3 US residential household struggles to pay their electric bill. With so many folks struggling, it raises a question: What makes electricity “affordable?”

Do you know what you pay for electricity?

It’s okay if you don’t. A lot of folks probably don’t.

The most commonly used data source for calculating the average retail electricity rate* is from the Energy Information Agency (EIA), part of the US Department of Energy. EIA reports data on electricity price ($/kWh). This value takes your average monthly bill ($), divided by the average energy consumption in terms of kilowatt-hours (kWh).

Straightforward enough.

Using this average makes Southern and Western states look like they have affordable energy (Map 1). I often hear utilities and government offiicals in the South bragging how low their rates are. They’ll point to the high rates of Massachusetts, California, New York, or Hawaii for comparison.

Map 1: Average residential retail electric rates. Higher rates tend to be concentrated in the northeast, California, Alaska, and Hawaii. (EIA, 2017)

Looking at this map, California, and Northeastern states do look expensive…

But such conclusions aren’t as cut and dry as you might think.

At best, rates tell you very little. At worst, fixating on rates could mislead people into thinking electricity in some regions is more affordable than it really is.


Rates don’t reflect how much energy the average customer consumes. Bills, on the other hand, are what households pay every month.

Bills, bills, bills

Bills are a better metric on how affordable electricity is because that’s what you have to pay each month. For many struggling households, the total electricity bill plays a determining factor in how much money you’ll have to spend on other things.

And, somewhat unintuitively, bills are comparatively lower in many of the “high rates” states (Map 2). Meanwhile, the “low rates” southeastern states begin to look expensive.

When we were only looking at rates, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina all looked like they had affordable electricity. However, residential customers in those states have some of the highest bills in the country.


Low bill states tend to have policies that enable customers to lower their bills. Rooftop solar, market competition, and even rate structure can translate into savings for customers. But mostly, the credit belongs to energy efficiency.

Map 2: Average residential electric bills. Looking at bills, rather than rates, helps illuminate where customers are paying more for electricity. (EIA, 2017)

Massachusetts which had the 4th highest rates but the 36th lowest bills. Massachusetts is ranked 1st in energy efficiency by ACEEE.

California, which had the 7th highest rates but the 15th lowest bills. California is ranked 2nd in energy efficiency by ACEEE.

Louisiana has the 2nd lowest rates but only the 34th lowest bills. Louisiana is ranked 47th by ACEEE in terms of energy efficiency.

Mississippi has the 15th lowest rates but has the 10th highest bills. It was ranked 44th by ACEEE in terms of energy efficiency.

Other “low rates” states, like Alabama, Kentucky, Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina, all have lower than average rates but higher than average bills. These states also rank low in energy efficiency.

But even bills only tell part of the story.

Electricity burden

While the average bill in Hawaii or Connecticut is higher than the national average (Hawaii has the highest average bill, Connecticut has the 3rd highest), average household income in those states is also higher than the national average. In both Connecticut and Hawaii, the average household spends 2.3% of their annual income on electricity. The national average is also 2.3%.

Energy burden is the percent of one’s income you spend on all energy (electricity, heating, gasoline, etc.…). Electricity is one part of the energy burden (Map 3).

Map 3: Percent of pre-tax income that goes to electricity bill (Electricity Burden). Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina all have below-average rates—but residential consumers in those states suffer the highest electricity burden. (Pre-tax income data: US Census Bureau, 2017.)

The analysis presented here is limited to averages. The average income. The average consumption of electricity.

This analysis doesn’t account for intrastate variances in household incomes. Nor does it account for differences in electricity consumption. It is a simple comparison of the average bill as a percent of average income. Far from a perfect measure, but it’s still the next step in looking at electricity affordability.

Looking at averages isn’t to say that folks in states with lower than average electricity burden don’t also struggle to pay their bills. Yes, lower income folks do consume less but they do typically spend a higher percentage of their income on energy overall. The energy burden on low-income households is real and substantial. It is real in all 50 states and in the District of Columbia, regardless of averages.

So what good is this analysis?

The analysis does illustrate how misleading the focus on rates is.

Bills—what people actually pay—can look very different from rates. Focusing on rates distracts from the important policy question: How can we ensure that energy is affordable?

This analysis highlights that the low rates of the South are a poor indication of electric affordability in those states.

Next month I’ll be presenting at an annual conference of consumer advocates. Consumer advocates have long been focused on electricity affordability. Energy efficiency is a great step in making electricity more affordable. Energy efficiency helps avoid or defer expensive investments that utilities would otherwise have to make, which means it helps all customers save money. Energy efficiency helps consumers lower their bills. And, energy efficiency policies and programs can target efforts to make sure that all consumer groups can benefit and participate in efficiency programs.

What follows is a list of states and ranks for their rates, bills, ACEEE energy efficiency score, and percent of income spent on electricity (burden). The number in each cell reflects that state’s rank, from low to high. So, for example, Alabama is the 28th cheapest state for rates, but the worst state in terms of electricity burden.

