UCS Blog - The Equation (text only)

Can Uber and Lyft Be a Climate Solution?

Photo: Mark Warner

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

Why ride-hailing is important for climate change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next?

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

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

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

Photo: Mark Warner

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

Signs indicating students should not drink the water.

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

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

No records, no data, no problem

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

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

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

Sowing seeds of misinformation

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

Sign warning about childhood lead exposure, from the CDC.

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

Tip of the iceberg

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

A law is as strong as its weakest regulation

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

 What now?

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

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


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

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


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

Photo: Mike Olliver/UCS

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

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

Why I’m voting

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

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

STEM majors, let’s change this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, the meeting was utterly disappointing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Del hollín a la energía solar

Photo: PDTillman/Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

Numerosos beneficios FEJA

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

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

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

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

Considerables beneficios para la salud pública

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

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

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

El cierre de la planta a carbón de Waukegan

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

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

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

El futuro del carbón en Illinois

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

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

Recomendaciones de UCS  

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

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

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

This blog is available in English.




Photo: PDTillman/Wikimedia Commons

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

Photo: Karen Long MacLeod/CPLC

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

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

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

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

Widespread benefits from FEJA

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

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

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

Beyond FEJA

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

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

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

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

Extensive public health benefits

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

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

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

Closing the Waukegan Coal Plant

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

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

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

The future of coal in Illinois

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

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

UCS recommendations

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

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

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

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

Photo: Karen Long MacLeod/CPLC

Voting on I-1631? Here’s How Much Healthier You Could Make Washington’s Climate

In November, residents in Washington State will vote on I-1631—a new proposal to put a price on the heat-trapping carbon emissions that are at the root of the climate change impacting us today.

The Pacific Northwest has already warmed by at least 1.5°F since the first half of the 20th century. If emissions keep growing on a business-as-usual emissions trajectory, the region is on track to warm another 8.5°F in the next 80 years. These and other sobering statistics highlighting the latest science on the impacts of climate change in Washington are summarized in a fact sheet published by the Union of Concerned Scientists earlier this year.

Washington’s current climate impacts

Warming is one of the many factors already driving up wildfire risks in Washington State, and warming temperatures could as much as quadruple the average area burned each year in the Pacific Northwest in the next 60 years. Hotter temperatures also mean less of the snowpack that acts as natural water storage for the state and shifts in when that water melts as runoff. This puts Washington’s abundant hydroelectric power and iconic snow-fed rivers at risk, and could mean less water available during the hot summer months when demand from communities and ecosystems is highest.

Increased carbon emissions are also impacting Washington’s coasts. Sea level in Seattle has already risen by around 8 inches in the last hundred years as a result of increasing global temperatures. In the next 30 years, over 7,000 homes along Washington’s coast could be at risk of chronic high-tide flooding worsened by  sea level rise. And as that built-up carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dissolves into the ocean, it’s also making the ocean more acidic, corroding shell-forming species like oysters that are the backbone of the state’s $270 million shellfish industry.

But how much better could things be with initiatives like I-1631 in place?

The Washington state legislature set greenhouse gas reduction targets almost a decade ago to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 25% below 1990 levels by 2035, and 50% below 1990 levels by 2050. The price that I-1631 puts on carbon pollution takes those targets into account, with checks in place to ensure that the state’s emissions trajectory is on the right path.

What if Washington’s emissions reductions become the example for other places? How much better could the climate we live in be? Let’s break it down.

Global emissions of carbon dioxide in 1990 were around 22.4 billion metric tons (or 22.4 GtCO2). In 2017, global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels alone climbed to 36.8 GtCO2. But if the rest of the world reduced emissions in line with Washington’s targets, we’d bring our global emissions down to around 16.8 GtCO2 by 2035 and around 11.2 GtCO2 by 2050. This could put us on track to keep global-mean warming below the 3.6 °F (2°C) target set by the global community in the Paris Agreement. It’s important to note, though, that we’d need to keep pushing to net zero and then net negative emissions very, very quickly to stay on track.

How different would WA’s climate look with climate action?

The federally-mandated Climate Science Special Report (CSSR) recently assessed the latest science on climate trends and impacts in the United States. With the lowest emissions trajectory assessed by the CSSR, temperatures in Washington would be at least 3.5°F less hot by the end of the century than where we’re currently headed. And global cuts in line with Washington’s standards would actually put us on a lower emissions trajectory than the lowest CSSR trajectory, so could help slow warming down even further.

Those cooler temperatures could help decrease wildfire risk. One study found that the risk of the largest wildfires in the Pacific Northwest would be half as high by the end of the century, if emissions get down to the lowest CSSR trajectory rather than continuing to grow on a business-as-usual trajectory.

Reduced warming worldwide on a global trajectory in line with Washington’s targets could also shave around a foot off of sea level rise in Seattle by the year 2100.

And if global emissions decreased at the same rate as Washington’s targets, global ocean acidification could be 5 times less intense by the end of the century compared to business-as-usual. Combined with cooler ocean temperatures, this would create a much healthier ocean environment for Washington’s coastal ecosystems and the economies based on them.

A constellation of climate efforts

It’s important to recognize that Washington’s current emissions targets are an important first step on a journey, and I-1631 creates space for more ambition. Washington’s Department of Ecology has recommended strengthening the 2050 target to 80% below 1990 emissions levels, and there are a slew of climate damages that can only be prevented by getting to net zero emissions worldwide by mid-century.

Achieving these benefits and preventing the impacts of climate change in Washington and across the planet requires sustained efforts by everyone to reduce emissions, not just in Washington. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report shows that this kind of global action is only getting more vital.

But our global community’s success in preventing the worst impacts of climate change will be made up of a constellation of efforts in places like Washington, California, British Columbia, and other places leading the way.

And that world would mean a healthier climate for Washington and for everyone.

Yes, ExxonMobil and Chevron are Still Distorting Climate Science

Photo: Brenda Ekwurzel

If you look at headlines from the last year, ExxonMobil, Chevron and other major fossil fuel companies have seemingly turned a new page on climate change. Recently, ExxonMobil received major kudos for giving $1 million to Americans for Carbon Dividends, a lobbying offshoot of the industry-backed Climate Leadership Council. Shortly before that, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Occidental Petroleum got good press for each pledging $100 million to the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, which amounts to less than one percent of their capital and exploration budget for 2018 (ExxonMobil’s is $28 billion while Chevron’s is $15.8 billion). Companies have also touted their support for the Paris climate agreement as well as their research and investments in renewables.

But, as I and my colleagues have analyzed, this “support” is a PR distraction when these companies are keeping up business-as-usual. They intend to continue producing, marketing and selling fossil fuels at current levels for the foreseeable future, which runs counter to the steep reductions in carbon dioxide and methane emissions needed to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Today UCS released a scorecard,which analyzed what eight major fossil fuel companies are saying they’re doing about climate change, and just how much these companies are doing to drastically lower their emissions.

What did we find? Contrary to media reports and shiny company press releases, most of these major fossil fuel companies continue to mischaracterize climate science.

Why is this important? Any company that makes, markets, and sells a product that is the primary cause of climate change has a responsibility to stay on top of and clearly communicate with the public scientific developments regarding their product. Misrepresenting climate science and underplaying the urgency of action allows companies to justify their business as usual practices all while climate impacts, including increasingly frequent and severe weather events such as Hurricanes Harvey and Florence, get worse and costlier. Releasing inaccurate statements allows companies to “check the box” for voicing belief in climate change, while continuing to funnel tens of tens of millions of dollars to climate-denying politicians, trade associations, and other industry groups that do the dirty work of opposing climate policies.

