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Organizing a Science Policy Workshop: What we learned in Bozeman, Montana

Photo: Tim Evanson/Flickr

The Bozeman 500 Women Scientists pod held a science policy workshop in February 2018 for 30 female scientists from all career stages, undergraduate to professor and government-based scientists. Sound intimidating? Here’s how we got there.

In the summer of 2017, Emma Kate Loveday, Racheal Upton, Kelsey Wallisch Simon, and Chloe VanderMolen became the acting leadership for the local 500 Women Scientists pod. The 500 Women Scientists pod in Bozeman, Montana, meets regularly to act as a local support network, make strategic plans, and take action within the community. 500 Women Scientists is a grassroots organization started by women scientists, with the goal of promoting equality for female scientists and decreasing the anti-science agenda in global, national, and local politics. The group was founded following the November 2016 election, when the national leadership published an open letter re-affirming their commitment to speak up for science and women, minorities, immigrants, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA individuals.

Making the initial connection and building relationships with policymakers

When the four of us pod leaders stepped up to run the Bozeman pod, we were very interested in working with local policy makers to make sure that science had its place at the table when legislation was being crafted. We quickly discovered the process of policy making is not straightforward, leading us to want to develop a further connection with local politicians to gain greater insight into the process. How could we expect scientists here in Bozeman to work actively to support policy-makers within such a confusing framework? So we applied for and received funding from UCS to hold an all-day science policy workshop for female scientists in all career stages. And boy, did we have an amazing workshop!

Planning a workshop

One of our main objectives for the day was to bring policy makers in from both sides of the aisle to discuss openly how they utilize science in their policy making decisions.
But before we could have our workshop, we had to do the groundwork. Here are some highlights we recommend for planning a workshop:

Timing: Our planning started with laying out the framework of what we imagined a successful day looked like. We started the workshop at 10am so everyone did not feel to rushed for a Saturday morning workshop. We worked out breaks and lunchtime and planned to end our formal workshop at 5pm but continue it with a happy hour at one of our local breweries!

Speakers: The four of us met up every Sunday over coffee or beers to prepare for the workshop. We utilized our own networks in Bozeman to touch base with local politicians and nonprofit groups that had legislative experience. One of the amazing aspects of Montana is the ability to reach out and interact with our state policy makers. We were able to locate speakers with relative ease that were more than happy to participate in the workshop.

Logistics: We set up an online google form for registration and located a space associated with Montana State University for holding our event. In addition to setting up the space, food and speakers, we wanted to provide on-site childcare. Both myself (Emma) and Chloe have young children and it can be difficult to do activities such as this on the weekend. So we booked a teacher from my daughter’s daycare for the Saturday and offered fully paid childcare for this event; expanding our attendance to a greater range female scientists! It was an important aspect that we felt should be offered at all scientific conferences and workshops. We contacted the more than 100 women from our local Bozeman pod members to advertise registration and the 30 slots for the workshop quickly filled up.

Teaching women scientists how to get involved in the legislative process

We started our workshop with a discussion featuring Zach Brown (Democrat from Bozeman) and Walt Sales (Republican from Manhattan, a small town about 10 miles west of Bozeman). Brown helped us reach out to Sales, a multi generation rancher, and we could not have had a better duo to discuss different perspectives on important issues such as climate change, water policy and how they incorporated science in general. Following, Kathleen Williams gave us the nuts and bolts of policymaking: an overview of how a bill becomes a law in the Montana government, how she as a state legislator tries to utilize scientific input, and where and how scientists could reach out to the state government to provide insight into proposed legislature. Joanna Nadeau, from UCS, gave an overview of how local and state policies connect into the federal system. After lunch we heard from Beth Kaeding at the Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC), a non-profit that works with ranchers across the northern plains, who provided a scientist’s perspective on policymaking. As a member of NPRC, Kaeding had attended every legislative session for the past decade and has provided expert testimony during the committee and rule making process. She is an expert in the state government system and was highly knowledgeable how to work within it. One of the key takeaways from Kaeding was that there are multiple opportunities to provide expertise in the legislative process. Initially we believed that we would need to get in from the ground up when bills are being drafted, but we can also provide expert testimony at committee hearings, where policy makers consider whether or not to advance a bill to the house floor. There is also a great opportunity to provide information and expertise during rule making meetings, which occur after a bill has passed.

Following Beth, David Quammen, a world-renowned science writer and author, provided insight into how to communicate our science with both the public and policy-makers. This was further explored with expert advice from Dr. Shannon Willoughby and Kent Davis, both professors at Montana State University and authors, in which they explored the way to “storytell” scientific expertise to the general public. Each of our invited speakers was excited to spend a day with a group of women scientists and learn from us as much as we wanted to learn from them! All of our speakers spent the majority of the workshop with us, giving attendees extra opportunities to meet and have more in depth conversations with them. The commitment from each of our speakers was unexpected and reflects our community’s appreciation of science. We finished up the workshop with a happy hour. All the ladies that were able to attend the happy hour had a better chance to get to know each other and discuss the day’s events.

What success looks like

We were so excited to have female scientists from all career stages, from undergraduate to professor and government scientists, attend the event. By having a broad range of individuals in the audience we were able to address how you are able to participate in the policy-making process at every career stage. All of our participants said that they had a better understanding of the political process in Montana following the workshop. Our participants also appreciated the opportunity to see and meet people in government and realize how approachable and kind they were to the attendees and to each other. With the partisanship that plays out daily, this aspect struck a chord with the majority of our attendees, as reflected in our follow up surveys. Overall, our participants provided very positive feedback and we are getting requests and inquiries to see if we are going to hold a follow up workshop in 2019. We are very grateful to have had the opportunity to hold this unique event in Bozeman, MT and it has instilled a desire to continue to work towards science-based policies in our local 500WS pod that continues today.

Since the workshop the pod worked on a get out the vote campaign that was headed up by a few participants from our workshop and included a discussion with local candidates in October. We continue to nurture and maintain relationships with the speakers from the workshop and hope to work with them more as the Montana legislative sessions returns in 2019. While our path ahead to continue our work may feel daunting at times we are invigorated by the local community’s support for our cause and the overall need to continue this important fight.

 

Dr. Emma Kate Loveday is a postdoc working on single cell virology at Montana State University in the laboratory of Dr. Connie Chang. Dr. Loveday earned her B.S. in biochemistry from Suffolk University on Boston and her Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology at the University of British Columbia. Her time in Canada provided a unique perspective on US politics. Dr. Loveday is also the leader of the Bozeman 500 W.S. Pod. Follow her on Twitter at @DoctorLoveday, or the Bozeman pod @Bozeman500women.

Dr. Racheal Upton is a postdoctoral researcher with expertise in microbial ecology, particularly above and belowground interactions in prairies and cropping systems. Dr. Upton earned her B.S. in molecular biology from Millersville University, PA and her Ph.D. in microbiology from Iowa State University, Ames, IA. She has a strong passion for mentoring the future generation of female scientists and engaging with her local community. Dr. Upton is one of the co-leaders of the Bozeman 500WS pod and serves as the representative for the local pod to the larger 500WS organization. Follow her on Twitter @erbforscience

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.

Tim Evanson

A Look Back at Dr. King’s Demands for Food Justice

Photo: National Archives and Records Administration/

In May of 1968, the Poor People’s March on Washington brought some 3,000 activists to the nation’s capital for more than six weeks. The campaign, planned by Dr. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was designed to draw attention to the deep economic injustices that plagued communities of color, despite advances in civil rights, and to present Congress with policy solutions—chief among them an economic bill of rights.

But before the march started, on April 29th, Reverend Ralph David Abernathy visited the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to talk about food and farming. And with the list of demands he carried, the Reverend brought with him the voice of the late Dr. King, assassinated just one month prior, and of many thousands of others—including farmers who were denied land, families who were denied food, and people who were denied dignity.

So what, exactly, did he ask of the Secretary of Agriculture?

And 50 years later—are we still asking for the same things?

“That hunger exists is a national disgrace.”

Reverend Abernathy began his testimony to the Secretary of Agriculture by calling attention to hunger and malnutrition, calling the very existence of hunger in a country like America “a national disgrace.”

He asked that the USDA provide food stamps for those who couldn’t afford them. If this sounds strange, it’s because federal nutrition programs have changed during the last five decades—and largely for the better. When food stamps (the precursor to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) were first established with the Food Stamp Act of 1964, program participants had to actually purchase their food stamps. It wasn’t until the Food and Agriculture Act of 1977 that those who needed help putting food on the table could receive these benefits at no cost.

Reverend Ralph Abernathy at a National Press Club luncheon in 1968.

Reverend Abernathy also asked that the government provide free and reduced-price lunches for every school child in need. Because in the spring of 1968, a national committee report found that fewer than four percent of students were receiving free or reduced-price lunches—demonstrating the extent of hunger, malnutrition and unmet need among schoolchildren across the country. Now, there is uniform eligibility and consistent funding for the National School Lunch Program, which provides about 22 million students in 100,000 schools with free or reduced-price lunches every day.

Yet despite the progress made in our federal nutrition programs, the level of hunger in the United States remains a national disgrace. About one in eight households are food insecure—meaning families don’t consistently have the money or the resources to keep food on the table—and households of color experience hunger at twice the rate of white households. The protections that federal nutrition programs do offer have come under frequent fire by the current administration, which at this moment is proposing a rule that would make it harder for unemployed and underemployed adults to qualify for SNAP.

On threats to farmers of color: “The Department has done almost nothing to help.”

Click to enlarge.

The Reverend noted the decline in black-owned farms, asking the USDA to support cooperatives that could help sustain black and Mexican American farming operations in rural areas, and highlighted the widespread discrimination in the implementation of agricultural programs. He also took aim at USDA subsidies paid to agribusiness, declaring: “It is inequitable to pay large farmers huge amounts of Federal funds to grow nothing while poor people have insufficient amounts to eat.”

How much has farm policy changed since 1968? By many accounts, not enough. It’s estimated that black farmers currently make up less than two percent of all farmers in the United States, down from about 14 percent in 1920. And discriminatory practices by federal agencies got far worse before they got better. In 1999, the Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit determined that the USDA had systematically denied loans and disaster payments to black farmers between 1981 and 1996, resulting in more than $1 billion in damages being awarded to farmers and their relatives. Meanwhile, agribusiness still reigns supreme. Farm policy in the 1970s directed farmers to “get big or get out,” widening the gulf between small and large farms and increasingly diverting federal subsidies to the biggest and most profitable operations.

“By all means, keep moving.”

The last 50 years haven’t brought all the policy changes needed for a food system that meets the needs of all people. Not by a long shot. But if we’re reflecting on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, we should also be indulging in his faith in humanity—in the arc of the moral universe—and acknowledging the progress we’ve made.

The 2018 farm bill, for example, provided permanent mandatory funding for programs serving beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and protected SNAP from cuts that would have taken food away from millions of people. It also included programs that support small farms and local economies and help low-income families purchase more fresh produce. And all the while, women and people of color, from Soul Fire Farm’s Leah Penniman to Rise and Root’s Karen Washington, were getting their hands dirty and showing us what the future of food could really look like.

In Atlanta, Georgia, in April of 1960, Dr. King addressed the faculty and students of Spelman College. The address, “Keep Moving from This Mountain,” ended like this:

“If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl; but by all means keep moving.”

So here’s to movement—in all the brave, bold, and beautiful forms it takes. May the next 50 years bring much more of it.

Photo: Library of Congress

Three Climate Priorities the New Congress Can Actually Deliver On

It’s a new Congress and that means new opportunities to make some progress on addressing the climate crisis and growing our clean energy economy. The political environment is complex and there are significant challenges to progress, but we can’t afford to wait for a more favorable congress. Here are three meaningful climate priorities that actually have a chance to make it to the finish line, even in this environment.

The challenges: It takes 60 votes to pass most legislation in the Senate (still controlled by Republicans; climate action is not a priority). We have a president who is openly hostile to clean energy and rejects mainstream climate science. And much of the new Democratic House majority was elected to put a check on the White House rather than reach compromises. The Speaker will also be looking to protect her many newly elected members in purple districts (the suburbs), which may lessen how ambitious the House will be on climate action.

The need: These dynamics certainly make it difficult to enact aggressive policy that will drive the deep cuts in emissions that we need, but one thing I hope all climate and clean energy advocates recognize is that we don’t have the luxury of getting nothing done over the next two years. Building for potential big opportunities in the future is important, but the science tells us that the climate clock is ticking. We can’t sit this one out hoping we get a pro-climate congress in 2021. We must keep reducing emissions; we have to get meaningful policy enacted this year. That will require hard work, strategic thinking and strong collaboration across all the diverse stakeholders who care about the climate crisis.

The opportunities: What can actually get done right now? What policies can run the gauntlet of Congress and still have a significant impact on reducing emissions?

Here are three ideas that will help significantly reduce emissions and can pass both chambers of congress this year.

1). Robust investments in clean energy research and development

Despite the administration’s shortsighted attempts to gut our nation’s clean energy research and development (R&D) capacity, clean energy innovation has broad public support (85% according to a Yale 2018 poll). It also has bipartisan support. Under the leadership of Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA), funding for low-carbon technology R&D has increased over the last two years. Funding for ARPA-E, our nation’s flagship innovative clean energy research and development program, has increased roughly 20% over that time. Republicans and Democrats both see investments in clean energy R&D as a pro-growth strategy that is good for the economy, their states and the country.

Source: Wikimedia

While the increases in funding are significant in a Republican congress, it’s still far short of what is required to develop and hone the tools we need to address the growing scale of the climate crisis. We need more options and we need to continue to increase the effectiveness of the options we currently have. A massive investment in low-carbon technology R&D can help make that happen. Federal R&D helped us split the atom and get to the moon; it can certainly help us innovate our way to more climate solutions and emissions reductions.