State Rates Bills ACEEE  Burden Alabama 28 50 43 51 Alaska 50 45 41 19 Arizona 27 46 17 43 Arkansas 4 22 34 44 California 45 15 2 7 Colorado 24 3 14 2 Connecticut 49 48 5 27 Delaware 36 38 22 31 District of Columbia 31 9 12 1 Florida 18 44 23 47 Georgia 22 43 38 42 Hawaii 51 51 16 28 Idaho 3 14 26 29 Illinois 32 5 13 8 Indiana 25 28 40 37 Iowa 26 18 24 21 Kansas 35 31 46 34 Kentucky 9 29 29 45 Louisiana 2 34 47 48 Maine 42 4 15 11 Maryland 37 47 10 14 Massachusetts 48 36 1 10 Michigan 40 11 11 24 Minnesota 34 12 8 9 Mississippi 15 42 44 50 Missouri 20 35 33 38 Montana 12 7 37 25 Nebraska 13 21 45 20 Nevada 23 16 30 22 New Hampshire 47 32 21 12 New Jersey 41 17 18 3 New Mexico 30 1 36 16 New York 44 19 6 13 North Carolina 10 27 27 39 North Dakota 5 25 49 23 Ohio 29 24 31 32 Oklahoma 6 26 39 40 Oregon 7 20 7 17 Pennsylvania 38 30 19 30 Rhode Island 46 23 3 15 South Carolina 33 49 42 49 South Dakota 21 33 48 35 Tennessee 8 40 35 46 Texas 14 39 25 36 Utah 12 2 20 6 Vermont 43 8 4 4 Virginia 17 41 28 26 Washington 1 13 9 18 West Virginia 20 37 50 33 Wisconsin 39 6 32 5 Wyoming 16 10 51 41

This “rate” isn’t the same as the variable rate of your electric bill—the amount you pay for each kWh you use or the amount of money you save for each kWh you conserve. For this analysis, I’ve only looked at the retail rates and bills of residential customers.

Offshore Wind in 2018: Four Takeaways

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Photo: J. Rogers

The annual US offshore wind conference last week was full of energy and enthusiasm (and people—with the largest crowd I’ve seen at one of these in quite a while). The optimism was clear and, importantly, seemed justified. Here are four big takeaways for me about what’s coming for offshore wind.

1. Wind farms are coming.

The conference included a couple different sets of projections about what projects will get built when. One was from the government agency in charge of wind off our coasts, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), and one from research firm Bloomberg NEF. Both agree that a lot of offshore wind is coming:

  • 2020 – The sole project in the Americas, a 30 megawatt (MW) project off Rhode Island, gets some company. The next turbines in the water, they agree, will include a 12 MW demonstration project off Virginia.
  • 2021/2022 – The big megawatts start coming in, including the first tranche of the 800 MW Vineyard Wind project off Massachusetts whose remarkably low price is helping fuel excitement across the offshore wind sector, plus a down payment for meeting New York’s 2400 MW target, with a project east of Long Island.
  • 2025 ­– As many as a dozen projects might be powering homes and businesses in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and even Ohio. BNEF projects 3,695 MW installed by that point.
  • 2026-2030 – More megawatts and more states. BNEF projects more than 10,000 MW by 2030 (AWEA, the American Wind Energy Association, is envisioning 8,000 by 2028). And BOEM’s projections add North Carolina.


What may come: Worker with offshore wind blades, at a Siemens facility in Denmark (Photo: Derrick Z. Jackson)

2. There’s lots more to come.

Those expectations about projects and megawatts are for areas that have already been leased for offshore wind. But there’s a lot beyond even that.

Various speakers also talked about the West Coast. California and Oregon have some of the strongest offshore wind resources in the country, and BOEM has proposed three areas off California for consideration. BOEM has also been looking at Hawaii. (Both the West Coast and Hawaii)

Meanwhile, back on the East Coast: BOEM is looking at additional sites in the New York Bight, southeast of New York City, to join the one that in 2016 fetched the highest offshore wind lease auction price yet.

And in his brief remarks at the end of the conference, Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke brought the conversation back to Massachusetts, where the US’s offshore wind conversation started back in 2001 (with the proposed, but never launched, Cape Wind project). He announced a December date for auctioning off three additional offshore wind lease areas south of the Bay State and the existing leases.

3. Wind farms = jobs.

Jobs have always been a compelling reason for states and the federal government to push offshore wind. And unions are excited too by the prospects for steelworkers, pipefitters, electricians, and more.

At the conference, AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan said that the 8,000 MW by 2028 will bring with them some 40,000 jobs; that’s almost as many as there now are in US coal mining. Vineyard Wind alone has committed to creating more than 3,600 jobs.

States duking it out at AWEA Offshore Wind 2018

4. States want their piece of it all.

And each potential offshore wind state wants as much of that—the megawatts, the energy, the jobs, and more—as it can capture. Even for a tech guy like me, the “state of the states” closing session at the conference was one of the most interesting, as each of five states laid out the business case:

  • Virginia – John Warren, director of the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy, touted the state’s “deep maritime history”, a prime location (and lots of skilled veterans) in Hampton Roads, and, if things go according to plan, those next turbines in the water, with the 12 MW demonstration project.
  • Rhode Island – State Energy Commissioner Carol Grant trumpeted the Ocean State’s “unique position” in the offshore wind space: Having the sole existing offshore wind farm in the country. And she plugged the state’s location (good maritime and road access), infrastructure (two deep-water ports), and experience, including workforce-wise.
  • New York – Alicia Barton, president and CEO of the state’s energy research and development authority (NYSERDA), pointed to the state’s position as the twelfth largest economy in the world, its commitment to 50% renewables by 2030, and the big role the state sees for offshore wind in linking those pieces.
  • New Jersey – For Kathleen Frangione, the governor’s chief policy advisor, lots of factors add up to make the Garden State “uniquely situated” for offshore wind: its extensive shoreline, its workforce, its port infrastructure, and the multiple nearby offshore areas already leased out.
  • Massachusetts – Steve Pike, CEO of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, talked about the lessons learned during the years of battling over that first offshore wind proposal in the country—the “deep well of knowledge and expertise” that the state chalked up. Add to that a “proud seafaring tradition”, an “invaluable talent base”, and more, and it just might be too good to pass up.

All of them acknowledged, actually, that it’s as much about cooperation as it is about competition, as each figures out the role it can best play in building the US market.

“The future is bright.”

Conference speakers didn’t ignore the challenges facing offshore wind—issues around fishing, viewshed/visual impacts, navigation, wildlife, or defense, for example—but there was a real, broadly held sense that the time is right for offshore wind, and offshore wind is right for this time.

Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, as enthusiastic and eloquent as always, talked about the “inexorable inevitability”—not just of climate change, but also of solutions like offshore wind. New York’s Barton pointed out the “once-in-a-generation opportunity” that offshore wind represents for establishing a new industry in the US.

And even the Trump administration sees that, and can’t resist offshore wind’s appeal (and why would it want to?). Sec. Zinke declared himself “bullish on wind”, and touted the chance to “build an energy platform in this country for generations to come.” “The future is bright,” he said.

Indeed. Offshore wind’s power, potential, and job creation promise make it easy to find stuff we can agree on.

Photo: J. Rogers

Can Uber and Lyft Be a Climate Solution?

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Photo: Mark Warner

Governor Brown signed several pieces of legislation this year on clean energy and transportation and one of those, signed on a boat in San Francisco bay on a windy afternoon, was squarely aimed at ensuring ride-hailing companies contribute to California’s climate efforts.  The California Clean Miles Standard and Incentive Program (SB 1014 authored by Senator Skinner) brings ride-hailing companies into the climate solutions fold by establishing decreasing climate emissions targets (yet to be determined) for companies like Uber and Lyft. This ground-breaking legislation is the first of its kind, and sets an important example for how the increasingly popular transportation option of ride-hailing can help accelerate emission reductions from transportation, rather than exacerbate them.

Why ride-hailing is important for climate change

App-based on-demand ride services (aka ride-hailing) have been a huge boon to mobility for millions of people, providing a convenient option for getting from point A to point B. But these services also have implications for the amount of global warming emissions coming from transportation. And since transportation climate emissions in California are growing and now account for more than 40% of statewide emissions, getting a handle on this source of pollution is critical.

Ride-hailing may help or hinder efforts to reduce emissions for several reasons:

  • Ride-hailing is growing rapidly. Trip miles by Uber and Lyft increased more than 100% in 2016 and greater than 60% in 2017 (CPUC report). As of 2017, Uber was operating in 172 cities and towns in California and Lyft in more than 92. Statewide, ride hailing is only a small percentage of overall miles traveled (California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) estimated it at 2%) but in some places is a sizable percentage of daily trips.  In San Francisco, for example, SFMTA estimates that 15% of in-town trips, and 20% of total miles traveled during the week, is in ride-hailing vehicles.
  • Ride-hailing is increasing vehicle miles traveled and congestion. While ride-hailing is getting some people to leave their own cars at home, it is also leading to additional car trips that increase vehicle emissions and congestion in some cities. That’s because ride-hailed trips often displace trips that would have been completed by walking, biking, or transit, or add trips that would not have been taken at all. As noted in this white paper on the Future of Mobility by researchers from the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at UC Berkeley, “in 3 out of 4 studies, more than a third of respondents would have taken public transit, walked, or biked, in place of” ride-hailing. Furthermore, even when they displace personal car trips, ride-hail trips can end up adding more vehicle miles than the car trip they are displacing because “dead-heading” miles—miles traveled without any passengers between drop-offs and pick-ups—can account for an estimated 20% (SFMTA) to 40% (CPUC) of all ride-hailing miles. Several cities are trying to get a better handle on congestion impacts from ride-hailing services from New York to San Francisco and solutions to deal with it.
  • Ride-hailing could usher in a new era of car-pooling. It’s never been easier to share a ride with someone if you live in an area where UberPOOL or LyftLine are available. In California, pooled-rides represent more than 30% of the ride requests by Uber and Lyft passengers (CPUC). Significantly increasing vehicle occupancy by pooling rides is one way to increase passenger miles without increasing vehicle miles or pollution and app-based services are providing the tools to make this work.
  • Ride-hailing could accelerate the electrification of vehicle miles traveled. A typical car travels about 12,000 mile per year. But a driver for Uber or Lyft could easily drive double that or more. As an example, a report on taxis in New York City indicated a typical cab travels 70,000 in one year. So an EV used in a ride-hailing service has the potential to travel a whole lot more miles than a typical EV used by an individual for personal transportation. Replacing gasoline-powered ride-hailing trips with EV ride-hailing trips could slash climate emissions since powering cars with electricity instead of oil reduces emissions, even when accounting for emissions from generating the electricity.
  • Ride-hailing has the potential to support greater use of mass transit or could possibly undermine it. With easily accessible ride-hailing offering an attractive first-mile and last-mile option, commuters may find some forms of mass transit more attractive. A survey carried out by researchers at UC Davis of ride-hailing users found respondents increased their use of heavy-rail (including subways and commuter rail) and walking (see figure). But it’s not all good news. Respondents also reported a decrease in bus and light rail use and on net, the study authors report an overall decrease in transit use by current ride-hailing users. So ride-hailing could help improve mass transit, by making it more accessible, convenient and efficient than it is today, but it could also undermine transit by pulling passengers away.

Source: Disruptive Transportation: The Adoption, Utilization, and Impacts of Ride-Hailing in the United States, October 2017 by Regina R. Clewlow and Gouri Shankar Mishra

Ultimately, ride-hailing services will make the biggest contributions to reducing climate pollution from transportation if they lead to more pooled rides, less overall VMT, more vehicle electrification, greater utilization of mass transit and more biking, walking or scooting. But that outcome is far from guaranteed without clear public policy direction.  And that’s just what SB1014 is designed to provide.

The California Clean Miles Standard and Incentive Program – SB1014
  • Establishes a global warming emissions baseline for ride-hailing companies by January 2020

The new law requires the California Air Resources Board to establish an emissions baseline, on a per-passenger-mile basis, for ride-hailing companies.

Here’s a basic example of how to calculate an emissions per-passenger-mile metric. First, take all the vehicle miles traveled by ride-hailing vehicles – waiting for passengers, between pick-ups and drop-offs, and during the actual trip with a passenger or passengers. Then estimate the emissions for those miles traveled based on the efficiency of the vehicles used.  Finally, divide that by the number of miles each passenger actually travels in the vehicle.

