UCS Blog - Clean Energy (text only)

A New Tailwind for Clean Energy, 15 Miles Offshore

Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried/UCS

Massachusetts has a deep and bipartisan commitment to clean energy. State leaders and the public at large recognize that clean energy is not only an environmental imperative but a key economic strategy for a small state that relies mostly on brainpower and technology for prosperity. Republican and Democratic governors and the Massachusetts legislature have implemented a wide array of policies to make Massachusetts a national leader in this transition to clean energy.

But Massachusetts has had one disadvantage when compared to many other states—it does not have the wide open, windy land mass to build large wind farms, or available land for massive solar arrays, or the mountainous areas for large hydroelectric installations.

But just a few miles offshore is a resource that has been referred to as the “Saudi Arabia of wind energy”—the Atlantic Ocean. And after some false starts, Massachusetts and its neighbor Rhode Island have just taken a big step closer to taking advantage of plentiful and steady Atlantic ocean winds, jump-starting a whole new industry in the United States: offshore wind.

What Massachusetts and Rhode Island just did

Today, Massachusetts approved a bid by a company known as Vineyard Wind to build an 800 megawatt wind farm in a wide-open ocean tract more than 15 miles offshore. This wind farm is phase 1 of a larger plan to build a total of 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind, enough to power about one-third of the homes in Massachusetts and meet about ten percent of MA energy demand, according to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. This bidding process was mandated by a law backed by UCS and signed by Governor Baker in 2016. The law requires Massachusetts utility companies to conduct a competitive bidding process and thereafter enter into long terms with offshore wind companies to purchase the power they generate. The long-term contracts provide a guaranteed revenue source for these projects, which makes it possible for them to obtain financing for the sizable upfront capital costs which could exceed $1 billion.

In addition to this, Rhode Island announced today its intent to enter into a long-term contract with another bidder, Deepwater Wind, for an additional 400 megawatts of wind energy to be built in an adjacent area.

The benefits of these projects are enormous. At full 1600 MW build out, offshore wind project will reduce Massachusetts greenhouse gas emissions by 2.4 million tons per year, about a fifteen percent reduction of emissions from electricity consumption, according to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. This large-scale generation will also help Massachusetts replace with clean renewable energy its aging power plants, such as the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, that is scheduled to close in 2019,. These projects will also help ensure that Massachusetts does not continue along its current path of over-relying on natural gas, which now accounts for about two-thirds of MA electricity consumption.

This offshore wind industry will also be a colossal job creator. The Clean Energy Center estimates that 1600 MW of offshore wind will generate approximately 7000-10,000 construction jobs over next 10 years, and once built, it will generate hundreds more thereafter in operations and maintenance. It is estimated that the “ripple effects” of this additional employment will add between 1.4-2.1 billion dollars to the economy as the workers employed by these projects spend money on other goods and services.

Note that these are direct jobs from construction and operation. These projections do not include the potential that turbine manufacturers will locate in Massachusetts or Rhode Island to manufacture components of the offshore wind arrays. Yet the cost of shipping giant wind turbines manufactured elsewhere is so high that it seems inevitable that some components will be manufactured close by. And there are attractive sites for this enterprise, such as the Brayton Point power plant site, which once housed a coal-burning plant but is now a vacant, industrially zoned property on Buzzard’s Bay with a direct water connection to the offshore wind areas. If just 25% of the components are manufactured locally, this could add thousands more good paying jobs.  

What about cost?

Massachusetts has not released the estimated cost of the accepted bid, so the price will not be known until a contract is negotiated and submitted to the Department of Public Utilities for approval. However, the contract price is likely to reflect the remarkable worldwide decline of offshore wind costs due to technology innovation and economies of scale.

To put costs in perspective, one of the first US offshore wind contracts was for the Cape Wind project in Nantucket sound (more on that below). The Cape Wind developer planned on using 3.6 megawatt turbines, and the price of the power would start at 17 cents per kilowatt hour and escalate by 3% every year for 15 years. This price was well above the market price for power generally, and well above the price for onshore wind.

But in recent years, offshore wind projects in Europe have utilized much bigger and more efficient turbines, as large as 8.8 MW, and companies such as General Electric are developing turbines as large as 12 MW. As a result, new projects in Europe are entering into contracts for as low as 7-8 cents per kilowatt hour.