There are many important clean energy R&D programs spread across the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy that need increased funding:

  • the Office of Science, Basic Energy Sciences (BES)
  • the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Grid Integration Initiative
  • the Office of Electricity, Energy Storage Program
  • the Operational Energy Management Capability Investment Fund (OECIF)
  • the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP).

But the Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Energy program (ARPA-E) is perhaps the best example of where a massive investment is needed. ARPA-E pioneers transformational energy projects that represent high-risk but potentially game-changing technologies. ARPA-E also provides technology-to-market advice to best performers.

The National Academy of Sciences’ report that recommended ARPA-E’s creation also recommended that its funding be stabilized at $1 billion per year within four years of its inception (that was back in 2007). ARPA-E is currently funded at $366 million, but a recent assessment by the National Academy of Sciences revealed that “ARPA-E is in many cases successfully enhancing the economic and energy security of the United States,” making it a wise federal investment.

It’s time to make a “space race”-scale or “Manhattan Project”-scale type investment in low carbon energy research and development. And with a Democratic House and strong Senate Republican leadership on Energy and Water Appropriations, there may be a good opportunity to make robust investments in clean energy R&D, finally resourcing our nation’s innovative capacity and unleashing the power of innovative technological growth.

2). Tax credits to stimulate more clean energy, energy efficiency and grid technologies

Most of the progress we’ve made reducing emissions and incentivizing the deployment of low carbon energy technologies at the federal level has come through the tax code. A 2016 UCS analysis showed that the 5-year extension of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind and the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar will reduce CO2 emissions by 31% cumulatively through 2030. That’s huge.

But these tax credits are starting to phase down and the PTC expires end of next year, jeopardizing the strong clean energy momentum we are seeing across the country. Continued strong growth of renewable energy in the near term will still necessitate federal tax support and other incentives—especially to rapidly build out and replace fossil generation at scale in a time-frame appropriate to what the climate science is telling us. It’s important for Congress to remember clean energy doesn’t currently compete on a level playing field with gas and coal, because the impacts of carbon emissions are not priced into most electricity markets.

Fortunately, as with appropriations, there is a pathway in the Senate for strengthening (and potentially broadening) tax credits for clean energy. In fact, about half of the Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee represent states with large renewable energy industries. That includes Chairman Grassley (R-IA), sometimes referred to as the “father” of the PTC, who represents a state that gets 37% of its electricity from wind power (supporting 9,000 jobs).

There’s also a history of bipartisan support for a low-carbon, technology-neutral approach to energy tax policy that provides greater long-term certainty and levels the playing field for all low-carbon energy technologies. Recent legislation introduced to expand the ITC to stand-alone energy storage projects has also received bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

Energy storage is the key to making renewable energy ubiquitous. It also has important reliability and energy security benefits.  It’s a critical piece of the clean tech puzzle and this congress can has a real opportunity to incentivize more deployment of energy storage through the tax code.

3). Infrastructure that reduces our vulnerability to climate impacts and modernizes our electric grid

Democrats and Republicans both agree that we must upgrade our aging infrastructure, and the federal government should play a role.  They don’t agree on how much of a role and what the primary mechanisms should be (public-private partnerships, federal grants, states funds, federal loan guarantees, direct federal investment, etc.…). But as with many other policy issues, there’s plenty of room for common ground, and whether its sewage leaking into Penn Station or crumbling rural roads and bridges or antiquated and vulnerable electricity systems in island communities, Americans want and deserve reliable infrastructure.

A 2016 Gallup poll showed 75% of Americans support “spending more federal money to improve infrastructure.”  In 2017 infrastructure polled as the second most popular issue for President Trump, right behind family leave for parents of newborns.

But when the president finally unveiled his infrastructure proposal early last year, there was very little federal money in it. In fact, most of the spending under his plan would have come from already-strapped state budgets with some spending from private interests. There was very little direct federal investment and no focus on reducing vulnerability to extreme weather and climate change. The modernization of important sectors like the electricity sector and the transportation sector were ignored, important environmental protections were gutted, and it included regressive policies that discourage infrastructure development in economically vulnerable communities.

What’s the opportunity for climate progress in an infrastructure bill? How about getting to 100% clean energy? Getting anywhere near that is going to take modernizing our electric grid.  We need big increases in transmission, energy storage, distributed generation, and advanced grid technologies.

We can’t solve the climate crisis if we don’t quickly decarbonize our electricity sector, phasing out our use of fossil fuels, increasing energy efficiency, maintaining the low carbon generation we have, and building out a lot more renewables.

We likely won’t avoid the worst impacts of climate change without electrifying the transportation sector (now the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US) and building out infrastructure for electric vehicles.

And we won’t protect communities and livelihoods from devastating climate impacts like wildfires, drought, hurricanes and floods if we don’t invest in preparedness—especially in economically vulnerable communities and communities of color.

We need an infrastructure bill that builds for the future, not the past.

Ultimately the president’s partisan (and unhelpful) infrastructure package went nowhere. But in a new congress where the House is poised to take up infrastructure, there’s a lot of Senate Republicans up in 2020, and the President badly needs a win heading into his re-election campaign, there may be a pathway for infrastructure this year.

Both the Senate Minority Leader and the Speaker of the House have signaled that addressing climate change must be a key part of any infrastructure package. And while Senate Republicans have expressed support for moving forward with infrastructure, ultimately it will be up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and the president to decide if there’s room to compromise to do what’s best for the country.

So while we must increase our vigilance advocating with Congress for an FDR-sized approach appropriate to the urgency and scope of the climate crisis, we must also make progress where opportunities exist. Even in this challenging political environment, there are opportunities to advance federal policy that significantly contributes to reducing emissions and protects communities and livelihoods from climate change. We cannot afford federal climate policy to be stagnated by partisan politics.

We need to create a durable bipartisan super-majority for action on climate. What better time to start than now?

New Mexico’s Clean Energy Opportunity Knocks

Bureau of Land Management (Flickr)

Look out, clean energy leaders, there’s a new governor in town—and this one campaigned atop a wind turbine.

Governor Lujan Grisham’s campaign included scaling a wind turbine and making strong clean energy commitments. Credit: Michelle for Governor (Oct. 2018), available here.

For New Mexico, a state laden with clean energy opportunity but hungry for clean energy vision, such tall heights yielded a long hoped-for sight: a leader reporting clean energy potential as far as the eye could see.

And though her feet are back on the ground, now-Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s eyes have stayed fixed to that horizon, using her inaugural address to double down on realizing the state’s clean energy potential by forcefully calling for policies that look up, look out, and establish a forward course.

Over the past eight years, clean energy progress—alongside so much else—has been spinning its wheels in the Roundhouse. But now, with gubernatorial leadership there to help give it a push, the time is ripe to act. And if the already-filed legislation is anything to go by, legislators are ready—renewables, energy efficiency, electric vehicles, energy storage, transmission planning, and more.

In her inaugural address, Governor Lujan Grisham staked out her clean energy vision and then declared: “We can achieve this, and I will not relent until it is done.”

Or in other words: to the 54th Legislature, game on.

Recognizing the clean energy opportunity

In New Mexico, renewable resource potential abounds—the state is overflowing with sunshine, awash with steady wind, host to ample geothermal. Its universities and national labs are at the forefront of clean energy research, and businesses looking to capitalize on the transition are emergent.

But policy vision and guidance from the state? It’s gone all but missing in action. As a result, though progress continues, it has slowed in the face of uncertainty.

This has been a disappointing turn for New Mexico, which was not so long ago positioned among clean energy leaders, implementing a series of policies that catapulted its clean energy sector forward. Foremost among these? The establishment of a strong renewable portfolio standard (RPS), guiding utilities to incorporate a modest yet steadily rising share of renewables in their electricity sales, ultimately reaching 20 percent renewables by 2020—among the top targets of its time.

But though formative in shaping a new and promising sector, the state’s RPS targets haven’t been strengthened since. Many of New Mexico’s one-time policy peers have recommitted themselves to the proven tool by lengthening and strengthening their own RPSs, but similar efforts in New Mexico have repeatedly stalled.

The resulting policy vacuum could not come at a worse time.

Because as is happening across the nation, New Mexico’s power sector is in the midst of unprecedented change as coal plants retire in the face of cleaner and cheaper renewables and natural gas. It is simply more expensive to operate old coal plants than it is to build these new resources, resulting in a wholesale shift away from coal.

But the question for New Mexico—the massive, course-determinative question—is what gets built to take coal’s place? Renewables, or a lot more natural gas?

Without a renewed RPS, the scale threatens to tip too far toward gas if the state’s largest power providers get their way.

Using an RPS as guide

As a reflection of the policy’s central importance to realizing the clean energy vision, Governor Lujan Grisham made strengthening the state’s RPS the centerpiece of her clean energy plan. Such a policy is now poised to advance through the legislature, and its passage could not be more urgent.

Because above all else, a long-viewed RPS sets a clear and definitive vision of where the state is heading, and establishes waypoints for staying the course. So as each decision arises regarding what replaces coal, an RPS ensures that eyes are to the horizon and investments are considered in context. What’s more, it signals to the nearly two-thirds of Fortune 100 and half of Fortune 500 companies with clean energy commitments of their own that New Mexico is the right place to invest.

Critically, the value of an RPS is predicated on the appropriateness of its targets and the details of its structure. The current proposed legislation makes important updates to the policy’s design and has waypoints of 50 percent renewables by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040 for investor-owned utilities, and similar shares but slower timelines for rural electric co-ops.

These targets are in line with recent technical and economic analyses by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which independently found that such targets are not only technically achievable, but economically preferable, too. Indeed, both analyses concluded that such a steadily escalating share of renewables produces the least-cost option for the state—not to mention good jobs, significant investment dollars, and improved outcomes for public health and the environment.

Unfortunately, the power sector is anything but a free market, and winning on the merits does not guarantee coming out on top. Utilities in the state are increasingly comfortable with higher levels of renewables thanks to the existing RPS: Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) has stated support of higher shares of renewables on the system, and Southwestern Public Service Company’s (SPS) parent corporation, Xcel, just declared its intentions of going 100-percent zero-carbon by 2050. However, major gas buildouts are still being discussed, meaning continued carbon and co-pollutant emissions as well as the threat of ratepayers facing another round of costly stranded assets not long down the line.

With a strengthened RPS, there would be guardrails in place to buffer against such risks.

Tracking the 54th legislature

The 2019 legislative session runs from January 15 through March 16. There is significant pent-up demand for progress on a wide array of issues, meaning legislators’ plates will be filled, and it’ll be a race to the finish to get things passed.

On the clean energy front alone, there are a series of policies in addition to the RPS that will meaningfully bolster the clean energy transition and work to ensure that all New Mexicans can benefit. We’ll be looking for a few key areas in particular, including:

  • Ensuring a just transition from coal: The shift away from coal is proceeding in New Mexico, bringing enormous benefits but also threatening to leave the workers and communities who have long been powering the state at a loss. With concerted effort, like supporting workforce transition, economic development, and targeted placement of renewables, the impacts of the transition can be dampened, and new opportunities can emerge. One potentially helpful tool is called “securitization,” which achieves lower-cost financing to facilitate the transition and consequently frees up funds that can be deployed to support development efforts.
  • Increasing renewables deployment: A number of policies will be looking to boost uptake of renewables from a range of angles, including state renewables procurement, tax credits, increased access through community solar, workforce development, energy storage, and transmission planning.
  • Changing energy use: Energy efficiency is the single most effective tool for reducing emissions and lowering costs. An update to the state’s energy efficiency standard will remove disincentives currently curtailing utility efforts; this change will lead to meaningfully reduced customer bills. So too will concerted efforts for energy conservation projects specifically supporting low-income customers, for whom energy costs represent a disproportionate share of income.
  • Electric vehicles: Transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and the electrification of the transportation sector supports significant emissions reductions—and enormous public health benefits, too. The first step in the process is increasing electric vehicle uptake, which includes lowering barriers for purchase, and lowering barriers for use.

In many ways, New Mexico is perfectly positioned for the moment at hand. The chance to be nimble in shaping what replaces coal persists. But this window of opportunity is closing, and fast. Major power project decisions are looming on the horizon, and the time is now to offer certainty on the path forward for investments and labor alike; to assure that the commitment to pushing the energy transition forward is here, and clear, and to the benefit of all.

Photo: BLM Credit: Michelle for Governor (Oct. 2018).

A Failure of US Biosecurity: How Federal Regulators Helped a Japanese Beetle Cross the Border

With a partial government shutdown now in its 3rd week, many Americans are learning the hard way about the wide range of functions their federal government normally serves. One of those little-known functions is preventing the spread of invasive plants, insects, and other species that threaten native ecosystems and valuable natural resources, costing the United States an every year. Just last week, the shutdown forced conference organizers at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to cancel an annual meeting of 300 scientists working to coordinate research and find solutions. Even before the shutdown, however, USDA regulators had failed to fully live up to their obligations—designated by law—to protect US resources from invasive species.

Science-based regulation is essential to control invasive species

L. naganoensis. Photo: World review of Laricobius (Coleoptera: Derodontidae); Zootaxa 2908: 1–44 (2011)

Efforts to control one invasive species sometimes involve introducing another non-native species to serve as “biocontrol” agents. Biocontrol uses natural enemies like predators or parasitoids to control weeds and pests, but this can lead to new problems. And so it was when, in 2010, the USDA permitted release of the biocontrol agent Laricobius osakensis, a beetle native to Japan, for control of the hemlock woolly adelgid—an insect pest that is killing hemlock trees, an important forest species in eastern North America. Colonies of the biocontrol beetle were subsequently found to contain another undescribed beetle species, also a Japan native later named Laricobius naganoensis. The discovery prompted research investigating possible hybridization between L. naganoensis and other species that could become a problem, for example, if varying behavior of hybrids might harm native ecosystems.

However, before scientists could fully understand what L. naganoensis eats, or its other interactions or natural history, its release was also permitted.  In December of 2017, the USDA approved unlimited “…field release of L. naganoensis for the control of HWA” as a contaminant because it “cannot be reasonably eliminated from L. osakensis cultures” despite efforts by researchers to help prevent its release.