The bill does add one more factor into the mix – did the trip facilitate walking, riding, or other modes of zero emission or active transport? It’s not exactly clear how this will ultimately be wrapped into the calculation.  Here’s one possibility. If a passenger uses Uber Express Pool and walks a few blocks to the pickup location, that might be factored into the overall passenger miles, hence reducing the overall emissions per passenger mile figure.

  • By 2021, sets annual emission reduction and zero emission vehicle targets starting in 2023 to be implemented by the Public Utilities Commission

After setting a baseline, the California Air Resource Board is tasked with establishing annual emission reduction targets to apply to companies starting in 2023. Along with setting overall emission per passenger mile targets, the bill also requires specific targets for increasing passenger miles traveled using zero-emission vehicles. The CPUC will implement the actual standard given their role in regulating ride-hailing companies.

  • By January 2022, and every two years after, requires companies develop emission reduction plans.

Once targets are set, ride-hailing companies will develop plans to demonstrate how they will comply with the standards.

  • Calls for state agencies to consider these goals in their vehicle electrification planning and funding decisions.

Several state agencies, including the California Energy Commission, California Public Utilities Commission and the California Air Resources Board, that make decisions about funding for vehicle incentives and charging infrastructure deployment will now consider ride-hailing electrification goals in their decision making.  The bill also calls for the program to support sustainable land-use objectives, clean mobility goals low and moderate-income drivers, while minimizing any negative impacts.

Setting a strong standard will ensure ride-hailing is a climate friend, rather than foe

This bill sets up a structure for ensuring ride-hailing delivers on its potential to help accelerate climate reductions in the transportation sector.  It complements the current efforts of Uber and Lyft to promote electrification on their platforms and reduce climate emissions. It also ensures they are accountable for making steady progress while providing flexibility in how they meet the goals.

SB1014 could have required a more straightforward metric, like emissions per vehicle mile traveled or just an EV deployment requirement, but that would have only encouraged lower emitting vehicles.  Instead, by using an emissions per-passenger-mile metric, the standard can encourage a broader range of positive outcomes including: use of cleaner ride-hailing vehicles, greater vehicle occupancy (i.e., pooling), more efficient operations with less deadheading, and encouraging increased use of active transportation. All of these are ultimately important in moving toward a more sustainable, and low emission transportation future.

What’s next?

The California Air Resources Board is on tap to develop an emissions baseline with finalization by January 2020 so I’d expect a public announcement in the next few months regarding a process.

No one except for Uber and Lyft knows exactly how many miles Uber and Lyft vehicles are driving, the vehicles that are driving them, or how many passengers are in them. All of this information will be critical to developing a baseline to measure future emission reductions against.  Ride-hailing companies will need to be transparent with regulators about the underlying data they are reporting on and be accountable for its accuracy.

Setting the structure and stringency levels of the program will be the next critical challenge.  If both Lyft and Uber stand by their public commitments to more sustainable transportation, then the process for developing emissions targets should prove to be productive.

Photo: Mark Warner

Protecting Our Children from Lead in School Drinking Water: Getting the Law Right!

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Signs indicating students should not drink the water.

As I pack my kids’ backpacks in the morning, I go through the mental checklist of what they need. Lunch? Check. Nap roll for my four-year-old? Check. Homework folder for my seven-year-old? Check. Filtered water bottles certified to remove lead from drinking water? Check!

My children attend public school in the nation’s capital. Like many US cities, Washington, DC’s old lead service lines are at risk of leaching into drinking water. At high doses lead can be lethal, but children absorb lead more easily and even low doses can have devastating consequences on their physical and cognitive development. DC recently passed the Childhood Lead Exposure Prevention Amendment Act of 2017, which lowered the actionable level of lead in school drinking water from the outdated federal standard of 15 parts per billion (ppb) to 5 ppb. The 5 ppb action level is based on the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) requirements for bottled water. However, this standard is not based on science and the new law still does not fully protect children from lead exposure in school drinking water.

No records, no data, no problem

Like many, I was aware of the devastating Flint water crisis, but it hit home when I saw the Washington Post headline: “Elevated Lead Levels Found in Water at Three DC Schools.” These schools were in our neighborhood and two of them had recently undergone modernization, something that was about to happen at my children’s school. During modernization our elementary school would move to trailers on a middle school campus where high lead levels were recently detected. The middle school and elementary schools with high lead in drinking water levels were also made up of predominately minority, economically disadvantaged students. These sorts of environmental injustices were not new to DC though and the agencies responsible for overseeing school modernizations were contributing to these inequities.

DC had a lead-in-drinking-water crisis in the early 2000s. Records obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request showed lead levels as high as 7,500 ppb  found in school drinking sources during this period (5,000 ppb classifies drinking water as “hazardous waste”)!  After submitting a FOIA request to determine what our school plumbing and service line materials were made from, I was informed that government agency officials could not fully assess the plumbing and that District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) was not planning to replace it in the building being preserved during modernization.

DC Department of General Services (DGS) safety measures were also concerning. DGS placed do not drink decals above bathroom sinks and refused to test and filter sources used by preschoolers at the temporary location. When I prompted our Parent Teacher Association (PTA) to fund testing, half of the sinks tested above DC’s legal limit of 5 ppb. DCPS again refused to test and filter the sinks after being presented with these results.

Sowing seeds of misinformation

Initial DGS test results from designated drinking water sources in the trailers found the preschool cafeteria sink with levels at 14 ppb. DGS remediated and tested the fixture twice before lead testing results came back at 2 ppb. While they were remediating, DCPS sent out a letter to the school community: “While the levels detected are below the Environmental Protection Agency’s actionable level of 20 ppb, in an effort to exceed these standards, DC Government asserts that no level of lead above 5 ppb is safe for our students’ drinking water sources. As a result, DGS has followed and will continue to follow the District protocol to remediate these elevated levels.”