While we are not likely to see prices that low, as we lack the supply chain and trained workforce that Europe has developed over the last twenty years, it is highly likely that this project will take advantage of these much larger turbines and achieve significant economies of scale and price reduction as a result.

What’s next?

The next step is for Vineyard Wind to negotiate long term power purchase contracts with Massachusetts utilities, and for Deepwater Wind to negotiate with Rhode Island, processes that will likely take a number of months. In Massachusetts, the contract will then be submitted to the Department of Public Utilities, which will hold a public process and ultimately determine whether the contract is cost-effective and meets other statutory criteria. While this is occurring, the project developers will need to secure the federal, state and local permits needed to construct the wind turbines, transmission lines, and other equipment. It is hoped that this process can go forward expeditiously, so that the projects can take the necessary steps to qualify for at least a portion of federal tax incentives that will phase out by 2020.

But here is the best part: on top of the 1,200 MW approved by Massachusetts and Rhode Island, other states in the region have similar plans. New York is planning on 800 MW of project solicitations over this year and next, and is aiming for 2400 megawatts in total, and New Jersey has just announced plans for 3500 MW.

As one writer has observed, “commitments from northeastern states total 7,500 MW at a minimum, with more expected to follow. That’s enough critical mass to attract numerous bidders and create the foundation for an industry here in the U.S.”

A personal note

While I am always excited when states advance clean energy, this step forward is particularly sweet for me personally. Before I took the helm at UCS, I worked in the administration of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and under his leadership we laid the groundwork for offshore wind by building a wind test blade center in Boston and a marine terminal in New Bedford, passing legislation to authorize long term contracts for offshore wind energy, and working with Rhode Island and the federal government to designate appropriate offshore sites.

But Massachusetts’ first project—the Cape Wind project in Nantucket sound—crashed and burned, primarily because of the unrelenting and well-financed litigation brought by well-to-do homeowners on Nantucket sound who did not want to see wind turbines five miles offshore. When the Cape Wind project died, I feared it might be a very long time before another viable project would come along.

So, I am particularly heartened that Massachusetts and Rhode Island have kept at, and that technology has improved to allow for much larger, more cost-effective projects to be built farther offshore. Massachusetts and Rhode Island, all of the Northeast, and the entire country will benefit in ways we can barely foresee from this big, bold, and exciting new clean energy industry.

Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried/UCS

Wait—Offshore Wind Offers HOW Much Power? Use This Calculator…

Credit: Derrick Z. Jackson

Almost every week is bringing news about another step forward somewhere in the country for America’s newest renewable energy, offshore wind. Increasingly, the news is about advances for specific projects off our shores.

But when we hear about an offshore wind project of a certain size—X hundred megawatts—what does that mean? What does it mean in terms of our electricity needs, for example, or our need to cut pollution, or our potential to do more?

A simple new calculator from the Union of Concerned Scientists can help you size up each offshore wind project.

What Would an Offshore Wind Project Mean?

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The inputs

Here’s the deal: When you hear about a proposed offshore wind farm, the project size is likely to be expressed in terms of megawatts—its nominal capacity/power output, based on the rating of each wind turbine at a given wind speed.

Credit: J. Rogers

How many turbines that proposed project will involve depends on the capacity of each individual turbine (also expressed in megawatts). That math isn’t complicated.

How much electricity an offshore wind project’ll generate is a little more complicated, depending mostly on where the turbines will be—what kind of wind resource the turbines will have access to. That’ll vary by state, and even within a given coastal area.

But with a few simplifying assumptions and estimates, you can get ballpark figures for what the project will mean in terms of the energy generation/production, the benefits it will provide such as avoided carbon emissions, and the area it will occupy.

The outputs

What the new tool offers when you put in those few inputs (state, project size, turbine size) can tell you something about what we’re likely to get out of the project you’re assessing.

Energy equivalent – The electricity expected from a project can be thought of in terms of the number of household equivalents it could power. Not actual households, since it takes a mix to make sure we’ve got power ‘round the clock, but how the energy produced matches up with the amount of electricity a typical household uses.