Harmful impacts of poorly regulated biocontrol go back decades.  For example, the cane toad introduced to Australia in 1935 to control sugar cane pests instead caused declines in native predators; the small Indian mongoose wiped out native Fijian birds after its introduction for rat control; and the multicolored Asian lady beetle, introduced for aphid control, has become a serious pest to humans and ecosystems in North America and Europe.

Like many of my colleagues in the field of conservation biology, I believed such uninformed releases were a thing of the past. Biocontrol practitioners now agree that agents should be released only after an informed evaluation of potential risks and this consensus dominates the scientific literature, for example, in Bigler et al. 2006, Barratt et al. 2010, Van Driesche & Simberloff 2016Heimpel & Cock 2017, and Heimpel & Mills 2017. Information about the agent—how it behaves and interacts with other species in its native range—is needed to predict impacts in places it will be introduced. The importance of accurate identification of agents and avoidance of contamination, even with related species, has long been recognized. Legal safeguards now exist, for example in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States to ensure that regulatory officials and the public aren’t caught unaware.

A failure of science and public transparency

Unfortunately, in the case of the Japanese beetle L. naganoensis, the safeguards failed. The Plant Protection Act of 2000 (7 U.S.C. § § 7701-7786) requires the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to conduct biocontrol agent permitting and tasks the agency with ensuring the process is transparent, accessible, and based on scientific evidence. This usually happens through public review and comment on a USDA-prepared Environmental Assessment (EA) that presents risks and, if necessary, a subsequent and more thorough Environmental Impact Statement. These documents are supposed to be prepared and made public before permitting decisions happen.

Instead, the first mention of L. naganoensis’ release came via a two-page “final decision” document issued by the USDA in December 2017. That document references an EA associated with L. osakensis that was written before L. naganoensis was known to exist. And it gives this groundless rationale for the permitting decision: because L. naganoensis’ diet is assumed similar to that of other Laricobius species, because L. naganoensis makes up a minor component of L. osakensis colonies, and because L. naganoensis is unlikely to persist owing to difficulty finding mates.

All these assumptions are questionable because scientists simply do not understand L. naganoensis well enough to confirm them. Moreover, the referenced EA was never provided for public review and comment. If it had been, the public would have seen that USDA acknowledges “there are no biological studies on L. naganoensis” and “the feeding rate of adult and larvae of L. naganoensis is unknown”.  In short, the USDA’s finding of “no evidence…[of] adverse environmental effects” is misleading because such a conclusion must be based on review of a substantial amount of evidence, and little is known about L. naganoensis. 

The seriousness of circumventing policy meant to inform and involve the US public and ensure informed decisions is compounded by the irony of allowing introduction of a little-understood species to control a previously introduced invasive species. What could go wrong?

 

Christy Leppanen is a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.  She is interested in progressive and collaborative resource and pest management, particularly prevention and practices that minimize non-target impacts.  For more information visit her webpage.

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.

Further Reading:

Leppanen C, Frank D, Simberloff D (2018) Circumventing regulatory safeguards: Laricobius spp. and biocontrol of the hemlock woolly adelgid.  Insect Conservation and Diversity

USDA (2017) Approval of Laricobius naganoensis (Coleoptera: Derodontidae), a Predatory Beetle for Biological Control of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, Adelges tsugae (Hemiptera: Adelgidae), in the Continental United States, Draft Environmental Assessment 2017. Plant Protection and Quarantine, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, United States Department of Agriculture, Riverdale, MD. Publication forthcoming

Trump Swamp Threatens Waters of the US

Photo: michaelgeorgeau/iStock

Last month, the Trump EPA finally issued its intended replacement to the Obama administration’s Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and R.D. James, the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, wrote in the Kansas City Star that less stringent water rules will give “hardworking Americans the freedom and certainty they need to do what they do best: develop, build and invest in projects that improve the environment and the lives of their fellow citizens.”

What’s really going on is that President Trump wants to give the nation’s chronic polluters freedom from consequence for harming ecosystems and the nation’s drinking water.

While Trump has spent nearly two years railing against clean water rules, he has feigned neither a serious scientific nor economic rationale for rolling them back. Much like his assault on President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and mercury air toxics standards, the intended beneficiaries of the weaker rules he proposes are indiscriminate developers and operators of mines, power plants, and agribusinesses who have all lobbied for a blind eye to the seepage and runoff of ash, heavy metals, oil, solvents, fertilizers, pesticides, and animal waste.

Using hysteria to shut down science

The Obama administration issued the Waters of the United States rule (WOTUS) in 2015. In so doing, the administration rightly noted that nearly half of America’s river and stream miles and a third of wetlands were in “poor biological condition” and that one out of three  Americans drink from water sources without clear federal protection. In an attempt to remedy the situation, the Obama administration’s EPA extended protection beyond large “navigable” waters to less visible bodies that are still vital to healthy ecosystems, such as tributaries, wetlands, prairie potholes, vernal pools, and streams that have natural dry periods or flow only after rainfall.

In actuality, intermittent and ephemeral streams account for 59 percent of all streams in the US outside of Alaska and 81 percent of streams in the arid Southwest. After an EPA review of more than 1,200 published and peer-reviewed scientific reports, the Obama administration decided that America’s seemingly small or isolated waters have tremendous connectivity to navigable rivers used for commerce. Concurring were seven societies of scientists for wetlands, fisheries, freshwater science, and other aspects of ecology. They wrote that wetlands are “Like diamonds, they can be small, but extremely valuable.”

Opponents tried to block Obama’s polishing of these diamonds with wild claims about the harm to the economy. When WOTUS was proposed, then-House Speaker John Boehner condemned it as a “tyrannical power grab that will crush jobs.” The American Farm Bureau called it a “nightmare” that would crush the value of some farmland “by as much as 40 percent.” Lawsuits, including those filed by the US Chamber of Commerce, have pushed the 2015 rule into purgatory; it is currently in force in 22 states and blocked in the remaining 28. The map of states where the rule is or is not in force looks significantly like the electoral map that propelled Trump into office.

A month and a half after taking office, Trump signed a February 2017 executive order to review the rules, claiming, “The EPA’s regulators are putting people out of jobs by the hundreds of thousands.” In June 2018, Scott Pruitt, then Trump’s administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, sarcastically belittled bodies of water he wanted to remove from federal protection, such as prairie potholes, which are major migratory refuges and breeding grounds for waterfowl. Pruitt called them “prairie puddles,” and that removing them from protection in states like North Dakota would “save the economy a billion dollars.” Pruitt and farm lobbyists falsely raised the specter of the federal government swooping in to regulate every ditch dug by a farmer and every rainfall puddle, even though the Obama rule explicitly excluded ordinary puddles and ditches.

A highly dubious cost-benefit analysis

In its warped notion of freedom for polluters, one of the first things Trump’s EPA did to grease the skids for the replacement rule was produce a highly dubious cost-benefit analysis that is the polar opposite of one produced by the Obama EPA.

Under Obama, the EPA projected that the annual costs of complying with enhanced protection might range from $158 million to $465 million. But, it found, the benefits from wetland mitigation, stormwater implementation, and other improvements were significantly more, ranging from $349 million to $572 million. Since then, a 2017 study by researchers at New York University School of Law’s Institute for Policy Integrity found that, given the value of wetlands and the public’s willingness to pay for them, a more accurate estimate of annual benefits may be between $612 million and $1 billion.

But Trump’s EPA threw out the benefits of protected wetlands in its so-called analysis. That’s because, according to internal documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the environment and energy news site E&E, the Trump administration would exclude half of the nation’s wetland acreage that has been mapped by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Its cover story for ditching wetland benefits was that studies used by the Obama administration were too old (of course neither Pruitt nor Wheeler bothered to hustle up one of their own). It also said it was too confusing to consider wetlands where state and federal jurisdiction overlap (conveniently ignoring how many conservative state legislatures abandoned such protections). The Trump EPA concluded that its rule would produce only between $34 million to $73 million in annual benefits while avoiding between $162 million and $476 million in compliance costs.

The selective bean counting of the Trump EPA does not stack up against a world of evidence attesting to the value of clean water. To date, neither the administration nor lobbyists have offered evidence of any job loss for the 22 states that have been under the rule. As for cropland values, they soared 55 percent during Obama’s two terms, from $2,640 an acre to $4,090, while rising just one percent in Trump’s first two years amid his international trade wars that have led to falling incomes for farmers in 2019.

Economic benefits of clean water

The attack on clean water risks putting many people out of work. A 2015 study by researchers from the University of North Carolina and Yale University found that government and privately funded ecological mitigation programs add up to a $9.5 billion in annual economic output, providing direct jobs to 126,000 Americans with a median salary of nearly $50,000. The biggest shares of jobs are in planning, design, engineering, earth moving, and planting and site construction.

The study authors said their findings run counter to the narrative of the US Chamber of Commerce (and of course now the Trump administration) that environmental regulation has a “corrosive” effect on the economy. Moreover, the study bolstered calculations by University of Massachusetts researchers that reforestation and land and watershed restoration work provide 39 jobs per $1 million invested, compared to five jobs for oil and gas and six for Trump’s economic centerpiece of coal.

Clean water means much higher quality recreation. Several fishing and hunting groups have joined forces with conservation groups to protest the Trump rollback, saying that clean water supports 828,000 jobs in the sports fishing industry. The Trump administration itself, via a US Fish and Wildlife report, boasts that one in three Americans engage annually in hunting, fishing, or some form of wildlife-related recreation, pumping $157 billion into the economy.

With wildlife-related recreation increasing 16 percent since 2011, the report said, with obvious irony, “These findings represent good news for everyone who cares about the health of our wildlife, natural landscapes, and people.”

In even more expansive data, the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis says the national outdoor recreation economy was $412 billion in 2016, and growing faster than the general economy with 4.55 million jobs. The most significant core activity by revenue was boating and fishing ($37 billion), the most obvious recreational activity that cannot exist without clean water.

Value of wetlands: priceless

Such analyses don’t come near exhausting the actual value of smaller bodies of water and wetlands. Anyone who lives in the US Northeast should understand that. Scientists from the University of California Santa Cruz and the Nature Conservancy estimate that wetlands helped the 12 states hit by Hurricane Sandy avoid another $625 million in damage. Without wetlands, the EPA says Boston-area communities along the Charles River would suffer $17 million in annual flood damage.

Globally, wetlands are so productive to, and protective of, such a wide range of wildlife ecosystems, fisheries, and recreational industries that their annual worth in services is estimated to be $26 trillion a year. Yet a third of wetlands have been lost since 1970, according to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The United States has lost more than half of the wetlands that existed in colonial times in what would be the contiguous 48 states, according to federal reports and today, according to the EPA, only 5.5 percent of land area is considered a wetland.

Part of the problem for the historic loss, according to a joint report by the Interior Department and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is: “Since the time of Colonial America, wetlands have been regarded as a hindrance to productive land use. Swamplands, bogs, sloughs and other wetland areas were considered wastelands to be drained, filled or manipulated to ‘produce’ other than natural services or commodities.”

That is a mentality the Trump administration clearly wants to bring back. That would be a tragedy, from flood protection to fish for anglers, from birds in binoculars to drinking water supplies and from farm values to jobs in the restoration economy. In rolling out the rollback, Wheeler wrote that Trump’s Waters of the United States rule would “end years of uncertainty over whether federal jurisdiction begins and ends.” Actually, it would begin years of certain pollution.

Fortunately, the future of the rollback, like many Trump attacks on environmental regulation, is uncertain. In the short term, those who want to fight for clean water have additional time to raise their voice. The government shutdown has thus far prevented the publication of the proposed rule in the Federal Register and the start of a required 60-day public comment period. A public meeting in Kansas City, initially scheduled for January 23 has now been postponed.

Should the rule eventually become final, it is certain to face vigorous legal challenges from environmental groups, more progressive states and industries that would fail with fouled water. Ultimately, the rule may come down to the 2020 presidential election and whether Trump and his anti-science agenda stays or goes.

Given how many jobs clean water provides, given how much protection wetlands give coastal and river communities, and given how many Americans are shockingly at risk of drinking water from sources that may not be protected, Waters of the United States is a critical issue we all need to wade in.

Photo: michaelgeorgeau/iStock

Mercury Is Toxic. Andrew Wheeler’s Proposed Rollback Is Even Worse.

Photo: PDTillman/Wikimedia Commons

Late last month and just in time to welcome in a new year of rolling back public health protections, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its intention to propose a new formula for calculating the human health benefits that come from reducing air pollution from power plants.

In a clever, calculated, and cynical move, the agency took aim at its own Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS)—adopted during the Obama administration—and decided to propose a revision to the agency’s 2016 supplemental finding that it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury and hazardous air pollutants (HAPS) from power plants, even after considering costs. The new proposal’s bottom line: Regulating hazardous air pollution from power plants under the Clean Air Act is no longer “appropriate and necessary.” It’s just too costly. (You can learn more about this travesty in my previous post.)

In a crafty and dangerous, EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler has proposed a whole new way to look at the costs and benefits of MATS. His rationale: it’s just not right to count the cumulative health benefits of regulating mercury and hazardous air pollutant (HAP) emissions from power plants. In other words, forget about the co-benefits that come from the reduced emissions of particulate matter that go hand-in-glove with reducing emissions of mercury and HAPS. (You can read more about the public health impacts of particulate matter here.)

Discounting co-benefits is PEAK nonsense

In finalizing the MATS rule back in 2012, the EPA noted its significant public health benefits—benefits that would accrue to neighborhoods around power plants as well as to communities well-beyond the plant. They estimated the annual benefits to range from $37 billion to $90 billion, with compliance costs to industry estimated at $7.4 to $9.6 billion annually. The pollution controls required by the standard would be a trifecta for public health—mercury, fine particles, and sulfur dioxide emissions would all be reduced.