Sign warning about childhood lead exposure, from the CDC.

What the letter did not say was that according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Environmental Protection Agency, there is no safe level of lead. What the letter also did not say is that lead from plumbing tends to release variably and concentrations can fluctuate greatly. Children are vulnerable to lifelong, irreversible, physical, cognitive, and behavioral problems from low-dose, chronic lead exposure. The AAP recommends an action level of 1 ppb in schools, but DCPS asserted that levels with 5 ppb of lead or lower were safe.

Tip of the iceberg

Several months later, I learned that the middle school would also undergo modernization; two schools would be located on an active construction site where hazardous materials including lead paint and asbestos were recently abated. They were not planning to do water or air quality testing beyond what was done in a normal school. The team of parents that I led began advocating for commonsense, science-based protective measures and transparency in the process such as ongoing air monitoring during demolition while students were present, hand washing stations in the cafeteria to remove potential contaminants children come into contact with during recess, and parental observation of testing—all of which DCPS denied.

A law is as strong as its weakest regulation

Troubled by disparities among safety standards, I researched the Childhood Lead Exposure Prevention Amendment Act of 2017. I discovered gaps in DGS’ Water Filtration and Testing Protocol, so I drafted the Lead-Free Drinking Water in DC Public Schools Petition. The petition has been cosponsored by seven DC PTAs and the Capitol Hill Public Schools Parent Organization and has been submitted to the Deputy Mayor of Education’s Office (DME). It highlights gaps in current regulations and offers solutions: 1) a clearer definition of a “drinking water source”; 2) more frequent water testing to determine filter effectiveness; 3) better record keeping and abatement of lead service lines and other lead-bearing plumbing; 4) language changed in communications to parents to disclose the AAP’s 1 ppb recommended action level for schools; and 5) point-of-use filters to remove all lead in the water.

 What now?

Current standards are not based on science and lack the capacity to protect our children from lead in school drinking water. While the Childhood Lead Exposure Prevention Amendment Act of 2017 was an improvement, it is not sufficient to fully protect our children’s health. We are not only asking for revisions to the regulations, but also amendments to the law. We are also advocating for updates to environmental health standards in schools in DC. If our nation’s capital can get this right we will be setting a precedent for the rest of the country, proving it is possible to provide a safe, healthy learning environment for our children.

Join me in protecting our children. Contact Councilmember Mary Cheh, Chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment at to urge her to amend this law and develop stronger environmental health standards in schools. You can also contact Alex Cross, Special Assistant to the DME at in support of the petition.


Hannah Donart recently earned her Master in Public Health with a concentration in Environmental Health Science and Policy from George Washington University. She is currently leading her children’s School Improvement Team Environmental Health Committee in Washington, DC. Her background includes work in climate and energy policy and chemical regulatory policy.

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


Students, Don’t Forget to Vote. You Too, STEM Majors

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Photo: Mike Olliver/UCS

When I was 17, I set up an ironing board on the side of Market Street in downtown San Francisco. I wore a brand new shirt with straight-out-of-the box creases, which read: “Ask me to help you register to vote.” Panicked about the possible re-election of George W. Bush (remember him?), I had convinced four friends to spend the day with me trying to register distracted shoppers.

Although we aren’t voting for a president this year, our congressional representatives have enormous power, shaping everything from the Supreme Court to our health care options. State and local representatives also have important impacts on our lives. For example, in Ellicott City, Maryland regional planning decisions affected recent extreme flooding, which had fatal consequences.

Why I’m voting

I am now postdoc at Johns Hopkins University where I study floods and how they are changing. One reason I will vote is because I am worried about the consequences of climate change—both the impacts we are already experiencing in the U.S. as well as worldwide. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just released a report detailing devastating impacts which are likely to occur within our lifetimes unless we take aggressive action. Already, five tiny islands among the Solomon Islands have disappeared.

As an engineer, I was embarrassed to read recent findings that STEM majors vote less frequently than other majors. Apparently this has something to do with gender differences: men vote less than women and make up a larger fraction of STEM majors. But accounting for these differences doesn’t completely explain the discrepancy. Students majoring in science, engineering and math were found to be less interested in other forms of civic engagement as well.

STEM majors, let’s change this

We have just as much at stake compared to everyone else — maybe even more, given how much funding for science is provided by the federal government. Having tried to “do it all” in college (why not add a minor in comparative politics, extra Swahili class and an honors thesis?), I know how hard it can be to find time to vote amidst relentless problem set and paper deadlines.

Let me suggest some reasons that voting is a worthwhile investment of your time

First, the representatives we elect pass bills which affect our economy and thus your job opportunities after graduation. When I graduated from Stanford in 2010, the implications of the financial crisis were still being felt and it was difficult to find a job.

Second, even if you opt instead for graduate school, as I did (maybe even because of aforementioned challenges in obtaining a desirable job), these representatives impact your lives. Last winter, a proposal to tax tuition benefits as income would have made graduate school unaffordable for many students.

Finally, average student loan debt at graduation now tops $30,000. The people we elect can support or fight proposed cuts to student loan forgiveness programs, which give some graduates the opportunity to reduce the size of their loans.

When I moved across the country, I left my ironing board at home in California. While you won’t find me on the side of the quad with voter registration forms, I strongly encourage you to register to vote.

This election is likely to have a big impact on your life

Have a say in what happens. Vote on November 6th.


This piece was originally published as an op-ed in the Johns Hopkins News-Letter.

Annalise Blum is a postdoctoral fellow in Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. 