Average household electricity use varies by region and state, based on things like the climate and state energy efficiency efforts. So a given amount will go further in some places than in others.

Pollution reduction – And then there are the air quality benefits of projects. Megawatt-hours of offshore wind generation will displace megawatt-hours of generation from land-based power plants in the region. What an offshore wind electron displaces depends on what’s “on the margin” at a given moment—usually what next-cheapest power source doesn’t get turned on because offshore wind is doing its thing instead.

If those displaced sources are coal, oil, or natural gas power plants, which will often be the case, the offshore wind power will help us avoid the pollution that those plants would otherwise emit. Avoiding that pollution brings important health and environmental benefits.

This simple calculator focuses on carbon dioxide. And it puts the result in terms of number of car equivalents—what that CO2 pollution reduction would be like in terms of the carbon pollution that comes from a typical car in a typical year, given the US auto fleet and American driving habits.

Leases and lessees – some done, more to come (Source: BOEM 2018)

Lease area potential – In general, the areas most ready for offshore wind projects are in the existing federal leases on the US Outer Continental Shelf off our nation’s East Coast. The federal government, using robust public stakeholder processes (as in Massachusetts), identified various offshore wind lease areas. It auctioned off the leases, and a range of companies won the rights to put up turbines in those areas. There are more than a dozen such leases so far, from North Carolina up to Massachusetts. (And more are on the way.)

Given that, you can think about a project in terms of how much of that state’s existing lease area it’s likely to take up, and how much room it leaves for more offshore wind power.

Using the calculator

To ground all this in (projected) reality, here’s an example for you to try: Let’s imagine a 400 megawatt wind farm off Massachusetts (and at this point in the process that doesn’t require much imagination), and imagine 8-megawatt wind turbines. So:

  1. Click on Massachusetts on the calculator’s map.
  2. Use the sliders or right-left arrows to get to 400 megawatts for the project size.
  3. Pick 8 megawatts for the turbine size.
  4. Check out the results.
    • For number of turbines, you get 50.
    • For number of households whose total energy consumption would match what the project would produce, you’d get something like 230,000.
    • The avoided CO2 pollution would be equivalent to taking some 90,000 cars off the road.
  5. Check out how much—or how little—of the existing Massachusetts lease areas a project like that would use up: 6%.

At the bottom of this post are details about the calculator and calculations.

The scale of things to come: Offshore wind blades, and a sample of the people behind it all (Credit: Derrick Z. Jackson).

More results

Other results from new offshore wind are equally important, but harder to quantify simply at this early stage in the technology’s history in this country. Those include employment and ecosystem effects.

Jobs – A big reason for offshore wind power’s popularity right now is its tremendous potential for job creation, in manufacturing, project development, installation, maintenance, finance. Think welders, pipefitters, electricians, boat crews, and a whole lot more.

And the vision is not just jobs, but careers, as single projects pave the way for multiple tranches that then lead to a whole US offshore wind industry, one big enough to sustain not just projects but all the soup-to-nuts pieces that go along with that when the scale is big enough.

In Europe, the offshore wind industry is 75,000 workers strong. Estimates for US jobs draw on assumptions about how big the American market will get, and how quickly, and what that means for how many of the jobs end up here, instead of overseas. A 2015 US Department of Energy study found that going to 22,000 megawatts by 2030 could mean 80,000 American jobs by that year. A study for various Northeastern states looked at 4,000 to 8,000 megawatts of offshore wind development in the region, and projected full-time equivalent jobs in a given year of up to 36,000.

Proceed, but with caution (Credit: Derrick Z. Jackson).

Ecosystems – The results of an offshore wind farm in terms of our offshore ecosystems depend on the care taken in planning, siting, installing, operating—and, eventually, decommissioning—of the project. Offshore wind’s potential to cut carbon pollution can help reduce the impacts of climate change—including important ones for our oceans and marine ecosystems. But additional activity and infrastructure in the marine environment can have direct impacts that need careful consideration.

One concern is marine mammals, and particularly, on the Eastern seaboard, the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Project developers have to be careful to not add to the right whale’s troubles.

For fish, once a project is in place, the bases for the offshore wind towers can be problematic for some species, and a boon for others, as they can act as artificial reefs and change the environment.