Major fossil fuel companies fail to accurately represent climate science

We measured whether companies consistently and accurately acknowledged the scientific evidence of climate change in their public platforms. Overall, they didn’t do great.

We found that five of the eight companies we studied had made public statements on climate change that underplayed the need to urgently reduce emissions, emphasized scientific uncertainty, and/or were blatantly incorrect. Only BP amended its statement after UCS and Barnard College called the company out for its deceptive language.

These statements are surprising since these companies have known about climate change for at least four decades now, which would be plenty of time to figure how to make it a priority to accurately convey the latest developments in climate science.   Since 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued climate assessments which companies can rely on. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment (2014) represents the latest* mainstream scientific consensus on climate change and it clearly states that It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” The primaryhuman influence is through the burning of fossil fuels.

*(Earlier this month, this group released a special report detailing the impacts of a global average temperature increase of 1.5C relative to 2C above pre-industrial levels, and pathways to limit temperature increase to that level. See my colleagues’ blog series about what the report means for us and for climate policy).

Let’s see how oil and gas company statements on climate change stacked up.


ExxonMobil employs a dedicated climate change team and boasts about leading research around cutting-edge technology, such as carbon capture and storage. Yet the company’s statements on climate change, including the one above, do not consistently reflect the current scientific consensus around the issue.

Contrary to ExxonMobil’s claims, scientific understanding of the likelihood, magnitude and time frame of climate impacts as tied to human-caused climate change has advanced greatly. Research has over the last decade developed to the point where scientists can identify and quantify the part human-caused climate change plays in many types of extreme weather and other climate impacts. For many impacts, the likelihood is high; the magnitude is severe; and the timeframe is now. Scientists have shown, for example, that the likelihood of heat wave similar in magnitude to the one that hit Europe in 2003—during which over 30,000 people died—has doubled. Scientists have also shown that human-caused climate change made the record rainfall that hit Houston during Hurricane Harvey roughly three times more likely and 15 percent more intense.

No matter how much ExxonMobil talks about using oil to lubricate wind turbines, the company knows that most of its oil and gas are being burnt by cars, by energy generation, by human activity—which is the primary cause of climate change.

Chevron Excerpt from Chevron Corporation accessed October 15, 2018

Chevron Corporation. 2018. Climate change resilience: A framework for decision making. Online at www.chevron.com/-/media/shared-media/documents/climate-change-resilience.pdf, accessed October 15, 2018.

Chevron’s statement misrepresents the IPCC Fifth Assessment’s conclusions, as mentioned earlier, that human activity is “extremely likely” to be the dominant driver of warming since the 1950s, not simply one possible cause of many possible causes, as is implied by Chevron’s phrase “due in part.” Chevron’s seemingly subtle shift in wording is significant because the report shows that the overwhelming majority of the world’s top researchers agree that burning fossil fuels is by far and away the largest contributor to climate change. Injecting any doubt or uncertainty into that conclusion is disingenuous at best, and outright deceiving at worst.

If Chevron is going to quote the IPCC, the company should, at the very least, cut-and-paste from the panel’s report.

ConocoPhillips ConocoPhillips excerpt accessed October 15, 2018

ConocoPhillips. No date. Climate change position. Online at http://static.conocophillips.com/files/resources/climate-change-position_final.pdf, accessed October 15, 2018.

ConocoPhillips’s statement on climate science suggests the last decade-worth of climate research, including the most recent IPCC report, simply doesn’t exist.

There are three major issues with the company’s statement: 1) the claim that increasing atmospheric concentrations of heat-trapping gases “can lead” rather than “are leading” to climate change, as has been established since at least the IPCC third assessment report, is followed by 2) highlighting uncertainties on the first point, when there are none and 3) proposing that it is sufficient for the company to “manage” global warming emissions rather than reducing them. Alone, each of these statements is problematic and inaccurately represents the mainstream scientific consensus. Together, they subvert the public’s understanding of climate science and supply the company with an alibi for continuing to extract, sell and profit off of fossil fuels.

BP – old and new Excerpt from BP PLC accessed online May 22, 2018.

BP PLC. 2018a. Energy and the environment. Online at https://web.archive.org/web/20180726132105/https://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/energy-economics/statistical-review-of-world-energy/primary-energy/energy-and-the-environment.html, accessed May 22, 2018.

When we analyzed BP’s statements from 2018 we found similarly misinforming language. But when we pointed the problematic language out to company representatives (as we did with all eight companies studied), BP promptly made changes that brought its statement back in line with climate science. As you can see in the first attempt, BP emphasizes scientific uncertainty by referring to atmospheric carbon’s “possible” climate impact.  Svante Arrhenius, more than a century ago, published the fundamental scientific principle that changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration results in changes to Earth’s temperature.

Excerpt from BP PLC. accessed October 15, 2018.

BP PLC. No date. Energy and the environment. Online at https://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/energy-economics/statistical-review-of-world-energy/primary-energy/energy-and-the-environment.html, accessed October 15, 2018.

BP’s new statement, on the other hand, is an excellent example of an accurate copy-and-paste. The company’s new statement mentions the IPCC 5thAssessment and, unlike Chevron, gets its facts right in stating that human activity, including the burning of fossil fuels, is extremely likely to be the primary driver of climate change.

Shell Excerpts from Royal Dutch Shell Corporation accessed online October 15, 2018 and July 10, 2018

First quote: Royal Dutch Shell Corporation. No date. Climate change and energy transitions. Online at www.shell.com/sustainability/environment/climate-change.html, accessed, October 15, 2018.
Second quote: Royal Dutch Shell Corporation. 2018c. Energy Transition. Online at  www.shell.com/energy-and-innovation/the-energy-future/shell-energy-transition-report.html, accessed July 10, 2018.

Shell’s PR machine has gone into overdrive recently in an effort to paint the company as a climate leader. While Shell falls short in a number of areas, its statements on climate science and the need to reach net-zero emissions are accurate and consistent. There’s no equivocating, no hedging, no backsliding, no prevaricating, and no hiding inaccurate climate statements on less popular pages of its website. Climate change is real, it’s caused by human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, and we need to make changes immediately. Check, check, and check.

Additional studies on the language of climate deception

Several peer-reviewed academic papers have documented how fossil fuel companies have used public communications to mislead the public about the state of climate science and its implications. A University of Reading study published this year showed that up until the mid-2000s, climate change was discussed as a problem with a solution; more recently fossil fuel company language has portrayed climate change as unpredictable and unknowable. Last year, Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes analyzed 187 climate change communications by ExxonMobil and found that while company’s scientists were quietly contributing to climate science and writing reports about it to company executives, the company was paying for advertisements that told a different story.

Watchdogging matters

Whether through outright climate denial, sowing public confusion on climate science, or funding of third-party groups that spread climate disinformation, each of these companies has tried to obscure climate science. But, as we saw with BP, the threat of public exposure and pressure apparently pushed the company to correct its website. As with most companies, major fossil fuel companies want to avoid the reputational risk of being branded climate deniers. This is why public watchdogging really matters.

Fossil fuel companies need to acknowledge scientific evidence that shows 1) the extraction and burning of their product is the main driver of climate change and 2) avoiding the worst climate impacts requires dramatic cuts to carbon emissions immediately.

UCS and members of our science network and supporters will continue to hold these companies accountable for what they (and their trade groups) say and do on climate change.