The EPA estimated that these cumulative benefits would prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, more than 100,000 asthma and heart attacks, 5,700 emergency room visits, and over 3 million days of restricted activity—EACH YEAR. Pretty good return on investment, wouldn’t you say?

So how ridiculous is it to decide these co-benefits don’t count. As a scientist, it’s basically like saying you are closing your eyes to a major impact of the action. As a policymaker, it essentially says, “Efficiency doesn’t matter. I know we have this huge potential benefit, but let’s only deal with one issue at a time rather than try to feed two birds with one scone.”

But OK—this EPA has decided to throw common sense and efficiency out the window. Their proposal basically says “Let’s just focus only on the direct benefits of controlling the mercury and HAPS emissions alone; if we did that, the benefits are only $4 million to $6 million.” So hardly worth it, right?  As a public health professional, this struck me as particularly pernicious.

Mercury – what we know

First of all, the health impacts of mercury exposure are well known, extensively documented, and pretty nasty. It’s a potent neurotoxin that affects the nervous system, cardiovascular system, and immune function—even at relatively low levels of exposure. Fetuses and young children are especially vulnerable to exposure, with devastating and life-long impacts on cognitive function, memory, language, attention, and visual and motor skills. Communities that rely on or consume large amounts of fish are also at higher health risk; these might include indigenous peoples, immigrant groups, and subsistence and recreational anglers.

Then there is the recent science, which suggests that the monetized benefits of controlling mercury emissions from power plants were vastly understated by the EPA in its 2011 regulatory impact analysis of MATS. A 2016 paper in Environmental Science and Technology details several problems with it, noting that the assessment considered only a small subset of the public health and environmental risks associated with mercury emissions—yes, mercury, directly and specifically.

And then we might consider that MATS has been highly effective in reducing atmospheric concentrations of mercury in the US.

There’s also the study of neurotoxicity prevention due to methyl mercury control efforts in Europe, which found that “total annual benefits of exposure prevention within the EU were estimated at more than 600,000 IQ points per year, corresponding to a total economic benefit between €8,000 million and €9,000 million per year.”

And finally, there’s the fact that most coal plants have already come into compliance with MATS by installing the necessary pollution control technology.

Are mercury and HAPS  too costly to control?

I guess the answer depends on whose costs and benefits get the most weight. If you think about the women and children in your life and about the serious health impacts of mercury emissions, you might just favor those regulatory safeguards even if reducing them is costly to the polluters. You might think that regulating them is both “necessary and appropriate.” And if so, you should be worried—I mean really worried—about what the EPA’s latest rollback ruse means. Not just for mercury and hazardous air pollutants from power plants, but how the agency could apply this new cost-benefit calculus to other pollutants that endanger our health in the future.

Now don’t be fooled. Acting Administrator Wheeler is quick to claim that the MATS rule remains in place (at least for now), and that it is simply changing its underlying cost calculus. I call it sabotage by another name. Others have characterized it as “the EPA’s Trojan Horse objective.”

So, I repeat what I said last week. This is NOT OK.  It’s critical that we let the EPA know what we think of its wonky little revision. It’s a crafty, nasty, and dangerous proposal that could roll back current safeguards and undermine future public health and environmental protections.

Get ready to submit your comments on this rule to EPA and alert your colleagues to do the same. We will alert you when the public comment period opens for this rule and to any public hearing on the proposal.

I also hope that Acting Administrator Wheeler is questioned about this cynical move at his likely confirmation hearing in mid- to late January. It would be great to hear senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee ask him why the agency shouldn’t embrace the efficiencies of evaluating ALL the benefits of a rule—and make public health the overarching priority— rather than narrowing the scope of its benefits.

Photo: USDA/Flickr

Wind vs. Gas: Winter Wind Beats New Pipelines

Photo: William Hope

With the cold weather upon us, and a lot of debate about how to supply our energy needs, we can take a look at the power of wind.  Wind is actually stronger in the wintertime when it gets colder. The advantages of using wind to reduce natural gas needs in cold weather are real, and especially relevant to the debate over whether or not it makes sense to invest more into gas pipelines.

Understanding the limits of fossil fuels and the role of renewable energy supply is central to debates about transitions to more renewable energy. The Union of Concerned Scientists has provided plenty of reasons to avoid an over-reliance on natural gas, so the questions about how to replace gas with renewable energy are very important.

Will building more windfarms mean less need for natural gas and natural gas pipelines? Yes. Wind in winter is a very good means to reduce the use of natural gas and the need for gas pipelines.

Some claim the existing gas pipeline system is inadequate for our wintertime energy needs because of the recent increased use of natural gas (methane) as fuel for power plants making electricity.  The crunch comes in winter, and shows as a gas pipeline shortfall in the Northeast because the majority of gas pipeline capacity is committed to home heating and other customers of the gas utilities.  Without the addition of renewable energy in winter, the gas power plants will compete with the demand from gas utilities’ residential and business customers.

Ready answers

Wind blowing offshore New England just gets stronger in winter.

Fortunately, we have a great new industry arriving in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic to address this issue under development: offshore wind.

There’s strong policy support for well-financed offshore wind in the Northeast, and that turns out to be a great replacement for gas used by power plants in winter.

We know this with some very specific information from a serious authority. The independent grid operator in New England, ISO-NE, recently published an estimate of how New England states’ commitments to building wind offshore would have produced energy and replaced natural gas.

Excellent results

Specifically, ISO-NE look at wind data, electric demand and natural gas used in power plants for the cold weather period of December 24 2017 through January 8, 2018.

This provides some impressive results. If 800 MW of offshore wind (the amount currently in permitting for delivery to Massachusetts), were in place, the ISO-NE study found, that amount alone would have avoided 9% of the natural gas used for electricity generation in that period. The offshore windfarms’ production in that cold snap would have been 70% of their potential, dramatically higher than the ~18% value used in most ISO planning efforts.

While that 70% figure was impressive, the concept isn’t news to us at UCS. We’ve convinced grid operators and FERC that reliability estimates for winter underestimate the reliability benefits available from wind. UCS described in comments to FERC that physics dictates that power from wind turbines (and some other generators) is greater in colder weather because colder air is heavier. For the same windspeed, colder air will produce more power from the turbine and thus more energy.

Data for the tens of thousands of existing land-based US wind turbines bear this out. Wind assessments and windfarm production tend to show higher production in winter than in summer. Wherever windfarms are built in the U.S., the total need for natural gas goes down. The arrival of offshore wind in the more densely populated East Coast offers this region a lot of renewable energy, and skilled jobs in the construction and operations.

The implications

Debates over how to supplement the energy supply can not overlook wind. The details of gas vs. wind are much more critical. The gas industry has its own dynamics, and investments in gas can lock in decisions and climate impacts for decades.  States along the East Coast have made the choice for new supplies from offshore wind. Now we have an alternative to gas that is renewable and carbon-free. Let’s get this alternative up and running.

Photo: William Hope photo by Mike Jacobs

The Government Shutdown Hurts Public Health and the Environment. Do You Have a Story to Tell?

Photo: Judy Gallagher/Flickr

We’ve all heard tales of museum closings and deteriorating national parks. But the government shutdown causes far more damage to public health and the environment and the science that can improve our lives. This devastating aspect of the shutdown is getting much less attention than it deserves.  We need to elevate these stories, and we need help from those who work most closely with the federal government to do so.

What happens during a shutdown

USDA and other government offices provide critical technical services to farmers, businesses, and communities throughout the country, services that are disrupted during a government shutdown. We need your help to tell those stories.

The enforcement of environmental protections grinds to a halt. Chemical facilities are not inspected. Agricultural technical assistance projects are shut down. The protection of species stops. Research is disrupted, which can lead to gaps in data or entire lost field seasons (and huge wastes of taxpayer dollars).

There is also enormous capacity that goes into preparing for and recovering from a government shutdown, capacity that could be better used to deliver government services. All because of the president’s inability to govern and negligent obsession with building a useless border wall.

How you can help

We are looking for specifics that communicate the true cost of this (and every subsequent) shutdown. We’d like to know how your work has been disrupted, both during the shutdown and in preparation for it. Federal employees, contractors, and grant recipients—as well as users of government services—can reach out through our Science Protection Project. By going through that project, you can be as anonymous as you like.

You can also contact us directly using the methods described here, or share your thoughts in the comments section below. We are focused on how the shutdown compromises the mission of federal agencies such as EPA, NOAA, Interior, FWS, USDA, NASA, and more, and seek stories from employees, contractors, and agency grant-funded scientists.

Be as specific as you can. What projects are suffering? Where are they located? What are the lost benefits? What are the consequences for research and communities? And what impact do repeated shutdowns have on productivity and morale?

The UCS Science Protection Project exists to help government and government-funded scientists expose actions that compromise the ability of the government to use science to serve the public interest. You can reach out at any time to access these resources.

And to all of the federally-funded experts out there who are struggling because of the government shutdown, UCS thanks you for your public service and hopes you can hang in there until the situation is resolved.

Photo: Judy Gallagher/Flickr

Four Things the New Congress Can Do to Hold Trump’s USDA Accountable

Photo courtesy Phil Roeder/Flickr

The 116th Congress was sworn in last week, and not a moment too soon. The president’s babysitters have given up, his administration is spiraling out of control, and our country is desperately in need of the checks and balances we were taught about in school. Newly-elected Speaker Nancy Pelosi has vowed that under her leadership, the House of Representatives will step up to its constitutional role. In addition to demanding an end to the president’s hostage-taking of our government, new congressional leaders are expected to investigate a host of high-profile issues: the president’s Russia dealings, his unexamined tax returns, the administration’s cruel and senseless border policy, and its war on our environment. But other Team Trump efforts have flown well under the radar even though they affect all of us every time we sit down to a meal.

When it comes to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its handling of food and farming issues, Congressional oversight is sorely needed. Since Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue took office in April 2017, we’ve documented the many ways he has betrayed farmers and eaters. From siding with Big Pork over small farmers to rolling back school lunch rules aimed at improving the health of the nation’s children, he has repeatedly catered to industry while disregarding science. As the new Congress gets underway, here are four ways its leaders should seek to make Secretary Perdue and his USDA more accountable to the public interest:

1. Safeguarding federal dietary guidelines from industry manipulation. 

Every five years, the federal government revises and reissues the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), and an update is due in 2020. These recommendations for healthy eating aren’t just intended to guide our individual decisions at the supermarket and the dinner table. In fact, their primary purpose is to offer science-based recommendations to help shape the National School Lunch Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and other efforts to improve public health—many of which are carried out by the USDA.

Since its inception in 1980, the guidelines update process has been rigorous and evidence based, relying on the best science and advice from nutrition experts. But that process is about to run smack into the Trump administration, where science and expertise aren’t exactly valued. And with Perdue’s USDA leading the process (in partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services), we’ve already seen signs of trouble. Back in October 2017, for example, Perdue reorganized the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion in a way that threatens its scientific integrity, and he has hired officials with deep food industry ties to run the process.

The new Congress should:

  • Take a hard look at the USDA structures and personnel that will shape the next iteration of the DGAs and be on guard for undue influence from industry lobby groups
  • Examine the corporate ties and financial conflicts of the members of the new Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee when it is announced (likely this February)
  • Reject a repeat of 2015, when—at the tail end of the DGA process—heavily lobbied members of Congress sneaked into law industry-friendly provisions that eroded the integrity of the guidelines and precluded what could have been groundbreaking efforts to improve food safety, security, and sustainability.
2. Challenging Secretary Perdue’s attacks on hungry people.

We’ve written a lot on this blog about the value of the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). This effective, evidence-based program is the first line of defense against hunger and food insecurity for nearly 21 million American households. In 2016, the program lifted more than 3.5 million people out of poverty—nearly half of them children—and reduced food insecurity rates by up to 30 percent. But House Republicans held up the farm bill all last year in an effort to gut the program. And when that failed, just days before Christmas, Secretary Perdue announced a proposed new SNAP rule that would achieve similar results by denying benefits to work-ready adults who have trouble maintaining steady employment. Perdue’s new rule basically circumvents the judgment of last Congress in the final farm bill, and Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA), who just took the gavel as chairman of the House Rules Committee, is promising a fight. Moreover, on its first day in session, the new House voted to adopt a congressional rules package that instructed the chamber’s general counsel to “immediately explore all possible legal options” for responding to Perdue’s proposed rule.

The new Congress should also:

  • Make it clear that any other proposed rules that would undermine SNAP will not be tolerated;
  • Continue to champion smaller nutrition programs, such as the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive program (formerly known as the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program) that work alongside SNAP to help families purchase more healthy foods.
3. Stopping Perdue from sidelining USDA science.

The USDA employs thousands of scientists and makes significant investments in agricultural and food research—some $3 billion annually. But despite the department’s stated commitment to “the best available science”, the reality under Secretary Perdue has often looked different (ahem) and many of the department’s scientists have raised concerns about the effects of political interference. Then last summer, Perdue abruptly announced a plan to relocate two of the four USDA science agencies—the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)—to undetermined sites outside the national capital area. He would also remove ERS from the purview of the USDA’s chief scientist and placed it instead within the Secretary’s office. More than 1,100 scientists have opposed the move, which looks like an attempt to marginalize and politicize these science agencies. Last fall, lawmakers requested a review of the plan by the USDA’s inspector general, and in the waning days of the last Congress, a group of House members introduced a bill to stop it.

Lawmakers should reintroduce the bill in the new Congress, and they should:

  • Investigate the shake-up decision to determine if it was politically motivated;
  • Examine Perdue’s legal authority for removing ERS from the chief scientist’s jurisdiction;
  • Challenge Perdue’s claims of recruitment and retention challenges at ERS and NIFA; and
  • Insist that he produce a claimed cost-benefit analysis of the proposal and a plan for ensuring program continuity and mitigating staff attrition.
4. Ensuring the new farm bill works for farmers, eaters, and future generations.