Where jobs and fish come together is in the fishing fleet. Results, positive and negative, will depend on things like any limitations on boat travel in the project area during construction, and any boost to fish stocks from the project once it’s installed. While commercial fishers may view projects differently from how recreational ones do, at least some fishers are finding the US’s first offshore wind farm, off Rhode Island’s Block Island, to be a plus (and there’s this upbeat from the University of Delaware and the American Wind Energy Association).

Results in terms of jobs, careers, and our marine environment will be important to keep an eye on.

Technology and people (Credit: Derrick Z. Jackson)

Calculate on

In the meantime, there’s plenty we can know about with greater certainty. With the help of this simple calculator, the next time you hear of an X megawatt offshore wind project destined for a shore near you, you can let it be more than a single number. Look at what it means in terms of energy to be generated, pollution to be avoided, and lease area implicated.

To be clear: an offshore wind calculator is no substitute for the detailed wind monitoring, engineering calcs, environmental assessments, and much more that go into project proposals, investment decisions, and approval processes.

But this one just might help give some more depth for contemplating project announcements as the offshore wind industry takes off in the country. Because, beautiful as offshore wind farms seem to many of us, they’re a lot more than just a bunch of graceful kinetic sculptures.

The technical stuff

  • States – The calculator includes the eight (as of this writing) states for which the US government’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has auctioned off leases. South Carolina is working toward joining that club. Projects can also happen in state waters, as with the Icebreaker project planned for Lake Erie waters off Cleveland. The West Coast also has terrific resources, and even the Gulf Coast may get into the act at some point.

    The power on the seas (Source: NREL/Musial et al. 2016)

  • Capacity factors – To calculate electricity production, the calculator uses midpoint capacity factors from the different zones in NREL’s latest offshore wind resource potential assessment (Musial et al. 2016): Delaware (42.5%), Maryland (42.5%), Massachusetts (47.5%), New Jersey (45%), New York (45%), North Carolina (42.5%), Rhode Island (47.5%), and Virginia (42.5%).
  • Household equivalents – The calculator uses the latest figures from the US Energy Information Administration on average monthly electricity use by residential customers in the chosen state. Figures are rounded to the nearest thousand.
  • Avoided CO2 emissions – The calculator uses the average CO2 emission rate for each region, as calculated by the US EPA, and the car pollution figure from EPA’s own equivalencies calculator. Figures are rounded to the nearest thousand.
  • Project areas – Project footprint calculations are based on NREL’s assumption of 3 megawatts per square kilometer (Musial et al. 2016).
  • Lease areas – The lease area calculations for each state are based on the figures from BOEM here. For the two leases in the shared Rhode Island/Massachusetts offshore wind area, the calculator credits those amounts fully to each state; that is, it considers them to be Rhode Island’s when considering a Rhode Island project, and Massachusetts’s when looking at Massachusetts.
Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson

California Could Pass Innovative Legislation on Key Climate, Energy and Transportation Issues

California State Capitol

California has a well-earned reputation as a world leader in promoting clean energy and other solutions to climate change. However, as anyone paying attention to the climate crisis knows, we have far more work to do. Fortunately, the California Legislature is considering many bills in 2018 that would further address climate change. With three and half months until the Legislature adjourns for the year, UCS is working with lawmakers to make progress on a suite of policy prescriptions to promote renewable energy, clean transportation, and better preparedness for climate change impacts.

Create a clean electricity system

California has made great progress adding renewable energy to the grid. To meet our climate goals, we must continue our clean energy momentum and work to reduce reliance on natural gas power plants. This year UCS is working to:

  • Establish a goal of 100 percent clean energy. Achieving 100 percent clean energy is an ambitious goal we must reach for to create a cleaner and healthier future, and to continue California’s tremendous momentum advancing clean energy.
  • Establish standards for California electricity providers to join a western regional electricity grid. UCS is working to help pass AB 813 (Holden) to prepare the ground for a regional grid that would make it easier and more cost-effective to integrate renewable energy by sharing electricity generation across a larger area.
  • Reduce reliance on natural gas power plants. California needs to study the fleet of natural gas power plants to create a strategy to reduce the use of natural gas electricity generation in an orderly, cost-effective, and equitable manner. In addition, UCS is supporting work to limit the use of the dirtiest natural gas power plants at times and in locations with bad air quality.
Create a clean transportation system