Photo: Brenda Ekwurzel

Milwaukee Area Science Advocates Collaborate to End Lead Exposure

MASA and community members came together for a “science in action” lead resource fair on June 23, 2018 - titled Amani Un|Leaded. Photo: John Saller

Lead exposure, especially from water in older pipes, is a major health problem in Milwaukee. A 2016 Wisconsin state report on childhood lead poisoning indicated that nearly 11% of children tested in Milwaukee showed elevated blood lead levels, which was double the percentage found in Flint, Michigan. Children from low-income families, especially within the African-American community, are disproportionately affected. Earlier this year, a previous employee of the Milwaukee County Health Department, emailed 15 alderman and Mayor Tom Barrett informing them that the department was not testing water in the homes of lead-poisoned children. This launched an investigation which revealed that the Milwaukee County Health Department failed to notify thousands of parents of the high blood lead levels found in their children, resulting in the resignation of the local health commissioner. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently suspended the Milwaukee lead abatement program after an audit revealed many problems.

Amani Un|Leaded workshops informed residents about lead poisoning and prevention.

The Milwaukee Area Science Advocates (MASA) believes it is imperative to address the lead exposure problem, and that doing so requires working collaboratively with Milwaukee community organizations and residents. Thanks to generous support from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Science for Public Good Fund, MASA was able to work with the Children’s Outing Association (COA) Youth & Family Centers, the Hunger Task Force, the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, Amani United, the Dominican Center, the Social Development Commission, the Interfaith Earth Network, and Children’s Hospital to organize and hold a “science in action” lead resource fair on June 23, 2018 – titled Amani Un|Leaded.

Amani Un|Leaded brought together scientists, residents, and community leaders to begin working together to address the lead problem in Milwaukee. The event was held at the COA Goldin Center in the Amani neighborhood, which is an area of Milwaukee with especially high lead exposures. The event covered a wide variety of lead topics and featured workshops entitled: Science of Lead, Lead-safe Homes, Growing Healthy Soils, Nutrition and Lead, Lead in Water, and the Path to 0%. These workshops informed residents on lead chemistry and bodily absorption, policies aimed to reduce lead poisoning, and steps families can take to limit lead exposure. Following the workshops, residents engaged in a strategic discussion with community leaders and organizers regarding lead education and abatement strategies. Topics covered included how public policy can reduce lead poisoning, filter distribution, and cartridge replacement. More than 80 people attended and organizers of the event distributed water filters to remove lead to many residents.

MASA and other community groups are continuing to work towards addressing lead exposure with new initiatives and better public policies.

The event led to a new program – “Unleaded” – which is a water filter distribution, follow-up, and education program designed to reach several communities in Milwaukee. MASA and aforementioned community partners are working to increase efficiency in lead filter distribution, installation, and city-wide lead education. Initiatives in this program include an electronic notification and communication system for lead filters as well as door-to-door canvassing to raise awareness of lead dangers.

Thanks to generous support from organizations like UCS, and many dedicated volunteers, Milwaukee is progressing towards a safer and lead-free community. Learn more about Unleaded, or learn about ways to get involved in your community.


Anna Miller is a science writer and philanthropist who focuses on improving scientific literacy and awareness in the community. She currently works on the leadership team at Milwaukee Area Science Advocates. Dr. Miller hold a Ph.D. in Cell and Developmental Biology from the Medical College of Wisconsin.  

Dave Nelson is a public health consultant.  He worked for many years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Cancer Institute, where he conducted research in cancer prevention, tobacco control, and other health topics. He currently works on the grants team with Milwaukee Area Science Advocates. He holds an M.D. from the Oregon Health Sciences University and an M.P.H. from the University of Michigan.  

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

Photo: John Saller Photo: John Saller Photo: John Saller

Saturday Night Live and the Land Carbon Sink

Photo: Jason Leem/Unsplash

Saturday Night Live (SNL) premiered a music video last weekend that was all about trees and climate change. And it resonated, because I also love trees. Chris Redd and Pete Davidson wrote the ecological anthem I didn’t know I needed (warning – video contains strong language).

Sadly, the video ends with a trauma doctor raining on their parade, reminding them of the complexity of our situation, and how reductions in fossil fuel use and changes to our transportation and food systems are just the beginning of our climate fight. But for me, as a scientist, “Trees” reminded me of how undervalued the role of the land carbon sink (all the carbon that’s stored in plants, soils etc.) is in our battle against climate change. So in hopes of validating other tree-lovers, I wrote them this additional verse.

I be loving these trees (TREES)

Taking it down and sequestering C (TREES)

Grab CO2, do what plants do, live a plant life, grow til they die (TREES)

I be loving these trees (TREES)

Get decomposed, fast and then slow, soil sticks around, holding C down (TREES)

So carbon can stay, as trees waste away (TREES)

Now that we’re all jamming to this new verse, let’s dissect the science behind the new lyrics.

Taking it down and sequestering C / Grab CO2, do what plants do, live a plant life, grow til it dies 

Trees, and plants generally, are the primary way that CO2 is taken out of the atmosphere. Although scientists are currently developing carbon capture technology, that pulls CO2 directly out of the air, plants were doing this before it was even cool. More trees mean more carbon leaving the atmosphere and getting stabilized inside plant tissue. Scientists have consistently noted the important contribution of the land carbon sink (and associated increases from more forested land and decreases from deforestation) in their calculations of net emissions. And most importantly, they’ve highlighted the role that reforestation and climate-forward land management can play in mitigating our greenhouse gas emissions.

Get decomposed, fast and then slow, soil sticks around, holding C down / So carbon can stay as trees waste away 

Trees are also the conduit to the largest pool of land carbon, soils. Although plants eventually die, and decomposition releases some of this carbon back to the atmosphere, a portion of that carbon is stabilized into soil. Over millennia, this recurring process has led to huge amounts of carbon accumulation in soil, at least double what’s stored in living vegetation. However, that’s not to say that soil carbon is then magically protected from climate change –  warming increases CO2  loss from soil, fires threaten to burn off organic horizons, and deforestation eliminates inputs of new carbon. But to their credit, trees not only remove carbon from the atmosphere, they facilitate its introduction into a larger, albeit threatened, carbon pool.

Combating climate change is a daunting and complex problem, whatever way you slice it. A comprehensive mitigation strategy must protect existing carbon pools, and increase carbon removal through all viable strategies, including trees. So, I stand with Chris Redd and Pete Davidson on this one. Trees are more than “not a bad thing,” they’re a critical part of our battle against climate change.

Why Nevadans Should Vote Yes on Question 6

Solar power in Nixon, Nevada Photo: BlackRockSolar

The recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which predicts the planet will surpass the 1.5°C rise in global temperature by as early as 2030 is a wake-up call for our country to take swift and far-reaching action now to avoid the worst consequences of global warming. In the Western US, we are already starting to see the impacts of a warming climate threatening water supplies, and increasing the intensity and frequency of wildfires and other extreme weather events like heat waves. Transitioning away from fossil-fueled sources of electricity generation like coal and natural gas towards clean and carbon-free renewable energy is one of the most impactful and cost-effective solutions we can take today to reduce the threat of climate change.

Why should Nevada voters support Question 6 on the November ballot?

In November, voters in Nevada will be asked to decide whether they want to step it up and accelerate the clean electricity transition. The Nevada Renewable Energy Standards Initiative or “Question 6” would raise the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) to 50% by 2030. Nevada’s current RPS is 25% by 2025 and given that in 2017 nearly 22% of the state’s net electricity generation came from renewable resources, primarily solar and geothermal, the current RPS is unlikely to do much to help Nevada make additional investments in clean electricity. A YES vote on Question 6 is the only way for Nevada voters to guarantee more clean, renewable electricity for their state.