Last June, the House and Senate each passed a version of a farm bill, that five-year, $1 trillion legislative package that affects all parts of our food system: what farmers grow and how they grow it, the price of food and who can afford it, and more, with huge implications for our health, our economy, social justice, and the environment. The two proposals couldn’t have been more different, and—backed by the Trump administration—House leaders refused to budge from their short-sighted, punitive version for months. But in its waning days, the last Congress finally reauthorized this important legislation, and while the final product isn’t perfect, it maintains the SNAP program and makes other important investments in our food system that must be completely and properly implemented.

The new Congress should:

  • Conduct rigorous oversight of USDA to ensure full and effective implementation of all aspects of the newly-enacted 2018 farm bill;
  • Hold regular hearings to question Secretary Perdue and other USDA officials regarding SNAP implementation;
  • Use oversight power to ensure that the USDA is effectively promoting funding opportunities and, for new programs, expeditiously writing rules, creating systems, and hiring staff to implement them; and
  • Use the power of the purse to ensure that all farm bill programs are fully funded at the levels Congress intended.

Admittedly, there are many issues demanding the attention of lawmakers. New ones every day, in fact. But food and farming issues are too important—to all of us—to be left to the whims of a dangerously irresponsible administration. Congress must act to safeguard the safety net that keeps our neighbors from going hungry, the dietary advice that keeps us all healthy, and the science and other investments we need to maintain a safe and sustainable food supply for the future. UCS will be working with allies on Capitol Hill to make sure that they do.

What is Resource Adequacy? Three Requirements that Keep the Lights on in California

Photo: Henning Witzel

In many parts of the United States, power plant owners can get paid for doing pretty much nothing. You might think that power plant owners make all their money selling the electricity they generate. However, many power plant owners also get paid for providing “capacity,” or the ability to generate electricity. These types of payments are playing an increasingly large role in keeping fossil-fueled power plants operational, and finding cleaner alternatives is going to be a big challenge.

The idea behind paying power plant owners for capacity is that grid operators want to make sure there is enough power to meet electricity demand if something unexpected happens (such as a grid emergency or higher-than-expected electricity demand from a heat wave). These capacity payments are a bit like paying for insurance – power plant owners get paid so that their plants are available to generate electricity just in case that electricity is needed.

Interestingly, there are only a few places in the country where power plant owners do not get paid for capacity. For instance, in most of Texas, power plant owners only get paid for the electricity they produce. As a result, electricity prices skyrocket when electricity demand is at its highest, and those brief moments of sky-high electricity prices are what incentivize Texas power plant owners to have power plant capacity available to generate electricity.

California’s Resource Adequacy Program

In California, the California Public Utilities Commission manages a resource adequacy program. This program obliges electricity providers (usually electric utilities) to pay power plant owners for electricity-generating capacity.

California’s program has three different types of resource adequacy requirements, each designed to keep the grid operating under different types of conditions:

  • System Capacity: These requirements help keep the lights on during the annual “peak load,” when California uses the most electricity. Peak load usually happens on a hot summer day when everyone turns on their air conditioning. The exact requirements are determined by forecasting the next year’s peak load and adding 15% just to be safe.
  • Local Capacity: These requirements help keep the lights on in certain local areas during grid emergencies. For example, a grid emergency might entail a combination of a transmission line to a local area going down and a power plant in the local area going out. Different requirements are determined for each local area by studying worst-case-scenario grid emergencies in each area.
  • Flexible Capacity: These requirements help keep the lights on in the evening when solar generation is winding down and people are starting to use more electricity after coming home from work. Because solar generation tapers off in the evenings when electricity demand is still high, these requirements ensure we have enough flexible resources that can start producing electricity quickly. These requirements are different for each month of the year, and they are based on the largest forecasted three-hour “ramp,” or increase in electricity demand.
Achieving reliability with clean alternatives

California’s resource adequacy requirements are important because they help ensure that the state has enough electricity-generating resources in the right places.

At the same time, California’s resource adequacy requirements present a sizable challenge in the transition to a cleaner electricity system. These requirements are one of the reasons why California is slow to retire more natural gas power plants. For example, a recent Union of Concerned Scientists analysis found that local resource adequacy requirements keep a substantial portion of California’s natural gas power plant fleet from being retired.

Thus, one of our biggest challenges in the state’s transition to 100% clean electricity is meeting these resource adequacy requirements with non-fossil fueled, electricity-generating resources.

Battery storage will likely play a significant role in meeting California’s resource adequacy requirements. The right kind of battery in the right place can count towards many of these requirements, and the recent Union of Concerned Scientists analysis found that strategically putting batteries in the right places on the California grid could allow many more natural gas power plants to be retired. But it would take a lot of batteries to keep the grid operating reliably without any natural gas power plants, so we will need other solutions too.

Another approach is to take actions that reduce the resource adequacy requirements altogether. For instance, California could incentivize strategies that reduce electricity use at certain times of day, which could then reduce system and flexible resource adequacy requirements. Or, California could build more transmission lines into local areas, which could reduce local resource adequacy requirements by expanding access to electricity generated elsewhere.

Meeting California’s resource adequacy requirements through a variety of cleaner approaches – such as battery deployments, reductions in electricity usage, and transmission line upgrades – can help reduce our reliance on natural gas power plants while reliably keeping the lights on.

There will be no single solution for this challenge, and we will likely need to take an all-of-the-above approach. But by reducing resource adequacy requirements and meeting those requirements with clean resources, California will be better able to achieve its ambitious clean energy goals.

Photo: Henning Witzel

What’s Hiding in Your Electric Bill? How Utility Customers Finance Risky Investments

The adage, “You have to spend money to make money,” wasn’t coined to describe the utility business model, but it sure does describe it well. If I may be allowed to oversimplify the regulated utility business model…

Utilities are expected to make investments that are prudent and in the public interest; in return, they get to recover those costs plus a profit. All the utility investments, operating costs, and profits get pooled together and are reflected in customer utility bills.

Expenditures that aren’t “prudent” and “in the public interest” (two key terms in the industry) don’t get to be recovered. But many utilities have found a way to get around guidelines and force customers to finance fossil fuel infrastructure, lobbying, and power plants that aren’t even built yet.

1.    Fossil fuel infrastructure

Florida’s largest utility, Florida Power and Light (FPL), managed to get approval to invest in oil and gas wells in Oklahoma and force customers to pay for the company’s transition to oil and gas speculation.

Other utilities have done this with coal, getting the costs to operate coal mines into the bills of customers.

The utilities were able to get these investments approved under the guise of such endeavors saving customers money, but what it ends up doing is locking utilities into relying–and over-relying–on that fuel source. Utilities that abstain from this practice can shop around and find better deals.

Sometimes they try to hide their fuel preferences through ‘affiliate transactions.’ This is when a utility enters into an agreement with another company even though both companies are owned by the same parent organization. Sound confusing? That’s by design.

Affiliate transactions become a particularly thorny issue when it comes to gas pipelines. Some utilities are buying pipeline companies and investing in major new infrastructure projects that are predicated on the need for new capacity. Thing is, the companies willing to sign contracts for new capacity are subsidiaries of the first company.

These affiliate transactions could end up forcing utility customers to pay for fossil fuel infrastructure for decades rather than allowing markets to help lower costs and shift risks away from customers and onto developers (which is the whole point of markets).

2.    Lobbying Photo via Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

Electric utilities are increasingly asking customers like you to pay for infrastructure like this.

If you have a problem with Nike for hiring Colin Kaepernick you can go out and buy a pair of New Balance. Don’t approve of New Balances political contributions? Try Toms…

Thing is, for most Americans, it is a lot harder to switch your electric utility. This is why some regulators have made it illegal for utilities to recover the costs of political contributions or lobbying on legislation. But that hasn’t stopped utilities from spending money on lobbying.

Utility expenditures on lobbying peaked in 2010 with nearly $200 million. Things commonly lobbied against: policies that support rooftop solar and energy efficiency programs.

Presumably, that money shouldn’t be coming from customer’s pockets, but sometimes it does.

The best-documented way that utilities funnel customer dollars to lobby and political activities are through trade associations and memberships, like the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). Utility’s dues to EEI are typically able to be recovered from customers and, as the Energy and Policy Institute detailed in a report last year, that organization regularly fights against renewables. EEI’s troublesome and opaque practices are nothing new, it goes back at least three decades.

3.    Power plants that aren’t even built yet

Most utilities enter into power purchase agreements (PPA) in order to buy wind and solar power. In doing so, the utility–and by extension, the customer–only ends up paying for the energy that gets generated.

That isn’t always the case though.

Several utilities have been allowed to start charging customers for power plant projects while construction work is still in progress or “CWIP” (construction work in progress). The economic theory behind CWIP is that it helps reduce the financing costs of large construction progress. This SHOULD save customers money. In practice, it has resulted in huge overruns.

Photo by Nathan Waters

Would you start paying rent for an apartment that was still under construction?

Take for example Mississippi Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company. They wanted to build a coal-fired power plant that could capture carbon emissions. An ambitious project that was financed on the backs of captive customers. The result:

Billions of dollars in overruns and replacing the plans with a gas plant that still produces carbon emissions.

As noted by the NAACP, the money wasted by Mississippi Power would have been sufficient to put solar panels on the roofs of every single residential customer.

Experimental technology (like CCS) isn’t the only technology subject to billions of dollars of overruns. Nuclear power too has regularly cost more money than originally predicted.

The Georgia PSC approved  CWIP for the controversial Vogtle nuclear units, payments which were eventually canceled by the legislature after the local community cried foul.

Why we intervene

All the above examples and many that went unmentioned appeared before commissioners that are charged with approving or disapproving which costs utilities can recover from customers. Utility decisions are adjudicated in front of public commissions that are charged with weighing the facts presented to them. In these proceedings, the utilities present their plans to commissioners in hopes to get their business plans approved. If public citizens, or public interest groups, want to have their voice heard during these proceedings, they must intervene in the utility proceeding and provide technical comments. UCS has a staff of technical experts that are equipped to analyze and testify on utility plans. That is why you can expect to see UCS showing up at more and more of these utility proceedings, not just as advocates for science but as experts testifying in hearings about the importance of robust objective analysis.

cc0 US DOT Nathan Waters

The EPA, Mercury, and Air Toxics, Oh My!

Photo: John Westrock/CC BY-NC (Flickr)

The government may be in the midst of a nonsensical shutdown, but that didn’t stop the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week from proposing a new formula of calculating the human health benefits of reducing mercury emissions from power plants (or in their words proposing a “revised Supplemental Cost Finding”).

New and revised for sure, but definitely not in a good way.

In keeping with the Trump Administration’s assault on science and on environmental and public health safeguards (see here and here), the EPA has decided that its own rule adopted during the Obama administration is just too costly and can no longer be justified as “appropriate and necessary.” Too costly for whom, you might ask. Bet you know the answer to that question.

Whose math is funny?

In 2012, the EPA estimated that its Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) rule would prevent 11,000 premature deaths and over 100,000 asthma and heart attacks each year, as a result of the co-benefits of the reduction in particulate matter pollution that occurs when plants reduce their mercury emissions. The agency estimated the health benefits of reductions in all air pollutants associated with MATS would range from $37 billion to $90 billion, with compliance costs to industry estimated at $7.4 to $9.6 billion annually.

Bah, humbug says EPA Acting Administrator Wheeler. The health benefits of cutting mercury emissions are only $4 million to $6 million max; it’s just not right to count those other co-benefits. Apparently, even the benefits of protecting pregnant women and the brains of their developing fetuses and young children from mercury exposure (a toxin can lower IQ, cause motor function problems, and other nervous system impairments) are too small to worry about, as they are far outweighed by what it could cost power plants to install the required pollution controls.

Never mind that scientists have concluded that the EPA’s 2011 regulatory impact assessment greatly underestimated the monetized benefits of reducing mercury emissions from power plants. And never mind that most coal plants have already come into compliance with MATS by installing the necessary pollution control technology. Oh, and almost forgot to mention that electric companies have reduced mercury emissions by 90% since the MATS rule took effect in 2012 (see quote by Brian Reil, a spokesman for the utility trade group Edison Electric Institute in this article.)

So, what is an agency bent on rolling back regulations to do? Well, why not narrow the scope of what can count as benefits and do a new cost-benefit analysis. Done! And presto, the EPA now asserts it is no longer “appropriate and necessary” to regulate hazardous air pollution emitted from power plants under the Clean Air Act. The EPA is also asserting that there are no new technologies or methods of operation for controlling any residual risks of mercury and other hazardous air toxics that would justify the costs of further reductions. [So much for the agency’s confidence in innovation.]

An end-of-year gift (to industry) that will keep on giving

I suppose one can give a nod to the EPA’s impeccable timing in announcing this roll-back—at the end of a week between the holidays and while the government was shut down. Or perhaps the agency thought the public wouldn’t grasp the seriousness of its crafty ploy that leaves the actual rule intact (for now) while sideswiping its analytical underpinning.

But we and the broader public health and environmental communities are not fooled (some early reflections here and here and a more detailed analysis here). This maneuver to change the calculus of benefits sets a dangerous and far-reaching precedent—one that will make it ever more challenging to set protective regulations in the future. And one that clearly sets the stage for rescinding MATS itself, which BTW was included in Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray’s wish list of environmental rollbacks submitted to the Trump administration in early 2017. [Murray was an important client of Acting Administrator Wheeler in his former life as a coal industry lobbyist. See here and here.]

Tell the EPA THIS IS NOT OK

We can expect to see a notice published in the Federal Register (FR) shortly, which will open a 60-day public comment period. [See the submitted notice here, which includes mention of at least one public hearing on the proposal—location, date, and time to be published in a second FR document.]

It’s critical that we let the EPA know what we think of its wonky little revision. It’s not little; it’s a crafty, nasty, and dangerous proposal that could rollback current safeguards and undermine future public health and environmental protections. Get ready to comment and alert your colleagues to do the same. We will watch for the FR notice and let you know when it appears.