For decades California has led the nation with policies to reduce pollution from vehicles and promote clean fuel and vehicle technologies. As our transportation system faces dramatic changes in coming years—electrification, car-sharing, automation—we must ensure these changes result in reduced emissions and other key objectives (such as safety and accessibility). In 2018, UCS is working to:

  • Pass a state budget that includes much-needed incentives for electric cars, trucks, and buses. Incentives for electric cars vehicles are critical to overcome higher upfront costs that still exist and to increase consumer interest in this new technology. Each year lawmakers must appropriate funding for important incentive programs for light-duty and heavy-duty vehicles and UCS is working to make sure adequate funding is appropriated for the year ahead.
  • Ensure autonomous vehicles (AVs) reduce pollution and congestion and enhance access to mobility. AVs may become the most significant innovation in transportation since the mass introduction of automobiles early last century. However, public policy needs to guide the safe introduction of this emerging technology for widespread adoption of AVs to result in positive outcomes in the years ahead. UCS supports SB 936 (Allen), which will create an expert task force to make recommendations to provide guidance for how we can shape this new transportation technology to achieve these public benefits.
  • Increase use of electric vehicles by ride-hailing services. Ride hailing services—like Uber and Lyft—are a rapidly growing part of our transportation system. As these services grow and carry more and more passengers, it will become increasingly important that they move toward vehicle electrification to reduce pollution—just as electrification is important for personal vehicle use and transit buses alike. SB 1014 (Skinner) looks to address this issue. While UCS supports the concept of this bill, there are numerous important details that remain to be resolved.
Better prepare California for a changing climate

California is facing a “new normal” of increasing variability and extremes in climate conditions with enormous impacts on people, communities, and the infrastructure on which our safety and economies depend. We must start to plan, design and build California’s infrastructure to be “climate-smart” and withstand the new reality of climate change. This year UCS is working to:

  • Create a state adaptation center to support decision-making on state infrastructure projects. The state should establish an office within the state government to provide various state agencies with actionable climate-related information and real-time guidance on specific analytical approaches and data choices as they grapple with decisions about planning and designing infrastructure projects.

I look forward to working on these and other issues on behalf of UCS and our supporters and Science Network members. Hopefully the Legislature will pass legislation advancing many of these priorities this year, keeping California on a path to a safe and sustainable future that utilizes science as a foundation for policy-making.

Industry Criticizing… Industry? This is What Effective Advocacy Looks Like

The only way to get what you want is to work for it. Nothing is easy. Hard work pays off if done well.

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

In UCS’s battles against the utility company PJM,  two “black swan events” provided reminders that can encourage activists everywhere. PJM is the regional grid operator, or “RTO,” for 13 states and the District of Columbia.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, aka FERC, is the main arena for this advocacy and the unexpected breakthroughs. The context is how the low prices of renewable energy and natural gas are driving coal and nuclear plants over 40 years old out of business.

These plants boil water and use the steam to spin a turbine, which is a less efficient and slower-responding design than modern power plants.

My goal on comments and presentations to FERC is to increase the recognition and reliability value of renewable energy. Ever since the very cold weather of the 2014 polar vortex, the utility industry has been debating how to deal with the behavior of gas-burning power plants that did not contract for gas deliveries for power production in the coldest weather, and the simultaneous failure of coal plants due to weather conditions. These two sets of outages at fossil plants were not anticipated, and defied the assumption that fossil plant outages would not be correlated.

While the fossil industry scrambled and imposed spectacular higher costs on consumers from their lack of preparedness, the grid was better off than it would have been otherwise because of an underestimation of the reliability of wind generation and demand response.

The first unexpected moment (in advocacy, not the unexpected black eye for coal and gas units) came in late April on a panel discussing the reliability contributions of electric generation. I described a blind spot in planning for winter reliability, something I had previously discussed with PJM experts and put into writing for FERC. I said out loud that there was no assurance that that every fossil generator can deliver its expected capability in winter.

PJM reported coal and gas plants shut down in cold weather far beyond expected outages.