Voting yes on Question 6 will improve air quality

More renewable electricity for Nevada will not only help address climate change, it will reduce dependence on natural gas-fired electricity, which is contributing to the state’s poor air quality. In 2017, natural gas generation supplied a whopping 70% of Nevada’s electricity needs.

This year, the American Lung Association gave Clark and Washoe counties a failing grade “F” for air quality, and Las Vegas and Henderson had the 12th-worst level of smog in the nation out of 227 cities. A study jointly conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), NextGen, and GridLab estimates that a 50% RPS would cut nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from power plants by 55% compared to 2017 levels, and reduce sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 74%. When power plants emit less NOX and SO2, Nevadans breathe less soot and smog, resulting in fewer asthma attacks, ER visits, and premature deaths. That’s why this mom is stepping out and urging people to vote yes on Question 6.

Nevadans want more clean and affordable renewable electricity and the jobs that come with it

According to the 2017 State of the Rockies poll (see question 30), 80% of respondents in Nevada want to encourage the use of solar energy. Why is this? Nevada has world-class solar power generation potential, and Nevadans want to take advantage of this resource. In addition, costs of solar generation have fallen by 78% since 2009 making solar power one of the cheapest—if not the cheapest—electricity resource for the state.  Finally, the NRDC/NextGen/GridLab study also estimates that raising Nevada’s RPS to 50% will support new green-collar jobs. Nevada already supports over 6,500 solar workers. New investments in local solar to meet the RPS could support up to 11,170 new clean energy jobs in Nevada.

The grid can handle more renewables

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

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

UCS urges Nevada voters to get to the polls early or head to the ballot booth on November 6 and vote YES on Question 6. Check here to find the location and hours for early voting near you (early voting ends on November 2). It’s truly time for Nevada to turn its world-class renewable energy resource into clean electricity that will benefit its residents, economy, and environment.

Photo: BlackRockSolar

Fighting for Facts and Family: What Will We Tell Our Kids?

This post first appeared on Scary Mommy.

They call my name. I walk to the stage and sit at the mic. I feel the eyes of the government decision-makers in front of me and the audience watching below. I start to speak. I’m interrupted by a baby crying. My baby. He’s four weeks old and strapped to my chest. I look down and frantically try to put a pacifier in his mouth. I lose my place in my notes. An awkward pause. The audience hears only my baby crying as I struggle find the words I scribbled down in a notebook earlier. I finally find them, press on to the end of my testimony, and step off the stage.

It was a flustered moment but it’s part of my new normal. I’m a scientist and a mom. My job is to advocate for science, but these days it feels much more personal. On the night that Donald Trump was elected, I crept into my toddler son’s room and watched him peacefully sleep. What would the days and years to come have in store, I wondered, and how would they change the country he’ll grow up in? We would soon find out.

I'm on maternity leave but this felt important enough to show up for. Today I'm at the EPA testifying against the agency's proposed restricting science policy. #sciencenotsilence pic.twitter.com/eqKucpydpI

— Dr Gretchen Goldman (@GretchenTG) July 17, 2018

That day I testified to the US Environmental Protection Agency, I spoke about a policy that, if enacted, could mean more Americans exposed to air pollution, to harmful pesticides, or to toxic chemicals in our products. The proposal is only one of an ever-growing list of actions taken by the Trump Administration that chip away at our country’s science-based policies that protect my family and yours.

I find my mind is constantly consumed with thoughts of how our leaders’ actions today will affect my children tomorrow. I think about it when the Trump Administration allows power plants to emit more toxics into the air. I think about it when industry representatives are put in charge of keeping children’s toys safe. And I think about it when people who don’t accept the basics of reproductive health are placed in the courts and at government agencies. In just the last month, the Trump administration has gutted the leadership of the EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection and announced plans to allow more emissions of mercury, a neurotoxin that damages the brains of infants and children. We certainly aren’t leaving our kids a safer world.

I think too about whose kids will be most affected. The unfortunate truth is that the impacts of these actions won’t be shared evenly. The burden of more toxic pollution, for example, will fall to those living and working nearby, who tend to be low-income communities and people of color. Groups that are already exposed to greater air pollution. Children, the elderly, and those with lung diseases will feel the effects more.

This isn’t just politics. Under both Democrats and Republicans, our nation has a long history of using science to benefit its people. From medicine to engineering to national security, our government’s investment and trust in science have built a remarkable place to live and raise a family, with each generation safer and healthier than the previous. But I worry that strong relationship between science and our decisionmakers is slipping away. To be fair, we have never lived in a world without political interference in science, but the Trump Administration is taking these problems to new heights.

My first son was born days before the start of the United Nations climate talks in Paris, where my husband was set to represent the US there. He missed the first two weeks of our child’s life but we told ourselves it was worth it. The Paris negotiations would be and were a promise and a hope for my son’s generation. The historic Paris Accord set the world on a course to stave off the worst effects of climate change. We were elated. And then we watched in horror as the Trump Administration pulled the US out of the agreement, shattering what many worked so hard to build. That year, we marched with our son in Washington DC at the People’s Climate March under (fittingly) oppressive heat.

My son has now been to five major marches in our nation’s capital. He and his new brother have had to wait for me while I talked with journalists, wrote blog posts, and organized with colleagues. My children won’t remember any of these political decisions. The names of those implementing them will be a footnote in their history books but I’m certain they’ll feel the impacts.

I want to believe that when this Administration is over, we will return to a “normal” America. But these forces didn’t start with Trump and they won’t end with him either. My children will grow up in a different world than I did. A world with more knowledge and more diversity than we’ve ever had and yet also a deeply divided nation, one that ignores evidence to the detriment of its children.

I was still on maternity leave when I testified to the EPA that day. I didn’t have to be there but I needed to be. These threats are too big, the consequences too real, my kids too important. As I sat breastfeeding my infant in the meeting overflow room waiting for my turn to testify, I thought, as I often do, about what I will tell my kids if decades from now they ask me about this time in our nation’s history. I’ll tell them I didn’t just watch it happen. I’ll tell them I did everything in my power to ensure their generation had a chance to thrive. I’ll tell them I was right there fighting, and they were too.

EPA’s Proposal to Restrict Science Will Be Delayed: Score One for Science.

The Environmental Protection Agency released its updated regulatory agenda this week. That document lays out the timeline for regulatory actions the agency is working on over the next two years. One item of note: the administration is delaying by a year its timeline for finalizing the agency’s terrible proposal to restrict the science it would rely on to only those studies where the raw data and all other information can be made public. The science community and those who believe our public health and safety protections should be based on science can take some credit for forcing the agency to re-think and consult before moving ahead.

As my colleague Michael Halpern put it to me, “This is a fundamentally flawed concept wholly conceived and promoted by industry lobbyists to limit the types of science that EPA can use in making decisions. Not even the EPA Office of the Science Advisor had any clue what was going on until the proposal was published. When legislation that tried to accomplish the same goal repeatedly died on the vine in Congress, they tried to ram it through the agency. The proposed rule should be framed in the National Archives as a notable example of how a government agency can be co-opted by extremists and failed tobacco lobbyists.”

Michael had it right. The proposal was originally designed to fight limits on second-hand smoke by essentially excluding from the decision-making process studies that would demonstrate population-level impacts on public health. Those studies rely on the confidential medical records and health data of individuals that cannot, and should not, be made public. By requiring the agency to only use studies whose raw data can be public, the proposal would exclude a huge number of epidemiological studies. In other words, it requires the nation’s premier public health agency to ignore scientific evidence of public health impacts.

The EPA received more than half a million comments on the proposed rule, including mine. And scientists, scientific societies, major scientific journals and thousands of others raised concerns about the proposal.