The Miraculous Hope of Climate Realists

Scientists in the Arctic observe the Aurora Borealis. Credit: US Department of Defense

We’re stepping into a new year in the climate fight. The turning of the year is a milestone both for stoking our resolve, and for noting how deep we now are into climate overtime. In 2018 there was a lot of talk of diminishing odds and despair, and not without reason. So if, like me, you’re heading into 2019 discouraged or even despairing, I have three things to say: you’re not wrong; the fight from here on out is not the one you signed up for; but there’s more to hope, even your own, than meets the eye.

A climate scientist and dear friend told me back in 2008 that she had moved into a “post-hope” stage of her life. She wasn’t despondent, more matter-of-fact, as she left her job here at UCS for a 6-month “breather” in Antarctica. I didn’t understand her at the time; what comes after hope? A few months later, though, through my work analyzing climate impacts and following climate science, I had my first paralyzing run-in with climate grief and since then have gone a few times round the grief cycle. And today, we have the latest science and most recent abdications of leadership underscoring how dire things are. I understand better now.

But I think she misunderstood hope.

I don’t have some hopeful gospel to preach to you; I’m not even going to encourage you to be hopeful. But since my teens, through my work and personal passions, I’ve been wandering a path from climate awareness to climate anxiety to climate anguish and I couldn’t help but learn something about the true nature of hope after all these years of running it over with a bus. That knowledge – not optimism or determination, or any virtue on my part – has become my superpower over climate despair. In recent years, in fact, I’ve realized that I’m just immune to it; it lands but can’t stick. You may be the same, though you might describe it differently or not even know it yet.

You’re not wrong

You’re not wrong: it’s bad. There’s this great, intricate weaving – the one we’re all walking around on – and someone’s been snipping intermittent threads that attach it to the loom. Things are starting to unravel in obvious, abrupt patches, sending us scrambling. Other changes are coming through gradual but widespread loosening of strands. We race about hastily tying threads back together, but we’re not as good as the weaver. The patterns are starting to become disorderly. How many more strands can be cut before they’re unrecognizable? And why haven’t we taken away the scissors?

But who needs metaphors when we have science. As 2018 wound down, science walloped us. The IPCC 1.5 degree report, the U.S. National Climate Assessment, and other scientific works were released with stark assertions about the things that are all but lost, the things we can fight for if we bring our strongest ambitions to bear, and the waning gap between such ambitions and where we are headed. We saw the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) come and go in Poland with progress made, but vastly insufficient to the long-term goals.

If you’re a realist, and you’re absorbing these things and where it’s all pointing us, you’re apt to feel some despair. Aldo Leopold wrote that if you study ecology, the price you pay is to walk through a world of wounds. But wounds are for healing. Today, if you follow the changing climate, you walk through a world of ghosts – creatures and places and, today, even people whose claim and foothold in the future is now fatally undermined. Coral reefs are fading before our eyes, an Arctic food web is fading with the summer sea ice, and delta and island homes are fading into the sea.

At some point in our climate awareness many of us begin to grieve (and maybe to rage or panic; more than once, I’ve had this momentary visceral urge: how do I get off this ride?) And the grief we feel cycles between the poles of acute anguish and resignation, but it never really lifts. Many of us, understandably, have felt our hope grow thin. At some point, we lose a climate fight we really needed to win and we feel hope tear. And at another point, we reach for its comfort and we don’t feel it at all. It’s gone, sublimated like vapor from ancient Antarctic ice. We might think the despair we feel has taken its place.

But here’s the thing: it’s not that easy to lose hope.

The true and gritty nature of hope

When people think of hope, personified, it’s usually a butterfly, or a dove, or a sapling sprouting from the ground. Yes, and. That’s not the hope we’re talking about. Bring it along, but it’s not the kind of hope we’ll be using so much where we’re going.

In Finland, there’s a word, “sisu”, which gets crudely translated as determination, grit, and courage. The Finnish side of my family liked to celebrate it. But it’s meant to be more; something like extraordinary resoluteness and perseverance in the face of extreme adversity. The Finns also have an epic poem, The Kalevala, handed down in the oral tradition for over a thousand years, and finally captured on paper in the 1800s. Like most myths, it is pretty nutty, but myths endure for a reason and I found one in the story of Lemminkäinen’s mother, a nameless woman who, for me, defines sisu and redefines hope. Let me tell you the short version:

The brazen young hero, Lemminkäinen, is murdered for his womanizing, and his body is utterly destroyed, blasted into tiny pieces and cast into the black river Tuona that courses through the underworld. All his mother knows is that her beloved boy is missing so she searches the world over to find him, every difficult mile in vain. Finally, she asks the sun and it gives her the terrible, heart-shattering news. Okay, she says. I’m going to need a rake. Make me one, she tells her friend the blacksmith, and she descends into the darkness and begins to seek her boy anew. She rakes the river Tuona for untold days, in her wet shift in the cold rushing blackness, all the way to the ocean. Nothing. So, she turns and begins raking her way back upstream. And somewhere in the blending black days and weeks she finds…. a piece of his shirt. So, on she rakes. And she finds a bone, eventually a rib, finally a hip. On she rakes, maybe not even thinking enough to despair. Just striving to save her boy. Because if she thinks she possibly can, then how can she possibly stop?

Eventually, she finds all of him. And she begins to sew him back together. Every bit of sinew attached to every bone, every patch of flesh rejoined, every eyelash made right in her inconceivable toil. Finally, he is complete. And with a drop of honey to his lips, Lemminkäinen stirs and comes to life. His mother has fought long and hard and far, far beyond all limits of what we think of as hope. Her hope is no butterfly. It’s more like the monarch’s miraculous migration and the green-fuse force of life that drives it.

Painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, depicting a scene from Kalevala, the Finnish epic poem. Here, Lemminkäinen’s mother has retrieved and restored his body.

In English we say “hope springs eternal”. In Russian it’s “hope dies last”. In The Kalevala, it’s what sends the woman back into the black river. They’re different vantage points on the same human impulse: if you love something, you hope. You move. You keep. You rake. You don’t even get to decide.

However poorly we tend it, however fragile we think it, this hope thing will not – really, cannot – quit. We might feel anguish, but despair just won’t stick because it’s not over. Maybe it’s an evolutionary impulse to save our own skin and our loved ones’; to quote a friend “hope is a discipline for survival”. But I’ll call it love. I’m not sure they’re different. And therein lies hope’s unstoppable power: if you love – anything – you hope.

And sisu, that untranslatable term – to me it’s how that unstoppable power shows itself. It’s both a question for dark times: what wouldn’t you do for what you love? And its own answer: nothing.

The fight we didn’t sign up for

It’s no longer the same fight we signed up for however many years ago. But you knew that. And we’re not bearing the same hope we started with. For many of us, our hope had to relinquish and shapeshift and detach from the objects of its desire. And instead hew only, but closely, to its driving spark. Our hope had to mutate and evolve. We don’t necessarily hope for this, or for that. Our hope doesn’t even say I’m going to have to hope for the best. Now it just says I’m going to have to fight like hell.

I struggle to neither over- nor understate the fight. History is pocked with the terrible things humans have survived in body and spirit, and we are the most fortunate generations ever to live. Lots of bodies are in the way of climate harm, but rarely ours, and today the fight itself isn’t one we fight with our bodies. Today, the only thing we need to ask of ourselves is, whether it’s defeating the fossil fuel industry, winning pro-climate elections, defending climate science, or getting out in the streets in demonstration, that we’re still in. I think we’ve got that.

Aurora borealis over Finland.

At the same time, no generations have ever had to question and concede the future quite like this. (That kids and young people just starting their lives are now tuning in to all of this and being told “it’s up to you to fix it” is the thing that very nearly breaks me. Like hell it is. Many of us would stay in the black river forever if it kept them on the banks.) And we’ve never had to fight quite like this, against an enemy that both opposes us and is us, over and over, and without clear hope of winning. There’s no simple “winning” when so much is lost. Not gone, but condemned.

But look: it’s still beautiful, isn’t it. I’ll fight for that.

You, my weary friend

Lemminkäinen’s mother doesn’t even have a name in her story and I like to think that’s because she and her actions are elemental to all of us: each of us working to add our small piece to the whole, many of us weary of all this but cloaked in our miraculous hope, where despair can touch us but it can’t hold us for long, because we love and therefore we hope. And because this fight is far from over. It starts new each day.

The fight we signed up for is now the fight for what’s left and the people who get left with it. That’s all, really. But it’s also everything. And you, my weary friend, will never stop.

UCS banner in a US airport.

 

Feeling Blue About Climate Change? You’re Not Alone.

It’s been a tough year for those of us in the climate change community. Each week has seemed to bring either a fresh report reminding us of how precious little time we have left to try to turn this ship around or a disaster that has climate change’s fingerprints all over it. Friends, family, colleagues, and reporters have all asked whether I’m optimistic or hopeful about our ability to limit the severity of future climate change. And I’ll be honest: I’m not. But that doesn’t mean we should give up—in fact that would be among the worst things we could do. Rather, we need to hold fiercely to a vision of the future we want to see and work like hell to make it a reality.

Major climate events in 2018 made it a particularly grim year

During 2017—the year in which Trump announced that the US would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, three Category 4 hurricanes made landfall in the US for the first time ever, and my home state of California witnessed its most destructive wildfire in recorded history—I found myself faced with the reality that we were witnessing the very events that climate scientists had long been saying we’d see as our climate warmed. And that was jarring. But 2018 marks the year that I truly started to grieve for what we have done and what we have failed to do.

There has been much to fuel that grief this year. So much, in fact, that words on a screen and cells in a spreadsheet didn’t feel real enough. Instead, I had to write and draw about this in my notebook to make sense of it all, letting it pour out dot by dot into what I call my “Grief Graph.”

My 2018 Climate Grief Graph. My son might call this a grief-o-MOM-eter. Not shown here are the many, many short spikes in grief triggered by the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle environmental regulations and prop up the fossil fuel industry.

For the first half of the year, the intensity of generating the data for our Underwater report mostly prevented the climate change arrows that were being slung from piercing my armor. Oh, blessed, messy data, thank you for distracting me from whatever was going on during those months. I trust that it was all unicorns and fairy dust.

But for the second half of the year the blinders were off. Shortly after taking my own turn at unleashing a new set of data showing just how profoundly changed our country will be if we continue along this path, and as wildfire smoke created a blanket of doom over the Bay Area, I had more time to ingest everyone else’s dire reports. Oh, and there were two devastating hurricanes.

So what happened in 2018?

Readers, because I care about your well-being, if you are immersed in this stuff day in and day out, go ahead and skip to the next section. Yes, I’m issuing a trigger warning regarding the following list, which highlights a few of the lowlights shown in the graph above.

  1. “Losing Earth.” On August 1, the New York Times devoted its entire weekly magazine to a piece by Nathaniel Rich called Losing Earth. In it, Rich provided a captivating history and timeline of the realization by scientists and politicians that climate change presented tremendous dangers to society and that we were responsible for it. The timeline covers my childhood from ages 1 through 11 (1979-1989).I realized as I read this how quickly climate change became entrenched in politics and how unable scientists were to get out of the trap of discussing levels of uncertainty so that policy headway could be made. The fact that so much was known so long ago means that we’ve wasted basically my entire lifetime debating whether climate change is real or not and whether or not we should do something about it.
  2. In early November, my colleagues here at UCS provided a briefing of the recently-released IPCC 1.5 Report for our Climate and Energy program. I had read portions of the report on my own and taken in the incredibly sobering messages of its Summary for Policymakers. But hearing my colleagues succinctly describe how little time we have left to drastically reduce our emissions if we want to stay below 1.5°C of warming was devastating.To stay below 1.5°C , we’ll need to reduce coal use by about 60-75% by 2030.Every tenth of a degree above that gets us a little closer to the 2 °C mark, at which coral reefs are a thing of the past.All the potential pathways that limit warming to 1.5 °C without overshooting that mark at all will require us to be actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.I look at those timelines and feel like I’m having one of those anxiety dreams in which you realize you have a final exam in 5 minutes, but you didn’t know you were registered for the class. The challenge before us is simply monumental.

    A selfie from November’s dystopia.

  3. Then came the Camp Fire near Paradise, CA, and the horror of watching the death toll creep up to nearly 90 while we hunkered indoors for nearly two weeks because the air quality was so unhealthy. School was cancelled here in the Bay Area, and going outside felt like stepping into the pages of a dystopian novel.The sidewalks in my neighborhood, which usually host a steady stream of pedestrians? Empty. The hardware stores were out of N95 masks, and there were no air purifiers to be purchased within a 200-mile radius. Just the right time for the release of another sobering climate report! This time, the National Climate Assessment.
  4. My grief ebbed a teeny bit during the COP24 talks in Poland–despite the Trump administration’s chummy behavior with the world’s major fossil fuel producing countries—because some progress was made in defining the rules by which countries will report their progress on reducing carbon emissions. But that was bracketed by the news that carbon emissions rose substantially faster in 2018 than they had in the two previous years for both the globe as a whole as well for the US.

And that doesn’t even begin to wade into the heartbreaking impacts of extreme weather all around the world.

The two solutions to climate grief: hard work and a positive vision for the future

The grief graph above demonstrates the grief-stemming power of two activities: being hard at work on activities that one hopes will make a difference and taking the time to think about the future you’re working for. I’d like to focus on the latter here because the former is productive, for sure, but in terms of emotions, it is little more than a distraction from the grief.

In late August, my colleagues and I had a free-form conversation about what we’re really excited to work on as a group. What energized us most focused not on climate impacts—our bread and butter—but on climate opportunities.

For a few weeks, when I closed my eyes, I envisioned a world in which our coasts are transformed by wide swaths of beautiful wetlands that have the space they need to migrate inland. A world in which the people who used to live on the land the wetlands inhabit have found new opportunities on higher ground and are thriving because they had the support and resources they needed to relocate. A world in which we can turn on A/C that’s powered without carbon-based fuels and we no longer have that nagging feeling that by making ourselves comfortable, we are ultimately making the heat worse.