The conversation in the room stopped, and the session moderator asked that I repeat what I said.

On one side of me was Joe Bowring, the Independent Market Monitor, an expert economist who can be a very influential pessimist. He said, “that was unexpected.” He had been speaking previously about black swan events. Joe even mentioned he saw his child bitten by a black swan, which explains a lot about his obsession with unexpected and lasting unintended consequences. On my right was a PJM representative, who conceded that my point was true, though there was no doubt that the system was studied to confirm that the system was reliable.

We were debating the seasonal risks behind the PJM policy that requires any generator to be able to provide its full output in any hour in order to be counted for reliability payments in the capacity market. Going back to 2014, the lesson was “don’t assume that each generator has adequate gas pipeline capacity.” I had been saying for some time we have not confirmed each generator has adequate electric transmission capacity.

This time, they heard it.

While this was going on, the debate that started with gas generators out-competing coal and nuclear plants took a national stage with the US DOE promoting the idea that coal plants offer “resilience” and should be paid all their costs and profits, forever. FERC did not adopt this rule, but did ask the grid operators how to define resilience, what is done to ensure resilience, and what else needs to be done.

In response to the grid operators’ answers, UCS emphasized what most of the grid operators said in their comments about transmission, renewables, and sophisticated forecasting. PJM used this opportunity to push its agenda on a variety of payments related to flexibility and hidden costs that it had previously presented to FERC for approval. PJM’s response about resilience included a call for FERC to take PJM’s list and make all the grid operators evaluate and create similar rule changes.

Here’s where the second black swan came in. Five independent system operators other than PJM, all in the US, filed a response saying to FERC that PJM had gone too far and should not be granted this request. These grid operators laid it, plain and simple: “The Commission Should Not Impose on Other RTOs/ISOs the Actions and Deadlines Specified in PJM’s Response.” They said “Although not all RTOs/ISOs identified immediate or imminent resilience concerns in their regions, each identified specific potential improvements intended to enhance resilience within their respective region.”

This is the first time people can recall when one of the grid operators was singled out by the others for making inappropriate demands on the industry. The consumer and environmental advocates have been saying for years that PJM has trampled on the policies enacted by states and used too-narrow definitions of the public interest and energy resources valued by society.

While PJM is holding its annual meeting this month, I’ll remind myself and allies the only way to get what you want is to work for it. Nothing is easy. Hard work pays off if done well.

Scott Pruitt’s Incredible, Perpetual, Public Time-Wasting Machine

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The limbo king of record worsts has notched another low.

Last month, awash in an unrelenting cycle of scandal after headline-stealing scandal, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt found himself summoned to a day of hearings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The performance affirmed an agency head devoid of personal accountability, with Mr. Pruitt managing to gasp his way to another day solely by clambering atop the back of one scapegoat after the next.

But even more arresting than that shameless show was the display of Mr. Pruitt’s overt disregard for science and statute. When confronted with questions about his evident regulatory malfeasance, such as by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree around his roll-back of the Clean Power Plan, Administrator Pruitt had the audacity to defend himself by suggesting he was simply awaiting policy vetting from “the marketplace”:

“I’ve actually introduced an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking in the marketplace to solicit comment on our authority to regulate GHG.”

The catch, of course, is that this “marketplace” has already weighed in. Fully and completely. That authority in question? It’s already been determined. And that resulting authority? It was developed into a proposed rule. And that proposed rule? It was revised and strengthened based on expert insights and public comment. And that resulting revision? It was issued as a final rule. And hey, get this: that final rule? It was already even considered in court.

But Administrator Pruitt has elected to overlook all that and head straight back to square one—not just for the Clean Power Plan, but for rule, after rule, after ruleignoring those scientific inputs, blocking those expert comments, and forestalling those relevant legal judgments.

Marvel, indeed, at E. Scott Pruitt’s Incredible Perpetual Public Time-Wasting Machine.

Oh, how low that man can go.

Mr. Pruitt goes to market

Now you’d be forgiven for wondering what, exactly, Administrator Pruitt was referring to when he pushed back against assertions of inaction by suggesting he was simply awaiting direction from “the marketplace.”

The marketplace? Which marketplace?