Is that why the EPA has slowed the process down? It is hard to tell, but it seems to have had a significant impact. And at such a challenging time, with a flood of attacks on science confronting us every day, let’s take some credit for being heard. All of us. We aren’t out of deep water yet, but maybe we are stemming the tide.

Automakers Well Positioned to Meet Fuel Economy Standards

I spent my career as an automotive engineer at GM. During my time in the auto industry I played a hands-on role in putting new technologies on the road, and had a front row seat to view how cars and trucks have become more efficient over time. That’s partly due to the hard work of my colleagues who design and manufacture vehicles and their parts—but also due in part to a strong set of federal standards that have helped drive the technology forward.

The efficiency and emissions standards that went into effect in 2012 have been a real success—they’ve saved drivers tens of billions of dollars on fuel and cut hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Unfortunately, that progress is at risk because the executive branch is trying to roll back these standards.

The Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency have proposed flatlining standards in 2020, meaning that cars and trucks wouldn’t need to get cleaner or more efficient. They say automakers can’t meet the challenge of increasing efficiency. They’re wrong—and I know because I’ve spent my career helping to improve their efficiency.

As a mechanical engineer, I designed automatic transmissions and their components.  When I began nearly forty years ago, these were sometimes noisy and rough-shifting—and not particularly fuel-efficient.  But over time, they’ve been transformed into an elegant enabler of vehicle fuel efficiency. These advanced transmissions go hand in hand with improved vehicle aerodynamics, lightweight materials, and fuel economy advancements in the engine and other vehicle components. By combining all these technologies, automakers have achieved vehicle fuel economy undreamt of when I started.

Many features have contributed to the transmission’s transformation, but perhaps the two most important are more speeds and electrification. Due to high mechanical efficiency, transmissions are more efficient than internal combustion engines when it comes to producing the wide range of wheel torque needed in vehicles.  Having a high number of transmission ranges allows the engine to operate at peak efficiency, a key foundation of fuel economy. When I began, most transmissions were 3 or 4 speeds, a far cry from optimum.  After the 70’s oil embargo, fuel economy became more important, leading to the initial CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) regulations. To help meet them, 6-speed transmissions began arriving and included other features such as a torque converter lockup clutch, overdrive, and electronic controls, all contributing to fuel economy gains.

In the late 90’s as fuel prices continued their steady rise and California’s emissions regulations became more stringent, transmission electrification began with the Toyota Prius electric hybrid.  The primary feature of electric hybrids is the addition of motors inside the transmission which connect to various gearing elements.  The motors effectively act to provide more transmission ranges, allowing the engine to run more efficiently, significantly improving fuel economy.  The motors are powered by a battery pack kept charged by the engine and a home charger if a plug-in variety.  In addition, during vehicle braking, the motors become generators, charging the battery as well as improving brake life.  Analogous to mechanical ranges, having more electric speeds improves efficiency by enabling the motors to operate in their efficient zones.  The Prius has just one electric speed, but other manufacturers had designs with more.

When the Prius was introduced, I was at Allison Transmission, then GM’s lead division for transmission electrification.  Allison designs and produces transmissions for all manner of vehicles larger than passenger cars.  Initially, electrification focused on the transit bus market and in 2003 production began on a 2-speed electric hybrid still produced for buses today.  With its success, the architecture was downsized for SUVs and pickup applications. When combined with engine and other vehicle improvements, it provided significant fuel economy gains.  It went into limited production in 2008 just as GM was forced to sell many of their assets including Allison, but unable to escape bankruptcy.

Soon after, I began work on a 4-speed hybrid being developed for even better fuel economy than the 2-speed version to help meet the 2012 revised CAFE standards.  It was intended to complement a new series of 8 speed conventional transmissions concurrently being designed for rear wheel drive vehicles which started production in 2013. But vehicle fuel economy improvements kept coming, everything from vehicle electrification like the Volt to continued conventional powertrain improvements, including a joint venture with Ford on a series of 9-speed front wheel drive and 10-speed rear wheel drive transmissions.  The standards could now be met without the 4-speed hybrid and it was eliminated, one indication the regulations can be met without an abundance of higher initial cost electrification. Further indications came from a detailed analysis by the regulating agencies who concluded the same thing–manufacturers across the industry can meet the standards even with low electric and hybrid penetration.

Since the revised standards, fuel economy innovations have blossomed with a range of offerings on every type of vehicle.  Electric components have become affordable for many and the continued development of fuel cells adds yet another dimension.  Continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) which mimic electric hybrids without adding motors are available in some vehicles.  Dual clutch transmissions (DCTs) which combine the higher efficiencies of manual transmissions with the drivability of automatics are also gaining acceptance. Continued improvements to conventional drivetrains keep them viable as well.

The fact is automakers can continue to improve, and they’re putting technology to work to meet today’s federal standards. Vehicle sales have set records and the auto industry is employing workers in record numbers, in part due to these higher fuel economy features.  Automakers are well positioned to meet standards and consumers can take full advantage of the lower fuel costs and reduced emissions that result. We’re moving forward—and it would be a mistake to slam on the brakes now.


Greg Kempf recently retired as a mechanical engineer from General Motors after 37 years.  His career was mainly spent designing automatic and electric-hybrid transmissions for which he holds 15 patents.  He’s now an aspiring writer, working on his first novel about climate change. 

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.

Fighting for a Diverse and Equitable STEM Workforce in Colorado

Women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory pose for a photo in mission control in honor of Women in Science Day. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the state of Colorado, there are just over two million women, making up 53% of the enrolled undergraduate population and 50% of the workforce. However, women account for only 33% of those graduating with degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and hold only 26% of STEM jobs in the state. Colorado is not unique – this disparity in STEM education and employment is a nation-wide trend. This disparity begins early, with difference in male and female student interest in STEM showing up as early as middle school, by some estimates, and female students being more likely to self-describe themselves as “bad at math” as early as second grade. These differences in encouragement and interest have broad-reaching, profound, and lifelong implications for women’s economic security, career advancement, and workforce readiness compared to their male counterparts.

It is up to each and every one of us to change this reality. My name is Marian Hamilton, and I hold a PhD in Biological Anthropology and am an Assistant Professor at the University of Northern Colorado (UNCO). As a participant in the Union of Concerned Scientist’s (UCS) Science Network Mentor Program, I had the pleasure of learning the basics of advocacy and community organizing from some of the nation’s most passionate, creative, and qualified scientists over the past 10 months. Armed with these tools, I am forming a Women in STEM group for interested undergraduate students at UNCO with three major objectives: first, to build a community that encourages, supports, and empowers women, particularly from minority or underrepresented groups, to choose majors and careers in STEM fields; second, to facilitate mentor partnerships at the K-12, college, and professional level; and third, to advocate for policies that will improve STEM education across Colorado and the nation, such as universal pre-K. Today, I want to share with you some of the key lessons I’ll be taking with me into this project:

Lesson 1: It starts early

Girls begin losing interest in STEM – or being told that they are “not good at” STEM fields – tragically early. For example, male high school students are more likely to enroll in engineering and computer science classes than their female classmates, and more likely to enroll in AP computer science classes, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project. The gap between white and non-white students in such high school classes is even starker: black and Latinx students were significantly less likely to enroll in advanced science courses than their white classmates.

To change the societal biases that drive such disparities, we must start young, with universal access to pre-K programs that include a STEM component. Ballot measures like Initiative 93 in Colorado, on the ballot in November, would support all-day Kindergarten; withdrawn measures such as Initiative 98 would have provided full day pre-K to Colorado citizens and need to be revisited in upcoming election cycles. This Women in STEM group will support and advocate for such measures to appear on future ballots because fully funding early childhood education helps all students achieve in future STEM classes. Beyond this, such measures also help to close the achievement gap between wealthy and non-wealthy students, such that one’s readiness for the K-12 classroom – and the STEM classes therein – is not dependent on that child’s zip code.