This sort of thought exercise can be much more than that. Competitions like Resilient by Design challenge us to envision what our communities could be like, and present us with beautiful, sustainable options that are even more appealing than what we see around us today. Similarly, the Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network and the Seeds of the Good Anthropocene initiative have developed frameworks for workshops in which participants develop positive visions for a future in which the climate is warmer and extremes are more frequent.

We may not be able to decrease our emissions fast enough to keep warming to below 1.5°C. My children will likely see the extinction of species, the deterioration of coral reefs, and ice-free summers in the Arctic. And with all of that, grief feels justified.

But I can also see a future in which we have done everything within our power to make our world as beautiful and healthy as it can be for our children and grandchildren. If hope and optimism aren’t in your toolkit right now, I think that’s OK. They’re not in mine. But the last thing we’re going to do is give up, right? So let’s hold that beautiful future in our hearts and minds so that it can give us the courage, the ambition, and the endurance to keep up the fight.

 

Kristina Dahl Kristina Dahl

Year in Review: 9 Clean Energy Transition Stories from 2018

Despite the Trump Administration’s ongoing attempts to prop up coal and undermine renewables—at FERC, EPA, and through tariffs and the budget process—2018 should instead be remembered for the surge in momentum toward a clean energy economy. Here are nine storylines that caught my attention this past year and help illustrate the unstoppable advancement of renewable energy and other modern grid technologies.

1. California goes all in for carbon-free electricity

In late August, California—the world’s 5th largest economy—committed to the target of fully decarbonizing its power sector by 2045. The landmark legislation also strengthens the state’s renewable portfolio standard (also known as a renewable energy standard, or RES) from 50 to 60 percent by 2030. What’s more, at the bill signing, Governor Jerry Brown, signed an executive order that establishes a goal of achieving carbon-neutrality across all sectors of California’s sprawling economy by 2045, cementing the state’s place as a global leader in climate action.

2. Several states strengthen their RES requirements

State-level renewable electricity standards continued to be a primary driver of new renewable energy development in 2018. In addition to California, legislatures in New Jersey (50% by 2030), Connecticut (40% by 2030), and Massachusetts (35% by 2030) all adopted stronger targets for renewable energy, accelerating their states’ transitions away from fossil fuels. In addition, voters in Nevada overwhelmingly approved a measure to increase their state’s RES to 50% by 2030 (the measure must be approved again in 2020 to officially become law).

3. Clean energy champions win gubernatorial races

One of the bright spots in November’s election results was the number newly elected governors who campaigned on aggressive clean energy and climate change agendas. Newly elected governors in at least 10 states, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico and Wisconsin, have pledged to accelerate clean energy and carbon reductions in their states by supporting US commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement, joining the US Climate Alliance, and/or calling for renewable energy targets of 80%-100%. These election results demonstrate the widespread support for greater investments in renewable energy and signal the push for even stronger clean energy policies in the coming year.

4. Record low prices for renewables

Innovation, growing economies of scale, and attractive financing continued to drive the costs down for renewables in 2018. Power purchase agreements for wind and solar projects in states like Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas have reportedly ranged between $20-$30 per megawatt-hour, well below the cost of natural gas generation—and the technologies are positioned for further cost reductions to continue to be low-cost options even as federal tax incentives change. What’s even more exciting is that the many of these low-priced projects also include energy storage components, increasing their value to the grid.

Utility-Scale Solar Power Purchase Agreement Prices, by Project Size, 2008-2018.
Source: GTM Research.

5. Major utilities commit to low-carbon portfolios

Earlier this month, Xcel Energy became the first major utility to commit to a completely carbon-free electricity supply across the eight states it operates in. In doing so, it joins a growing number of utilities that are committing to phasing out their use of coal and transitioning to substantially lower carbon energy portfolios. Also this year, both Consumers Energy in Michigan and NIPSCO in northern Indiana announced plans to phase out coal generation and utility giant American Electric Power announced a goal of reducing its carbon emissions 80% by 2050. What’s especially exciting about these utility actions is that they are driven primarily by economics, clearly demonstrating the competitiveness of clean energy technologies.

6. Corporate renewable energy purchases keep growing

Low renewable energy prices continue to attract major corporations looking to save money and achieve ambitious sustainability goals. As a result, direct corporate purchases of renewable energy have become a major driver of renewable energy deployment. In 2018, the Rocky Mountain Institute reports, corporate renewable energy purchases—led by companies like Facebook, Walmart, ATT and Microsoft—reached more than 6.4 gigawatts (GW). The number of corporations investing in renewables expanded at a record pace this year as well, with nearly two-thirds of Fortune 100 and nearly half of Fortune 500 companies now having set ambitious renewable energy goals.

7. Offshore wind moves forward

While no new offshore wind projects came online in the US this year (the next project—off the Virginia coast—is scheduled for 2020), the industry did take some big leaps toward becoming a major player in the nation’s power supply. For example, the winning bid for Massachusetts’s first request for offshore wind proposals to help meet the state’s offshore wind requirements passed in 2016 went to an 800-megawatt project from Vineyard Wind at a shockingly low price of about 6.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. In addition, the latest US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management auction for leasing parcels of water for future projects resulted in 11 bidders and $405.1 million in winning bids, both smashing previous records. And strong state policies, including new offshore wind requirements in New Jersey and elsewhere, mean that there’s a lot more action to come.

8. Storage steps into the spotlight

Once a fringe player in the electric power sector, the energy storage industry is quickly emerging as a game changer in the transition to a clean energy economy as a tool for integrating much higher levels of renewable energy. In 2018, the pipeline for new storage projects doubled to nearly 33 GW as more utilities are investing in the technology thanks largely rapidly falling prices and growing support from state policies. While California has led the nation in storage deployment to date, New York recently established the strongest storage requirement in the country at 3,000 MW by 2030. Earlier this year, New Jersey set an ambitious storage target of 2,000 MW by 2030 and Massachusetts significantly increased its storage requirement to 1,000 megawatt-hours by 2025. At the federal level, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued Order 841, which directs regional grid operators to set market rules that allow energy storage to participate on a level playing field in the wholesale energy, capacity and ancillary services markets.

Lithium-ion batteries for advanced energy storage. Photo: Argonne National Laboratory/Flickr

9. PG&E turns down the gas with storage and renewables

In one particular sign of what’s to come in 2019 and beyond in terms of how these technologies fit together to displace fossil fuels, one of the most exciting regulatory decisions I saw this year was the California Public Utility Commission’s approval of PG&E’s plan to use energy storage to replace retiring gas generators. One of the key barriers to fully transitioning to a carbon-free economy is replacing natural gas generation and the ancillary services they provide to the power grid. This decision, which marks the first time a utility will directly replace power plants with battery storage, should spur many more similar projects to move forward in California and across the country and open the door for integrating much higher levels of renewable energy onto the power grid.

These nine stories are just a sampling what occurred in 2018 to further the clean energy transition. As the year comes to a close, UCS will continue to work hard to keep up the clean energy momentum in 2019.

Photo: Kim Hansen/Wikimedia Commons

Dear New Midwest Governors: The Green New Deal and You

Getting traction on Green New Deal policies at the federal level won’t be easy—but new governors in the Midwest can make progress on climate and economic priorities right away. Here’s how.

What is this Green New Deal?

Chances are you have seen one of the numerous articles recently buzzing around about the concept of a Green New Deal.

The Green New Deal is not necessarily a new idea. Folks have been talking about it since at least 2007. And there are different formulations for what the suite of policies might include.

The youth-led Sunrise Movement says a Green New Deal “would transform our economy and society at the scale needed to stop the climate crisis.” Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York has proposed a select committee be formed in Congress on the topic. And politicians, pundits, and thought leaders have been weighing in across the spectrum.

The core idea of any Green New Deal proposal is to act on climate issues while addressing economic and social issues at the same time.

A Green New Deal is about reducing emissions while increasing jobs. It’s about getting more clean energy onto the system while increasing equity, fairness, and justice in economic opportunity and public health. A Green New Deal values the voices of youth and immigrants and of the under-employed.

While new research shows these themes are popular in principle, the current challenges to enacting any such policies at the federal level remain challenging.

What about state governments, can they do anything to advance the spirit of a Green New Deal? Should they?

[Spoiler Alert: they can, and they should!]

New leadership in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin

Last month several Great Lakes states elected new governors to take office in January 2019: J.B. Pritzker in Illinois; Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan; Tim Walz in Minnesota; Mike DeWine in Ohio; and Tony Evers in Wisconsin. DeWine is a Republican; the others are Democrats.

These new governors have a chance to lead their states on climate and equity issues from day one.

Below I highlight important clean energy developments in each state that are the building blocks for further progress—and how facets of the Green New Deal concept can be incorporated as these states move forward under new leadership.

Illinois

In 2016, Illinois enacted the Future Energy Jobs Act with bipartisan support. In addition to driving new utility-scale wind and solar development, the legislation created the Illinois Solar For All program and clean energy job training to enable all communities to benefit from clean energy. In combination with programs from the City of Chicago, the state’s drive to solar inclusiveness is succeeding in places like the Altgeld Gardens neighborhood, where unemployment is five times the city average. Incoming Governor J.B. Pritzker can build on this momentum through partnering with the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition and other stakeholders on comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation in 2019.

Michigan

This year, Michigan’s two major electric utilities both announced important carbon reduction and clean energy goals. Many of the state’s old and inefficient coal-fired power plants have been retired, and there are plans to close additional polluting facilities in the coming years.

Governor-elect Whitmer has proposed to create a state climate office and emphasized infrastructure improvement and clean drinking water issues in her campaign. Integrating these important issues with continued progress on clean energy will open more job opportunities for Michiganders in the solar and public infrastructure sectors—and help ensure that all communities have access to healthy air and water.

Minnesota

Last week Xcel Energy announced a goal of being carbon-free by 2050. Minnesota has also been a pioneer in renewable energy policies and is considering measures to increase energy storage in the state. Governor-elect Tim Walz can work with the Minnesota 100% Campaign on formulating additional policies for an equitable clean energy future for the state.

Ohio

New Governor Mike DeWine should continue opposition to any proposals from FirstEnergy to bail out its coal-fired power plants. And he can lead the state forward by supporting efforts to defend and expand Ohio’s renewable and energy efficiency policies, especially by adding measures to ensure clean energy development benefits all communities through creating jobs and keeping energy bills affordable.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin utilities are moving away from coal-fired power plants toward cleaner forms of energy, especially wind and solar. Incoming Governor Tony Evers can work with agencies and the public utility commission to re-focus the state on climate issues and environmental protection.

Moving forward in the Midwest in 2019

In addition to policies in their individual states, Midwest governors can also work together in a regional way to advance clean energy across several states; for example, by advocating for transmission grid operators to open up more access for wind and solar power.

The newly-elected Midwest governors have a chance to join leaders like Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, who last week announced an ambitious climate change agenda for his state. And this week Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York announced a goal of 100% carbon-free electricity for his state by 2040.

Let’s make sure our new Midwest Governors follow suit and look to the popularity of Green New Deal policies as central features of the climate and energy policies we need in 2019 and beyond.

Photo: Andreas Gücklhorn/unsplash

Birds, Bats, and Wind Power: An Interview with Abby Arnold of the American Wind Wildlife Institute

Photo: Iberdrola Renewables

When you think about wind power, what comes to mind? Electricity generated without fuel, water, air or water pollution, or planet-warming carbon dioxide? Or a threat to local wildlife? How do we address that second piece so we can focus on the first?

Abby Arnold, American Wind Wildlife Institute (Photo: AWWI)

It’s the carbon piece that keeps me most focused on this question, given the latest climate reports (both international and domestic) and wind energy’s powerful contribution to decarbonizing the US electricity sector. It seems clear that ramping up wind power makes a lot of sense, as part of a broader, multi-technology push toward clean energy and away from fossil fuels, with all the harm they bring. It also seems clear that ramping it up means doing wind power in ways that minimize downsides.

And the wind-wildlife question seems particularly appropriate now, given the 12th Wind Wildlife Research Meeting that I recently attended. The WWRM is the latest in an every-other-year series of conferences that bring together researchers, policy makers, and others to talk about the state of the science on wind turbine interactions with birds, bats, and habitats. And this WWRM included a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the American Wind Wildlife Institute, an organization that the Union of Concerned Scientists has been involved in from the beginning, and to whose board I’ve just been elected.

I had a chance to talk about wind-wildlife history, players, issues, and solutions with AWWI’s executive director, Abby Arnold.

John Rogers (JR): Thanks for your time, Abby. Can we start with where you’ve come from, and where we’ve come from on wind-wildlife issues?

Abby Arnold (AA): Sure: As a mediator, I’ve been working with stakeholders in the wind industry and the conservation-science community for over 25 years. I got introduced to wind and wildlife in 1993, when I got contacted by the head of the American Wind Energy Association [AWEA] and electric private and public utility executives who were concerned about recent press about eagles at Altamont Pass [the nation’s first large-scale collection of wind farms, built in the 1980s, which has had bird issues but which are being addressed].

So we pulled together an initial meeting and then formed the National Wind Coordinating Committee (now Collaborative), or NWCC. UCS was a major player in the formation of NWCC, which also included representatives of public utility commissions, attorney general offices (representing consumers), the wind industry, utilities, and conservation groups. UCS was also a key part of the NWCC’s wind-wildlife working group.

It was under the NWCC that we addressed what are the right questions to ask, and how you measure the impacts.

Impacts, solutions,… science! Listening attentively at the 12th Wind Wildlife Research Meeting, St. Paul, MN (Photo: AWWI)

JR: So what are the issues, as you see them?

AA: Let’s talk first about what’s positive about wind. Wind doesn’t emit carbon, doesn’t use water. It’s an economically viable source of energy.

The challenge is that impacts are local. That it causes some harm to some bird and bat species. These impacts can be direct, causing fatalities, or may be indirect by displacing species from their habitat.