Well, we know it can’t be the economic marketplace, because although one would be forgiven for concluding that Mr. Pruitt only navigates by the light of the corporate stars, the administrator spent the bulk of his latest visit to the Hill swearing up and down and side to side that there was nary a Pruitt impropriety to be found. Clean as a whistle, straight shooter through and through.

We also know it can’t be the legal marketplace, because it turns out that Mr. Pruitt has done everything he can to stave off Clean Power Plan judgments from the courts, despite the fact that the court has already heard the case, and, what’s more, the EPA is now mind-bogglingly using the resulting “legal uncertainty” and existence of “open questions” to support its decision to return to regulation creation square one.

And so it must be, then, that Mr. Pruitt intended to suggest his work would be informed by the marketplace of ideas, otherwise known as expert opinions, science advisement, and public comment.

Of course, up until this moment the administrator has been working incredibly hard to consistently and repeatedly ignore, block, or reject all the inputs, evaluations, and expert judgments that have been previously submitted to said marketplace. Like for the Clean Power Plan. And fuel efficiency standards. And hazardous air pollutants. And coal ash. And chemical disasters. And methane leakage. And on, and on, and on.

But still.

For the moment, let’s meet him where he says is. To the marketplace we’ll go!

The Clean Power Plan takes another spin ’round the public comment block

It just so happens that on the same day as Mr. Pruitt’s recent hearings, the Clean Power Plan—the nation’s landmark rule on carbon emission standards for the electric power sector—was confronting something of an ignominious milestone of its own: the deadline for comment on its Pruitt-proposed repeal.

Now because Administrator Pruitt has ostensibly committed himself to being guided by these comments, it seems instructive to take a closer look. So here, an array of excerpts from the more than 1 million submissions the EPA has received—starting with those from select relevant scientific, oversight, business, and governing experts:

  • Prominent climate scientists: “The compelling motivation for a United States response to human-caused climate change, including its increasingly damaging impacts, have led a number of us to participate both in defending the CPP as amici in the earlier D.C. Circuit Case, as well as now strongly urging against the rescission of the CPP proposed currently.”
  • Former FERC commissioners: “We are a group of former Commissioners of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”), who were appointed by President George W. Bush or President Barack Obama. […] The CPP does not interfere with the authority of FERC, nor does it threaten the affordability and reliability of the nation’s electricity supply. EPA’s suggestions to the contrary are incorrect and are not an adequate basis for its proposed repeal of this important measure to address climate change.”
  • Apple Inc.: “Apple believes the United States must re-assert its position as a global leader by deploying well-designed, nationwide strategies – with flexibility for states – to regulate and reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions. Apple believes the Clean Power Plan is one of those strategies. […] Repealing the Clean Power Plan will subject consumers like Apple and our large manufacturing partners to increased investment uncertainty, and frustrate reasonable expectations.”
  • US Conference of Mayors and National League of Cities: “We oppose the Agency’s efforts to repeal the CPP, as well as have concerns with the process the Agency is using to repeal and potentially replace the CPP. […] The nation’s mayors, councilmembers and cities strongly support the CPP as a means of nationally reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the growing negative impacts of climate change on our communities.”
  • Joint Comments of Environmental, Health, and Conservation Groups: “The Proposal’s complete flight from facts and evidence and abdication of the Administrator’s decision-making responsibility render the Proposal unlawful and arbitrary and capricious.”

UCS also filed comments of our own, as well as with coalition partners relating to the unlawful nature of the proposed repeal, the faulty assessments found in its supporting Regulatory Impact Analysis, a reiteration of climate science, and the flawed estimates of the social cost of carbon.

The Peoples Climate Movement, Washington, D.C., 2017. Credit: Audrey Eyring/UCS.

Our comments reminded the administrator that climate change is a real and urgent threat, and that the EPA has clearly established authority—and obligation—to limit greenhouse gas emissions. We called out the insufficient rationale for repeal, as well as the flagrantly unlawful disregard for the robust record underpinning the rule. Finally, we hammered the agency’s intentionally deceptive analytical practices that overstated costs, understated benefits, and effectively ignored at-risk populations.

And then, of course, there were the million or so other comments submitted to the docket, impassioned and thoughtful, touching on issues from asthma and public health to clean energy and the nation we hope to be.