Lesson 2: It takes a village

Changing a system is not something that happens in a vacuum. In fact, research suggests that one of the most effective ways to keep girls in STEM is through mentorship, such as bringing in current college students as mentors to K-12 classrooms. We will implement such a program through the Women in Science group, partnering with public schools across northern Colorado.

As part of the Science Network Mentor Program, we learned about the importance of ‘democratizing’ science, and employing our skill sets as scientists to be tools for the community to employ, rather than trying to engineer solutions from the outside. For us, this means not assuming that this gap in STEM enrollment originates from the same place for all schools, or even all individuals. We need to begin conversations with teachers, with students, and with families about what opportunities they crave, what barriers they face, and what skills and tools would be the most useful. Furthermore, this work is necessarily intersectional; building gender diversity in STEM is only one of the facets by which we must work to diversify our STEM workforce. The Women in STEM group will collaborate closely with other cultural centers across campus, ensuring that we are diverse across all identities.

Lesson 3: We are all in this together

Study after study demonstrates that one of the most effective, efficient, and powerful ways to change perspectives and encourage diversity in STEM is through mentorship. Women in engineering paired with a female mentor, for example, experienced more of a sense of belonging, motivation, and confidence in their work, as well as greater aspiration to remain in the field. Through this Women in STEM club at UNCO, we will work to tie mentors and mentees together through all levels of education, putting college students with high school and middle school students and bringing in professionals in STEM fields to mentor the college students in turn.

Beyond this, we must work to change the entire ecosystem within which women in STEM fields work. For example, we will strongly advocate for family-friendly policies at the state and local level, including paid family leave. At the local level, we will lobby for the maintenance and expansion of university policies such as sabbaticals which facilitate continued engagement with STEM research, particularly for women and minority faculty who historically take on disproportionate service and teaching loads during typical semesters. Through this three-pronged approach of building community, facilitating mentorship, and advocating for education- and research-friendly policies at all levels of government, it is my truest hope and expectation that we can make the STEM workforce in Colorado a reflection of the powerful diversity of people that call this state home.


Marian Hamilton holds a PhD in Evolutionary Anthropology from the University of New Mexico. She is a former middle school science teacher and currently an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Northern Colorado, where she researches human evolution and paleoenvironments. Dr. Hamilton is wild about women in STEM, educational equity, wildlife and habitat conservation, and her dog, Gedi. 

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.

November Elections and the Art of Voter Suppression

Source: Michael Latner/UCS

Voting rights violations are emerging across several states with less than a month before the conclusion of midterm elections in the United States. As a result of discriminatory election laws and procedures, representation and policy making power could be distorted in favor of powerful, entrenched interests, against the will of a majority of the electorate. The threat of such democratic dysfunction illustrates the need for meaningful electoral reform and the protection of voting rights for all citizens.

Early voting is underway in seventeen states, including at least two states where voting rights have already become a flashpoint in pivotal elections.

In North Dakota, Senator Heidi Heitkamp and challenger Kevin Cramer is in a race that Cook Political Report rates as a “toss up.” The election could determine control over the US Senate—but the Supreme Court of the United States just refused to block the state’s discriminatory practice of requiring voter identification from a residential street address.

Because the US Postal Service does not provide delivery to rural reservations in North Dakota, most Native American tribal members use P.O. Boxes, which is listed on their identification. The state’s voter identification law specifically requires a street address for valid identification. Earlier this year a district found that nearly 5,000 members of North Dakota tribes lack valid identification, and many of them also lack supplementary documentation that allow them to cast a provisional ballot. Senator Heitkamp won her last election by fewer than 3,000 votes.

In an even more egregious smear on democracy, Georgia gubernatorial candidate and current Secretary of State Brian Kemp has frozen over 50,000 registration applications, most of them from African-American voters, according to an AP analysis. Kemp claims “voter roll maintenance” is necessary to preserve the integrity of elections and ensure that only legal citizens are voting. However, previous scientific and legal challenges have shown that voter impersonation is nearly non-existent.

Moreover, Kemp’s “exact match” tactic used to remove unvalidated voters from the state registration file was already prohibited as a violation of voting equality in a previous lawsuit, but the law was reinstated by the state legislature to allow for a “curing” of unmatched voters records within, wait for it, 26 months. Kemp has chosen to keep using this method despite scientific studies that show there are far superior methods for record matching.

Even though he knows about the disproportionate, discriminatory impact these laws have on African-American voters in Georgia, Kemp maintains that he is a defender of electoral integrity. His opponent Stacy Abrams, who would become the first African-American woman elected governor in the United States if she won, has a different title for Kemp: a “remarkable architect of voter suppression.”

Earlier this year, a Brennan Center analysis estimated that the purging of registered voters from state files has increased by approximately four million people since 2008. Much of the increase is attributed to states that were previously covered under the 1965 Voting Rights Act preclearance provisions.

The Mississippi governor’s race in 2019 may similarly turn on Jim Crow era electoral restrictions. Popular Attorney General Jim Hood has an opportunity to be the state’s first Democratic governor in nearly two decades. However, the state constitution requires that the governor win not just a majority of the popular vote, but a majority of state House seats, which are heavily gerrymandered in favor of the incumbent party.

These and other restrictive election laws are distorting the representation of voters across the country, weakening the ability of already under-represented groups to protect their own health and safety. This is just one of many reasons why it is so important that citizens exercise their voting rights and mobilize communities to elect candidates that will advance effective electoral reforms before 2020.

Be sure to check your voter registration status at https://866ourvote.org/

If you or anyone you know believe that their voting rights are being denied, you can call the following numbers for legal assistance:

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Election Protection Hotline: 866-OUR-VOTE

American Civil Liberties Union Voter Protection Hotline: 877-523-2792

Bringing Energy Storage to Energy Markets

Excitement over storing electricity, and expectations for new market rules in the US, promise great changes in energy. Instead of hype and speculation, this blog offers a preview of those market changes. For those who are waiting for FERC Order 841 to sort things out, ISO-New England has published something you might want to see.

Anticipation has been building since mid-February, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Order 841 required the organized electricity markets in the US (i.e. RTOs and ISOs) to make changes to facilitate the use of energy storage. At the time, New England hinted that work was already begun to sort out the changes that would make the market software and rules consistent for charging and discharging large-scale batteries. Now, two months ahead of the deadline set of the market operators to file, ISO-NE has revealed what this is all about.

Energy storage is only kind of new

Dedication of a new battery plant to increase use of renewable energy. Credit: M. Jacobs

Energy storage is new—and it’s not new. Colonial-era scientist and political leader Benjamin Franklin ran experiments with the storage devices of his time, and was the first person to use the terms charging and discharging while describing the transfer of electricity. Utilities built pumped water storage facilities, what we call pumped hydro plants, in the 1890’s in Europe and the 1930’s in the United States.

There was a boom in 1970’s for these kind of plants to help manage the inflexible additions of nuclear power. This experience provides a starting place for grid operators making changes for new storage technology.

New England has significant pumped hydro, as well as activity on new storage technology. New proposals made in last couple of years to build battery storage projects in New England now total over 800 MWs, and there are approximately 170 MWs of battery storage proposals co-located with wind and solar projects.