Any energy resource has impacts. The questions for wind power are what species are at risk, and what solutions there are to address that risk. We’ve been spending the last twenty years studying the impacts side of the equation, with recent focus using what we have learned to develop solutions, meaning innovative strategies and technologies that are coming out of a better understanding of the impacts.

Why wind-wildlife matters

JR: This’ll be obvious to many, but: Why should people care about wind-wildlife issues?

AA: Because we want wind. I think what’s really interesting about wind power is it’s a technology that went commercial only recently, relatively speaking. Other energy sources like oil and gas, or coal, didn’t have the benefit—or responsibility—of going commercial in the twenty-first century. We have an opportunity to apply everything we now know about reducing impacts to do it right; wind has both the benefit and the burden of that knowledge. We can build it and conserve wildlife.

The other reason these issues are important is that the industry has to comply with laws, and they don’t get financing if they don’t. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The Endangered Species Act. Plus state laws, some of which are more restrictive and some of which are less. If you want to build a wind farm and not be at risk, you have to comply.

Photo: Matt Hamilton

JR: Enter AWWI?

AA: The American Wind Wildlife Institute is unique. I don’t know of another energy source that has invested as much as the wind industry has in working with the science and conservation community in understanding impacts and solutions.

Twelve to thirteen years ago, as the wind industry was growing commercially, they recognized that they needed to address these issues more quickly in order to build out their potential. Dr. James Walker, at the time the chair of the AWEA board and the CEO of enXco [a wind company, now EDF Renewables], worked with a number of other leaders to encourage the wind industry to create a new non-profit to work with the conservation-science community to understand the risks and develop solutions to address those risks. UCS was the first non-profit organization that agreed to sign on, followed by several others.

That led to the creation of AWWI, an independent nonprofit (unlike the NWCC, which is funded by the US Department of Energy [DOE])—so AWWI could do the independent science and deliver results.

Now, ten years later, we are reaping the benefits of all that leadership. This year we have [as members] twenty-seven companies, nine national conservation-science groups, and AFWA [the association of state fish and wildlife agencies]. And next year we’ll have even more.

Technology for wind and wildlife

JR: You’ve mentioned solutions…?

AA: If you think about what the state of the science was ten years ago, we were making all kinds of assumptions about why there were habitat impacts, or why they were occurring. The “solution” at the time was avoidance: Don’t build.

But we need clean electricity, and wind power has been one of the best options for supplying that. So not building wasn’t a viable option.

Now, we have over 90 gigawatts [90,000 megawatts] of wind power built in the US—and we have a much better understanding of why these “takes” [bird or bat deaths] are occurring. Environmental factors, habitat, time of day, activity in the area. We just have a much more refined understanding.

So now we’re developing machine-based technologies to detect and deter species [see also here for bats and here for eagles]; we’re in a whole new ballgame for understanding the science, the risks, and also the solutions to address. There are these camera- or radar-based ones that may be better than the human eye at seeing what’s flying around. And once a device figures out what it is, there are technologies in development that may deter the bird or bat from being near the turbine—with certain kinds of lights, for example, or sounds. Those are things that they’re developing. AWWI has a catalog of technologies available to AWWI Partners and Friends.

What we haven’t figured out is the economics. They’re new, they’re expensive. So at the same time as we’re having this exciting time to create/develop these solutions, the industry is faced with increasing pressure to reduce costs, to compete with natural gas. Wind companies have to be very strategic about what technologies to invest in, and integrating them into projects so they remain cost competitive.

What role can technology play in detection and deterrence? (Photo: IdentiFlight/Boulder Imaging)

JR: What’s AWWI’s role been in moving those technologies along?

AA: AWWI provided the catalyst for engineers, biologists, and operations experts to collaborate, creating a new field. AWWI’s technology innovation program, developed in the last five years, is tracking, developing, and providing independent peer-reviewed assessment of technologies. Evaluating commercial-ready technologies with independent results helps regulators and wind companies make informed decisions about what to invest in. DOE supports this development through funding and their labs, like NREL [the National Renewable Energy Laboratory], which supports early-stage development of these types of technologies. Through collaborative science we bring together all the different stakeholders that need to coordinate on actually integrating these technologies into wind farms.

Better wind-wildlife science through data

JR: How about the data side, in terms of understanding what we know about siting and building wind farms in ways that avoid and minimize impacts?

AA: That’s another really important piece of AWWI’s work: the American Wind Wildlife Information Center. The AWWIC is the most comprehensive database of post-construction fatality data [data on bird and bat fatalities after a wind farm has been built] for the United States. And the reason is that it includes both publicly available and confidential data. We have confidential data because companies have agreed to work with AWWI to provide data that has been anonymized so it can be included in analyses but remain confidential. The database currently includes data for a quarter of wind power capacity installed as of 2016.

JR: So that’s a bit about the issues, the technologies, the data. More generally, how do things look now from where you’re standing?

AA: In this anniversary year, we’re seeing a recommitment from the wind industry to develop these solutions. I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been that in six or so years we’ll look back and say that this was a pivotal year. The demand for clean electricity. The development of AI [artificial intelligence] and machine learning. The sophistication of the industry in recognizing and wanting to deal with issues. The only thing holding us back is the uncertainty in the policy environment at the federal level. But we’ve got market purchasers buying wind—Google, Microsoft,… We’ve got utilities, like AEP. We’ve got states on board.

And, through AWWI, we’ve got the wind industry working hand-in-hand with conservation-science groups to make sure we reduce negative effects and enhance the positive ones as we work to get the wind power we need—both for people and for wildlife.

JR: And UCS is glad to be a part of it. Thanks, Abby, for your time, and for your leadership on all this.

 

More wind-wildlife materials from AWWI:

More about Abby:

Abby Arnold manages collaboratives that elevate the best available science into decision-making to achieve results. Along with being executive director for AWWI since 2010 and interim director during its founding, Abby serves as principal/senior mediator at Kearns & West, and has been lead facilitator and strategic advisor for the NWCC, the Department of the Interior’s Wind Turbine Guidelines Federal Advisory Committee, and many other regional and national collaborations. Abby holds a Master’s in Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a B.A. in Environmental Planning and Politics from UC Santa Cruz.

Photo: Iberdrola Renewables Photo: AWWI

The 2018 Farm Bill Is Now Law. But the Shenanigans Continue…

Today, President Trump signs the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 (the “farm bill”) into law. Over the past year, our allies and supporters called their elected officials, signed petitions, wrote letters to the editor and organized their communities—doing everything possible to impress upon Congress the importance of legislation that supports the nation’s farmers, and the food insecure, in an equitable and responsible way. It is time for a quick inventory of achievements and the work yet ahead, though there isn’t much time for us, or our supporters and allies, to catch our breath.

Case in point was today’s 5 am announcement from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) of a rule that all but states that in this administration’s view Congress doesn’t have the final word on formulating food and farm law. Senator Debbie Stabenow, ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, immediately and forcefully articulated the subversion of democratic process that this is: “Congress writes laws, and the administration is required to write rules based on the law, not the other way around. Congress chose not to change the current Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or “food stamp”) work rules in the farm bill and, instead, focused on strengthening work programs that actually help people get jobs.”

As our Food Systems and Health Analyst Sarah Reinhardt has pointed out, the draconian “work-requirement” provisions originally proposed by the House, rejected by the Senate, and now proposed for resurrection by the USDA, dissemble: they would apply to only 8 percent of current SNAP participants, many of whom do work but aren’t paid enough to provide for all their needs. The timing of this announcement made it plain that the President required this petty grandstanding to secure his signature on the bill. Pragmatically, what will follow is a comment period during which we must continue to work to demonstrate that there are more effective and compassionate ways to support our fellow citizens to get back on their financial feet. And in the grander picture, it is a perfect illustration of the fact that though the legislation is authorized every five years, the farm bill is never really settled.

The Consensus: Farm bills consistently reinforce status quo, so why persist in engaging?

I’ll be the first to say it: This is another farm bill that largely maintains the status quo when it comes to food policy. At the same time, the legislation includes crucial wins for smart, forward-thinking investments in a healthier food and farm system. Programs that we fought for—such as those supporting farmers markets, promoting smarter farming practices that protect our soil and water, and increasing access to healthy foods for those who are most in need—are all included in the final package. These are important steps towards the kind of healthy food system we need.

Actually, I need to own up that I was not the first to articulate the preceding passage. It is exactly what we said when the 2014 farm bill was passed. And nothing more perfectly illustrates the vexing nature of farm bill work. It is what has led sharp colleagues to conclude that it is best to advance food system reform through alternate strategies. For example, former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan has determined that to escape the Groundhog Day spin cycle she will now emphasize partnering with innovators in the food industry: “It is a time of intractability in policymaking at the federal level. And while I’ll always be engaged and vocal in federal food policy…right now, the private sector is leading.” Many others argue that there is no way that a $900 billion bill that so emphatically preserves the agricultural status quo can ever be called a success. As Gracy Olmstead starkly articulates: “For years, Farm Bill subsidies have been skewed to benefit the rich and powerful.” And this has not changed. This year, efforts to curb farm subsidies, particularly for millionaires, were abandoned at the last minute. The thing is, that is actually how we described the 2014 farm bill’s machinations (this year’s big sop to the already wealthy was the broadening of eligibility for up to $125,000 of farm bill payments to non-farming relatives who can claim that they are involved in “farm management.” If nothing else, that should put in proper perspective the meanness of Secretary Perdue’s claim that “work requirement rules are about a second chance, not a way of life.”)

So why do we and other organizations committed to effective food and equitable agriculture policy engage every five years in a struggle that seems to be for marginal gain? An omnibus bill by its nature comes to us as a whole, as my colleague Karen Stillerman summarized in 2014, and is thereby inherently about accepting a manifold package. Therefore, our struggle cannot be about taking or leaving a bill so massive in its reach that it touches all of us—for good or ill—but instead to do everything possible to shape the contents and intents of the legislation. One of the ways of doing this is persistence. For example, over the course of 30 years of constant work across five farm bills, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (UCS is a proud and active member) has accounted for a suite of programs ranging from local food systems, beginning farmers, fruit and vegetable production, organic research and working lands conservation that approaches $5 billion over five years. As Ferd Hoefner, the Coalition’s Senior Strategic Advisor puts it, “That is getting to be real money.”

2018 Farm Bill wins

This year’s wins include permanent funding for the Local Agriculture Market Program, Farmer Opportunity Training and Outreach Program, and a series of measures that will more equitably fund Land Grant Universities serving primarily African Americans, protect African American farmers from loss of land and provide training for farm laborers who wish to take up farming. On the cautionary side, our agroecologist Marcia DeLonge has summarized this farm bill’s effect on conservation programs and the consequent prospects for our long-term agricultural resilience.

This illustrates why all of us working toward an equitable food and agriculture system need to keep our eye on the ball and persist. While we pursue multiple strategies and work patiently to build the political power and will to overcome the narrow interests of the agribusiness lobby (which outspends us to the tune of $100,000,000 per year), we cannot afford to be dispirited or fail to measure the long-term cumulative impact of every “small” victory.

Seasonal Shutdowns: How Coal Plants That Operate Less Can Save Customers Money

Photo: Tikilucas/Wikimedia Commons

There is a growing trend amongst coal plant operators: save customers money by switching to seasonal operation and operating less. Operators can secure those savings for customers because other resources (like wind, solar and other resources) are often available at lower cost. Reduced operations also translate to reduced emissions.

A growing trend

This was the strategy that owners of three coal plants in Texas took. The Martin Lake and Monticello coal plants, owned by Luminant went that route in 2015. The Gibbons Creek coal plant, owned by the Texas Municipal Power Agency and member utilities, followed suit in 2017.

Cleco and SWEPCO have joined in on the trend.

Cleco and AEP subsidiary SWEPCO are the primary owners of the Dolet Hills Power Plant in Louisiana.

The companies have announced that the Dolet Hills facility will switch to seasonal operation: it will only operate four months of the year between June and September when demand (and electricity prices) are highest primarily due to the need for air conditioning on hot summer afternoons.

The utilities’ own estimations indicate this will save customers $85 million by the end of 2020.

That opportunity to save money was the reason why several reports I authored in the past recommended that AEP and Cleco operate this coal plant less (if not shut it down altogether).

In October 2017, I wrote a report concluding that the owners of the Dolet Hills power plant in Louisiana (along with several other power plants throughout the region) were unnecessarily burdening customers. An AEP representative replied in the press that the company was “following market protocols” and that the conclusion was flawed, arguing that fuel costs were in fact fixed; that customers would not save money if the plant operated less.

A year later, I conducted another analysis that produced similar results and the same conclusion. You can read my previous blog post on that analysis here.

After the second report, AEP again insisted it was obeying market rules and asserted that reduced operations wouldn’t save customers money.

Now, months after denying it was possible, the company admits that turning off the plant 8 months of the year will save customers $85 million by the end of 2020.

How do seasonal shutdowns save customers money?

If it costs $25 to produce a unit of energy and the market price is $30 per unit then it makes sense to operate that power plant and take that $5 margin and use it to pay down debt or other fixed costs.

If market prices stay at $30 the power plant keeps operating as much as it can and begins to pay down the fixed costs and eventually the revenues go to building up a profit. If the market price drops down to $20 and the unit keeps operating, then the owner’s profits begin to erode. The longer the owner does this the more the profits erode. The money that they “save” by shutting down for part of the year can then be passed along to customers (or shareholders).

What’s next?

AEP owns several other coal plants that, if operated less, have the potential to save customers money. This includes Pirkey (located in Texas) and John Amos (located in West Virginia). AEP has committed to investing in renewables and reducing carbon pollution. Shutting down a coal plant for eight months of the year could reduce that plant’s emissions by up to 60%. Reducing the output of those power plants represent an opportunity to reduce carbon pollution and reduce customer bills at the same time.

Photo: Tikilucas/Wikimedia Commons

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