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

Why We Met with Andrew Wheeler—And What Happened When We Did

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On Monday, I met with Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), accompanied by Andy Rosenberg, director of our Center for Science and Democracy, and Michelle Robinson, director of our Clean Vehicles Program. We had asked for this meeting in early July, just after Scott Pruitt resigned and Mr. Wheeler was named as his replacement. Though well aware of Mr. Wheeler’s history as a coal industry lobbyist, we hoped that he might not be personally invested in some of Mr. Pruitt’s policies, and were convinced that we should meet with him face to face and try to persuade him to change course.

Since that time, and with a few important exceptions, Mr. Wheeler has mostly dashed these hopes. During his short tenure, the EPA has drafted rules to roll back the three most significant EPA climate change policies (fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars and light-duty trucks, the clean power plan for CO2 emissions from power plants, and limits on methane leaks from oil and gas operations). And the EPA has repeatedly excluded independent, academic scientists from EPA advisory boards and has sought to limit the scientific information that the EPA can use when adopting new safeguards for public health and the environment.

We were scheduled for a half hour, but Mr. Wheeler graciously extended the time to make sure we could cover the three issues we wanted to raise. At the meeting, Mr. Wheeler, accompanied by Bill Wehrum, the director of Air and Radiation, and several others, was engaged, eager to defend his positions, and respectful of ours.

However, the meeting was utterly disappointing.

We focused part of the discussion on climate change. We handed them excerpts from the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the Climate Science Special Report, prepared by US government scientists. We showed them a chart from the Special Report projecting the misery of lengthy heat waves across the US in just a few decades, and cited UCS’s Underwater Report estimating that hundreds of thousands of homes in the United States that would be flooded twice a month by mid-century. We stated as forcefully as we could that rolling back the modest first steps that the EPA had taken is the precise opposite of what these reports are urgently calling upon all leaders to do.

Mr. Wheeler did not attempt to dispute the science. Rather, he claimed that EPA lacked the legal authority to address it in any substantial way, particularly when it came to power plants. We pushed back hard, citing several Supreme Court opinions holding that the EPA did have such authority and pointing out that the EPA had itself created uncertainty over its authority by asking a court not to rule on a pending case on the Clean Power Plan which would have clarified the legal boundary lines. I felt the way Abraham Lincoln must have when he ruminated “If General McClellan isn’t going to use his army, I’d like to borrow it for a time.”

We also discussed the rollback of the clean car standards, and Mr. Wheeler seemed to have swallowed the argument that cleaner car standards will cause more traffic fatalities. (I know, this is hard to grasp—supposedly people will hold on to their less safe, older cars longer and drive them more because newer, more efficient cars are more expensive). Michelle pointed out that even his own technical staff’s analysis doesn’t support this argument, and let him know that we and others would refute it during the public comment period. We also discussed the proposal to rescind California’s long-standing authority to set its own stricter standards. At this point, Mr. Wheeler expressed a preference for a “50 state” solution in which the federal and state standards were aligned. We reminded him that this is precisely what we have now under the existing standards, and it is his decision to lower the federal standards that is creating a disjunction with California.

The discussion then turned to science, and Andy spoke forcefully about a pattern of removing independent, academic scientists from advisory boards, and limiting the evidence that EPA can consider when making decisions. UCS and the EPA could not even agree on what to call one of the proposals that would disallow the EPA from using studies unless it made public raw data such as private health records. We called that proposal “restricted science.” He called it “transparent science.” Whatever the name, Mr. Wheeler did recognize that his proposal had engendered fierce criticism from many quarters, but he insisted that it was misunderstood.

The meeting was coming to a close. I had been in this office before with other EPA administrators, and had experienced the exhilarating feeling of being close enough to power for my words to make a difference. The stakes for this meeting with Mr. Wheeler were so much higher—we are running out of time on climate change, and the Trump administration is doing such damage, yet I couldn’t break through.

As a last resort, I did all I could do: I implored him to read the reports we provided and summon the courage to put a hold on these reckless rollbacks. I acknowledged that this would be hard. And I said something like this: “it would be harder still to be a person in a unique position of authority and responsibility, who had the chance to steer a safer course, but chose not to do so.”

Del hollín a la energía solar

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Photo: PDTillman/Wikimedia Commons

En el 2016, Illinois extendió su liderazgo en energía renovable al aprobar la Ley de Trabajos Futuros en Energía (FEJA, por sus siglas en inglés). La Ley fortalece las metas de energía renovable y eficiencia energética de Illinois, crea el primer programa de energía solar comunitaria y el programa Energía Solar para Todos en Illinois.

Aun así, muchas plantas a carbón continúan operando en Illinois.

Entre más pronto el estado pueda cerrar sus antiguas e ineficientes plantas a carbón, un paso crítico en la transición hacia la energía limpia, mayores serán los beneficios para las comunidades a lo largo de todo el estado.

El análisis de UCS, Del hollín a la energía solar, estudia los beneficios económicos y de salud pública, las reducciones de la contaminación por carbono, las mejoras en la calidad del aire y las ganancias en equidad social que podrían resultar de reemplazar las plantas eléctricas a carbón en Illinois por energía renovable, eficiencia energética y almacenamiento de energía.

Numerosos beneficios FEJA

Condujimos un análisis multinivel que evalúa escenarios antes y después de FEJA, así como dos escenarios que incluyen cierres adicionales de plantas a carbón. La implementación de FEJA trae amplios beneficios económicos y ambientales al estado. Gracias a FEJA:

  • Nueva capacidad instalada de energía renovable conlleva a un total de $3.400 millones en inversiones en Illinois.
  • Mejoras en eficiencia energética impulsan otros $1.300 millones en inversiones.
  • Illinois agrega 1.300 MW de nueva capacidad instalada de energía eólica y 3.406 MW de energía solar por encima del escenario de línea base previa a FEJA para el 2030.
  • La capacidad total instalada de energía renovable en Illinois se proyecta que alcance más de 8.890 MV para 2030 acorde a una exitosa implementación de FEJA.
  • Las emisiones de CO2 del sector eléctrico de Illinois se reducirán en un 22 por ciento para el 2030. Las emisiones de NOx serán reducidas en un 36 por ciento y las de SO2 en un 35 por ciento.
Más allá de FEJA

Las mayores reducciones en emisiones suceden bajo ambos escenarios de cierres de plantas a carbón. En el 2030, las emisiones de carbono caen un 33 por ciento por debajo de los niveles del 2016 debido al cierre de las plantas a carbón Waukegan y E.D. Edwards (escenario Waukegan Edwards) y un 51 por ciento por debajo de los niveles del 2016 con el cierre de las 8 plantas a carbón Dynegy-Vistra conectadas a la región MISO (Dynegy-Vistra scenario).