Beginning in 2016, ISO-New England began working on the changes that would enable batteries and other similar technologies to participate more fully in the wholesale markets. Many people anticipate these changes will unleash a new technology because of the constraints contained in the present market software and rules. There certainly is evidence that battery storage can replace conventional power plants, and that the obstacles addressed by these regulatory and software changes will bring us closer to the routine adoption of storage plants instead of new fuel-burning capacity.

Details, details

Part of this change reveals how grid operators have multiple layers for understanding an energy source. As ISO-NE makes clear, storage plants aren’t single-purpose; they have a range of functions that need to be understood and modeled for. For example, pumped storage hydro may register and be modeled as a Generator Asset and, if it also has the capability to consume, a Load Asset. But not just any load asset: a “Dispatchable Asset Related Demand,” or DARD.

In fact, the market rules that get written out and filed at FERC will have new definitions, including: Electric Storage Facility, Binary Storage Facility, Continuous Storage Facility, Continuous Storage Generator Asset, Continuous Storage DARD, and Continuous Storage ATRR.  The market rules in New England already have 35 pages of definitions.

The existing  market software makes decisions for pumped hydro more slowly than desirable for batteries. The large pumped hydro equipment can stop and reverse direction in minutes, so the decision to switch from a load to a generator is not made in the same run of the software: they are made in sequential runs. Batteries with their power electronics can change direction much more quickly (i.e. milliseconds, which offers additional benefits if used for contingencies). (Let’s not even get into how the transmission system folks model the physical battery.)

Headed in the right direction

The goal with the rule changes for ISO-NE and its governing body NEPOOL was to provide a means for batteries (and other storage technologies capable of continuously and rapidly transitioning between charging and discharging) to participate simultaneously in the energy, reserves, and regulation markets. The design goals included the following:

  • Storage facilities should be dispatched to generate and consume based on economics;
  • Storage facilities should not be dispatched to generate when empty, nor dispatched to charge when full;
  • Storage facilities should be able to set real-time Locational Marginal Prices when generating or consuming;
  • Storage facilities should be able to provide regulation while maintaining their state of charge, allowing simultaneous regulation market and energy market participation;
  • Storage facilities should be designated for reserves (even when regulating);
  • Storage facilities should be able to save energy for a future interval;
  • Storage facilities should receive compensation if dispatched out-of-place from its economics; and
  • The ISO control room should be able to direct storage facilities to increase storage, or save available energy, for a future hour.

I could give you more detail on how all this is done, but remember you are reading a blog. If you are excited to get a look at how Order 841 reforms are going to work, take a look at the ISO-NE filing. You might be able to see if there are truly gold bars buried in these changes. Certainly, you should see the start of the future grid, and how storage is going to be a lot more important than it has been.

Why Andrew Wheeler’s Social Media Actions Matter

Photo: Alamy

Andrew Wheeler took over as acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency when former administrator Scott Pruitt resigned amid a flurry of ethics scandals. It is no less of a scandal that Mr. Wheeler has been engaging with racist content and conspiracy theorists on social media. Whether he remembers it, or claims it was a mistake or not, Mr. Wheeler’s actions disrespect people of color and demonstrate an affinity for theories that have no scientific backing.

Like all Americans, Mr. Wheeler is free to express his personal political views. But when a public official espouses views or, through his actions, legitimizes fringe voices who propagate dangerous race or conspiracy rhetoric—he has crossed a line that should give Americans across the political spectrum pause.

Mr. Wheeler’s position is to protect public health and safety from the impacts of pollution. And those people most impacted by that pollution, most in need of a high-level effective and committed voice in government, are the poor and communities of color. There is overwhelming evidence that these communities suffer more from pollution and have long been denied public health and safety protections.

The Environmental Protection Agency—and indeed all our government agencies—are mandated to use empirical evidence to advance the public interest.  Yes, they do so imperfectly. But, conspiracy theorists and racial baiting are the antithesis of any rational, fact-based approach.

As we saw with Pruitt, ideologies, values, and biases of public officials shine through in their governance. When biases flow unchecked from federal agency leaders, it reflects in their agency’s policies and actions and has lasting consequences. Racial bias is no exception.

This cannot be the norm. This administration has a long way to go to show the country that they care about all of us, not just their friends in industry, or in wealthy white communities. Mr. Wheeler has made that road even longer. Yes, he should apologize. But more importantly, he must show us all by his actions that he knows his job is to enact policies that actively protect those most impacted by pollution across the nation. Show us now.

Scientists Cut Out of EPA’s Particulate Pollution Standard Setting

Photo: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons

In the latest of several moves targeting EPA air pollution protections, the Trump administration appears to have cut scientists out of a process for reviewing particulate pollution standards.  The move breaks with a longstanding process for how the agency gets independent scientific review into its decisionmaking on air pollution protections. Without such expertise involved, EPA won’t have the best available scientific input to keep people safe from air pollution, as the law requires.

What the heck is PM2.5?

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is responsible for thousands of deaths in the US annually. The Trump administration is undermining the science-based air pollution controls that have reduced particulate pollution for decades.

Particulate pollution or particulate matter (PM) is a kind of air pollution comprised of tiny solid particles (as opposed to gaseous air pollutants like ozone and carbon monoxide).  These particles—especially ones smaller than 2.5 micrometers—are especially harmful because they can reach deep into human lungs, causing pulmonary and respiratory issues.  In fact, particulate pollution kills more people in the US than any other form of air pollution, with tens of thousands of premature deaths per year attributed.

The good news is that PM pollution has gone down over the past few decades.  Most of the country now meets the current annual PM standard. Cities and industrial sources have invested significantly in technology and other strategies to keep their particulate emissions down.

NAAQS: A Science-based Process

Our nation has had success in reducing PM because of our strong science-based standards. Under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), every five years the EPA must revisit the science of particulate matter pollution and health. After a thorough review of all science available and extensive input from PM experts, the EPA administrator will set a standard based on what level of pollution protects public health with an adequate margin of safety.  This process has worked remarkably well, at least until now.

The EPA relies on the air pollution and health expertise of its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and pollutant review panels. CASAC (as I’ve written about before) provides the EPA with a recommendation for the standard based on its understanding of the science.  Both the EPA and CASAC rely on help from pollutant review panels to ensure they are using and interpreting correctly the best available science.

These review panels are comprised of experts on the pollutant under review specifically, allowing the agency to benefit from subject matter expertise. For example, CASAC will include folks with air pollution modeling or monitoring expertise and epidemiologists, but the PM review panel might include experts on the toxicology of particulates or an expert on particulate measurement error. This is especially important because CASAC is small (seven people). No matter how expert, it would not be possible for this group to have working expertise of all elements of the relationship between a pollutant and health AND have that knowledge for all six criteria pollutants under CASAC’s purview. As a result, EPA decisions on pollution standards can benefit from scientific expertise on all facets of the science on particulates and health.

Think of it this way: You could create a team of seven doctors from different disciplines to oversee your general health but if you developed a brain tumor you’d probably want the advice of a specialist who had experience in brain surgery.  Likewise, EPA needs the help of specialists to fully assess the state of the science on individual pollutants.

Nixing the PM (and Ozone) Review Panels?

Yesterday, the EPA issued a statement noting that CASAC would be leading the review of the science for PM and ozone standard updates, with no mention of the PM and ozone review panels that have always been convened to inform the scientific assessments.  This is a break with how the agency has always done things.  By nixing these panels, the EPA would be cutting off the vital expertise it needs to get the science right on the health effects of air pollutants.

The administration might claim to be making this move in the name of streamlining but there are much bigger consequences to eliminating science from the process.  Sure, it will be a faster process to update the PM standard without a review panel, but we’ll also have a less science-based process. Review panels effectively serve as a public peer-review of the EPA’s integrated science assessments, which detail the state of the science on pollutants.  Without a PM review panel, there is far less expert input informing the PM standard.