El crecimiento de la energía limpia en Illinois impulsado por el cierre de más plantas a carbón es viable y asequible. Bajo los escenarios de cierre de plantas a carbón, los ahorros anuales para un hogar promedio oscilan entre $93 y $102 al año para el 2030.

Considerables beneficios para la salud pública

Tan sólo en el 2016, se estima que la contaminación ambiental de las plantas a carbón condujo a más de 2.300 ataques de asma y más de 350 muertes prematuras. Cerrar las plantas a carbón antes del 2030 disminuirá considerablemente los impactos negativos sobre la salud pública causados por estas plantas.

Por ejemplo, el retiro de las plantas a carbón Waukegan y Edwards antes del 2030 evita un estimado acumulado 178 visitas a unidades de urgencias relacionadas con asma, 264 ataques cardíacos y 431 muertes prematuras.

Así mismo, el cierre antes del 2030 de seis unidades de Dynegy-Vistra evita un estimado acumulado total de 408 visitas a unidades de urgencias relacionadas con asma, 592 ataques cardíacos y 1.000 muertes prematuras.

El cierre de la planta a carbón de Waukegan

Durante casi una década los residentes de Waukegan, apoyados por el grupo comunitario Clean Power Lake County, han pugnado por un plan justo de cierre y transición de la planta debido a los impactos negativos a la salud causados por la combustión del carbón. Nuestro análisis encuentra que la preocupación por la confiabilidad del sistema eléctrico no es un obstáculo para el cierre de la planta a carbón de Waukegan.

Encontramos que la generación de las dos unidades a carbón restantes puede reemplazarse de manera confiable con una generación equivalente distribuida uniformemente a través de las plantas existentes en los 13 estados a los que da servicio el operador de la red PJM. Adicionalmente, aproximadamente 4.700 MW de energía renovable están programados para entrar en funcionamiento en el estado.

Las turbinas de combustión a petróleo que existen en la planta de Waukegan pueden ser fácilmente reemplazadas con inversiones en eficiencia energética y tecnologías de energía limpia.

El futuro del carbón en Illinois

La Junta de Control de Contaminación de Illinois (IPCB, por sus siglas en inglés) está considerando cambiar un importante requerimiento en la contaminación del aire, lo que podría llevar a un incremento en las emisiones y en los impactos a la salud. En octubre 10, el IPCB denegó la propuesta presentada por la agencia ambiental de Illinois y apoyada por Dynegy-Vistra y en su lugar pasó su propia propuesta que baja los límites anuales de contaminación de las plantas de Dynegy-Vistra y adicionalmente requiere que los límites sean bajados una vez las plantas sean cerradas, estén inactivas o sean vendidas. La IPCB está aceptando comentarios públicos sobre la propuesta que está siendo revisada.

Con los cambios propuestos, hay temor que la compañía pueda cerrar sus plantas menos contaminantes y mantenga abiertas las que más contaminan por más tiempo. En lugar de buscar cambiar en los requerimientos de contaminación del estado, Dynegy debería tomar los pasos necesarios para cerrar sus antiguas y contaminantes plantas a carbón y transitar hacia la energía renovable y mayor eficiencia energética.

Recomendaciones de UCS  

Hay múltiples acciones que Illinois podría tomar para acelerar el progreso de la energía limpia, continuar cerrando más plantas contaminantes a carbón, y conducir a la región hacia un futuro de energía sostenible:

  • Facilitar la participación comunitaria. Los responsables de políticas a nivel estatal y local, las empresas de servicios públicos y los propietarios de plantas de generación eléctrica deben interactuar de forma significativa con las partes interesadas, especialmente con las comunidades étnicas y raciales minoritarias y los residentes de bajos ingresos que viven cerca de plantas a carbón para asegurar el establecimiento de planes de transición justos y equitativos. En los casos de estudio incluidos en este reporte exploramos los impactos económicos, en la salud pública y en el uso de la tierra a nivel de la comunidad, provenientes del cierre de 5 locaciones de plantas a carbón.
  • Adoptar políticas que apoyen el uso del almacenamiento energético. Illinois debe considerar políticas que incorporen el valor del almacenamiento de energía en los futuros proyectos solares y premien aquellos que incluyan el almacenamiento de energía, de tal forma que Illinois haga realidad su potencial de energía limpia e integre en su red eléctrica cantidades crecientes de energía renovable.
  • Diseñar estructuras de tarifas de electricidad que incentiven la inversión en energía solar y almacenamiento energético y que reduzcan la demanda en horas pico. Es crucial la divulgación y educación del cliente: las empresas de servicios públicos deben comunicar de forma transparente cómo los clientes pueden modificar su conducta cotidiana para maximizar el ahorro en las facturas de electricidad.

Del hollín a la energía solar muestra que con políticas adicionales para incentivar el desarrollo de la energía limpia, los habitantes de Illinois podrán obtener mayores beneficios para la salud pública, la economía, el medio ambiente y la comunidad.

This blog is available in English.




Photo: PDTillman/Wikimedia Commons

New Report Has Bad News for Illinois Coal Plants: It’s Time to Go

UCS Blog - The Equation (text only) -

Photo: Karen Long MacLeod/CPLC

In 2016 Illinois extended its clean energy leadership with the passage of the Future Energy Jobs Act. The law strengthened Illinois’s renewable energy and energy efficiency targets, created the state’s first community solar program, and launched the Illinois Solar for All program. Under FEJA, solar capacity in Illinois is expected to grow from 90 megawatts to more than 3000 megawatts in the next decade.

Yet, many coal-fired power plants continue to operate in Illinois, and coal plant owner Dynegy-Vistra is seeking state subsidies and easing of pollution standards to keep their plants open and profitable.

The faster the state can retire its aging inefficient coal plants—a critical step in the clean energy transition—the greater the benefits will be for communities across the state.

UCS’ new analysis, Soot to Solar, analyzes the public health and economic benefits, carbon pollution reductions, air quality improvements, and social equity gains that could result by replacing coal power plants in Illinois with renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy storage.

Widespread benefits from FEJA

We conducted a multi-layered analysis that evaluates scenarios both before and after FEJA as well as two scenarios that include additional coal plant retirements. Implementing FEJA brings large economic and environmental benefits to the state. Thanks to FEJA:

  • New renewable energy capacity drives a total of $3.4 billion in capital investments in Illinois
  • Energy efficiency improvements spur another $1.3 billion in investments
  • Illinois adds 1,300 MW of new wind capacity and 3,406 MW of new solar capacity above the pre-FEJA baseline scenario by 2030
  • Total installed renewable energy capacity in Illinois is projected to reach more than 8,890 MW by 2030 under successful implementation of FEJA
  • Illinois electric sector CO2 emissions will decrease by 22 percent by 2030, NOx emissions will be reduced by 36 percent, and SO2 by 35 percent

Old coal-burning power plants have the greatest emissions per energy delivered.

Beyond FEJA

Illinois is off to a good start with FEJA, but with climate risks growing and public health impacts of pollution well-known, more could be done to close the state’s 15 polluting coal plants sooner.

We modeled two scenarios where two or eight coal plants were retired beyond those that will likely close under FEJA.

Greater carbon emissions reductions will occur under both coal retirement scenarios. By 2030, carbon emissions fall to 33 percent below 2016 levels from the closure of the Waukegan and E.D. Edwards coal plants (Waukegan Edwards scenario) and 51 percent below 2016 levels from closing Dynegy-Vistra’s eight MISO connected coal plants (Dynegy-Vistra scenario).

Clean energy growth in Illinois spurred by additional coal retirements is achievable and affordable. Under the coal retirement scenarios, annual savings for a typical household range from $93 to $102 per year by 2030.

Extensive public health benefits

In 2016 alone, air pollution from Illinois coal plants led to an estimated 2,300 asthma attacks and more than 350 premature deaths. Closing coal plants before 2030 greatly decreases the negative public health impacts caused by these plants.

For example, retiring the Waukegan and Edwards coal plants early avoids an estimated cumulative total of 178 asthma-related emergency room visits, 264 heart attacks, and 431 premature deaths compared to if the plants operate until 2030.

The pre-2030 retirement of six Dynegy-Vistra units avoids an estimated cumulative total of 408 asthma-related emergency room visits, 592 heart attacks, and nearly 1,000 premature deaths.

Closing the Waukegan Coal Plant

Waukegan residents, anchored by the community group Clean Power Lake County, have been advocating for a just retirement and transition plan for the Waukegan coal plant for nearly a decade. Our analysis finds that concern over electricity reliability, a typical talking point for the plant’s operator and its supporters, is not an obstacle to closing the Waukegan coal plant.

We found that generation from the two remaining coal units can be readily and reliably replaced with an equivalent amount of generation located anywhere in the 13 states served by the grid operator PJM.

The existing oil-burning combustion turbines on site at the Waukegan plant can be readily replaced with investments in energy efficiency and clean energy technologies.

The future of coal in Illinois

The Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) is considering changing an important air pollution standard that could lead to increased emissions and health impacts. On October 4, the IPCB passed on the proposal put forth by the Illinois EPA and supported by Dynegy-Vistra and instead put forth its own proposal lowering the annual caps on pollution from Dynegy-Vistra’s plants and then requiring that the caps be lowered when plants are retired, mothballed, or sold. The IPCB is accepting public comments on the revised proposal.

With the proposed change there is still fear that the company may close its cleaner plants and keep its dirtiest plants open longer. Instead of seeking changes to state pollution standards, Dynegy should be taking steps to close its aging, polluting coal plants and transition towards renewable energy and greater energy efficiency.

UCS recommendations

There are several actions Illinois elected leaders and policymakers could take to accelerate the state’s clean energy momentum, continue to close additional dirty coal plants, and to lead the region in creating a sustainable energy future:

  • Facilitate community involvement. State and local policymakers, utilities, and power plant owners must meaningfully engage with stakeholders, especially communities of color and low-income residents living near coal plants, to establish equitable and just transition plans. In the case studies included in this report, we explore the community-level economic, public health, and land impacts at five coal plant sites.
  • Adopt policies that support the deployment of energy storage. Illinois should consider policy options that incorporate the value of energy storage into future solar projects and reward solar projects that include energy storage, so that Illinois can fully realize its clean energy potential and integrate more renewable energy into its electric grid.
  • Design electricity rate structures that encourage customers to invest in solar and energy storage and reduce peak demand. Customer outreach and education is also crucial: utilities should clearly communicate to customers how they can modify their everyday behaviors to maximize savings on electricity bills.

Soot to Solar shows that with additional policies to incentivize clean energy development, Illinoisans can gain even larger public health, economic, environmental, and community benefits.

This blog is available in Spanish. We also have an interactive feature that highlights the communities in our case studies, available here.

Photo: Karen Long MacLeod/CPLC


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