But perhaps this is precisely the point. The administration has made clear that they are interested in fast-tracking the PM and ozone reviews in order to set new standards before the end of the administration.  This is an aggressive timeline, considering that the EPA is only required to update the standards every five years, and usually needs more time to conduct the careful, science-based process of characterizing the state of the science on a pollutant’s health effects and working with scientific experts to issue a standard that is protective of public health. If you can eliminate this careful scientific assessment, you can speed up the process, but at the expense of public health.

An EPA hostile to clean air

The announcement is especially concerning in light of the other changes that the Trump administration is making to air pollution policy and science advice at the EPA.

  • Ongoingly the administration has been gutting science advisory committees at the EPA, replacing independent scientists with conflicted and unqualified individuals. Yesterday’s announcement continued this pattern, by removing four independent experts on CASAC and replacing mostly with individuals that work for state agencies. Only one academic scientist remains on CASAC, a committee historically dominated by academic scientists with extensive publication records on air pollution and health research.  The administration is treating advisory committee positions like political appointments. In reality, the science advisory committee are intended to capture the breadth of scientific understanding—not to have specific policy views, and not to get stakeholder input.
  • Last April a Presidential Memorandum outlined other changes to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards process, including restricting the kinds of science that EPA can use to inform the standards for PM and other pollutants. Implementation of these changes will limit the science EPA looks at in determining the relationship between air pollutants and health, i.e. the science that determines the health-based air pollution standards.
  • PM has also been the primary target of the EPA’s proposed rule to restrict the science that EPA can use in decisionmaking broadly. Chronic exposure to particulates is linked to premature deaths. As a result, reducing PM pollution has a huge bang per buck, saving many lives with every improvement in air quality. This fact is inconvenient for industries that want to continue to emit particulate pollution, making PM science a long-time target by ideological and financial interests that don’t want the tighter PM standards that save lives. The proposed rule to restrict EPA’s use of science is the latest assault to undermine the use of the science on PM’s health impacts.
Less Science, More Soot

These changes to the air pollution standard setting process will make it easier for the administration to weaken air quality standards for particulate matter and ozone.  With less science and fewer scientists to inform decisionmakers, challenge assumptions, and verify scientific assertions, we are on a path toward political decisions cloaked in science.  The administration might be able speed up the process by removing the crucial steps where the science is assessed, and experts weigh in, but this will come at the expense of our health.  Can the EPA protect public health if it doesn’t take the time to determine what level of pollution is unsafe?

If the PM standard is weakened, public health will undoubtedly suffer. Pollution sources would be able ease controls on their pollution and potentially build new polluting facilities in more places. And the health burdens won’t fall equally. Low-income communities and communities of color that are already disproportionately burdened by air pollution from industrial and traffic sources are likely to be harder hit.  Vulnerable populations like the children, the elderly and those with lung diseases are more likely to face health effects of increased soot in the air.  In near literal terms, by removing the science, we remove the air from our lungs.

Photo: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons

Sidelining Science Hurts Children

Photo: CMRF Crumlin/Flickr

That week, her mother chose groceries over her daughter’s asthma inhaler. Food for your children over medicine for your children; for a parent, there is not a more tortuous game of Russian Roulette than this. That week, this mother lost that gamble. Her daughter had an asthma attack. There was no inhaler. She died gasping for air in their living room.

These are the words of Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. of the Hip Hop Caucus as he describes the disproportionate impact climate change has on black communities, particularly children. In this case it was a 14-year-old girl who lived in Southeast Washington, DC. The reverend explains here that 1 in 6 African-American children in the US have asthma, and 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a power plant.

The Reverend Yearwood’s story is one that I cannot shake ever since I heard it in-person when he spoke to the Union of Concerned Scientists nearly one year ago. It is a powerful story that illustrates that when science-based issues are poorly addressed, the results can be deadly, particularly for children and our country’s most disenfranchised people.

Yet, the Trump administration has made it easier for these power plants to release toxic air pollutants known to cause asthma and other disease. This administration  is literally deleting scientific evidence that climate change disproportionately affects the health of children. And then last week, they abruptly placed the director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, which has the authority to weigh in on decisions around power plant emissions and many other public health threats, on leave. These decisions paint a worrisome picture for the future of the safety of children as UCS Executive Director Kathleen Rest detailed here.

When science is sidelined, there is often an underlying story of the people who are hurt by these decisions and it is often children.

Impairing children’s brain development

When the EPA reversed course and decided not to ban the harmful insecticide chlorpyrifos, many families worried about their children and their health. Fidelia Morales notices chemicals float onto her children’s jungle gym in their very own backyard in California. Her children have had learning issues, and have suffered from bronchitis, asthma and other chronic illnesses. Morales fears the pesticides are the reason for these illnesses. There is a good chance that she is correct given that the swath of research showing chlorpyrifos affects the brain development, IQ, and health of developing and young children.

Children are losing parents

In 2017, President Trump rolled back President Obama’s Executive Order 13690 that would have increased protection from future extreme floods. Such floods are expected to increase in frequency and intensity with climate change, science that Obama’s Executive Order embraced, but that President Trump refuses to acknowledge. Ten days after Trump’s rescission of this executive order, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas with historic rainfall causing unprecedented flooding. The floods left an estimated 30,000 people in need of shelter.

One mother made the ultimate sacrifice saving her child during the floods of Harvey. A woman and her 3-year old child were swept out of a parking lot by the flood waters of hurricane Harvey. Two police officers spotted a child clinging to their mother in a canal. When the police arrived at the scene, the mother was unresponsive and pronounced dead shortly after arriving at an ambulance, whereas the child suffered from hypothermia but was cared for and released to family members in stable condition. What if we recognized the threats of climate change and prepared for them? Maybe this child could grow up knowing their mother.

Children lose when vaccines are lost

President Trump has on many occasions misrepresented overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe. In 2015, when asked about getting the flu vaccine during an interview, Trump said, “I’ve never had one… Thus far I’ve never had the flu. I don’t like the idea of injecting bad stuff into [my] body, which is basically what they do.” Such statements have bolstered the movement of people who refuse to vaccinate their kids, causing real harm to their and other children.

Flu season is upon us. Last winter, the flu took 172 children with it – the largest death toll in nearly a decade. One of those children was 6-year old Eden Murray, whose family thought that maybe she was just tired from school when she stayed in bed all day. Most families don’t think they are going to lose their child to the flu – this also was the case for the family of 6-year old Emily Muth. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that most children that die from the flu (around 85%) are not vaccinated.

President Trump is wrong to lambast vaccines for children. Make sure your children and you are safe this season, go get your flu vaccine.

How many more children must suffer?

The Trump administration’s chlorpyrifos decision was reversed by courts this year – one strategy that has worked in favor of public health. These successes are great, but there are still major issues to be addressed. Extreme flooding is continuing this year. The floodwaters of hurricane Florence have been attributed to 35 deaths thus far. The Trump administration also is attacking air pollution standards on many fronts, even though there are a number of studies that provide evidence that increased air pollution is linked to decline in human health and life expectancy.

How many more teenage girls have to gasp for air? How many more children must grow up without knowing a parent? How many more mothers must worry about their children playing outside?

I never thought that I would be writing a blog to advocate for children’s health – it is seriously mind-boggling for me. And while this all may seem alarmist, these stories are real. Let’s acknowledge these stories, the lives, and faces of those affected by the sidelining of science – we must learn from them to protect children now and in the future.

Photo: CMRF Crumlin/Flickr