To be sure, these offer just the faintest hint of a glimpse. No matter what, though, it seems clear that if Administrator Pruitt is actually ready to move forward with these comments, and not just use them to further stall, he’s got a whole lot of external intelligence to work with.

Looking up, looking ahead

It seems hard to believe that Administrator Pruitt has much time left at EPA, what with wave after pounding wave of scandal cresting and crashing upon him. But today, even as the flotsam and jetsam of corruption and malfeasance buffet him about, he’s still the head of the EPA, and he’s still setting record lows.

It’s time to stop wasting people’s time, and devastating public health.

It’s time to pull EPA back from the depths, and realign the agency’s work with its mission: to protect public health and the environment.

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

EPA Chief Pruitt Even Violates His Own Principles

With EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s job now hanging in the balance, it is a good time to recall that, just after his Senate confirmation, he gave a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that emphasized the three principles he said would stand at “the heart of how we do business at the EPA”: process, rule of law, and federalism.

A little more than a year into his tenure, he has violated all of them.

Subverting Process

“Number one,” Pruitt told his CPAC audience, “we’re going to pay attention to process.”

In fact, as we now know, Pruitt has a long track record—going back to his days in Oklahoma—of flouting official procedures when it suits him.

Most troubling is Pruitt’s disdain for EPA policy procedures, which have a considerable impact on public health. Just this week, Pruitt undercut the EPA’s long-established process for drafting strong, protective regulations by proposing that the agency no longer accept studies if all of their data isn’t publicly available. That would mean the agency would have to ignore most epidemiological studies, which rely on private medical information that cannot and should not be shared.

Polluter-funded members of Congress have tried to pass bills instituting this restriction for years, despite the fact that it would violate the EPA’s obligation to use the best available science to protect public health. Sure enough, emails obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists show that political appointees, not career staff or scientists, were behind the proposal, and they only considered its potential impact on industry. In response, nearly 1,000 scientists sent a letter to Pruitt asking him to back off.

Pruitt also packed the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) with industry scientists, overturning four decades of precedent by banning scientists who have received EPA grants from serving on the SAB or any other agency advisory panel. Why? Pruitt claims they have a conflict of interest. Pruitt did not renew terms for a number of respected members and dismissed several independent scientists before their terms were up, shrinking the SAB from 47 to 42 participants and more than doubling the number of its polluter-friendly members.

Likewise, Pruitt clearly has little use for standard EPA administrative procedures. The Government Accountability Office, for example, recently found that he violated federal law by ordering a $43,000 soundproof phone booth. Political appointees, it turns out, have to clear office improvement purchases over $5,000 with Congress. Unlike his predecessors, he has routinely flown first class, and so far it has cost taxpayers more than $150,000. He tripled the size of the administrator’s security team to 19 agents, and according to CNN their annual salaries alone cost at least $2 million. He has a 24-hour-a-day bodyguard. He rented a condo for $50 a night—well below market value—from the wife of an energy lobbyist who met with Pruitt last July and lobbies EPA on behalf of his clients. The list of Pruitt’s ethical infractions goes on and on.

Breaking the Rule of Law

“When rule of law is applied it provides certainty to those that are regulated,” Pruitt explained during that CPAC speech. “Those in industry should know what is expected of them. Those in industry should know how to allocate their resources to comply with the regulations passed by the EPA.”

It’s hard to argue with that. Of course industrial facility owners should be clear about their responsibility to curb emissions. Under Pruitt, however, polluters can be certain about at least one thing: There’s a good chance they won’t be prosecuted. For Pruitt, the rule of law is made to be broken.

In its first year in office, the Trump administration resolved only 48 environmental civil cases, about a third fewer than under President Barack Obama’s first EPA director and less than half under President George W. Bush’s over the same time period, according to a February report by the Environmental Integrity Project. The Trump administration recovered just $30 million in penalties from these cases, nearly 60 percent less than the $71 million the Obama administration recovered in its first year.

A December analysis by The New York Times comparing the first nine months of the Trump regime with previous administrations, also found a marked decline in enforcement. It determined that the EPA under Pruitt initiated about 1,900 enforcement cases, about a third fewer than during the Obama administration and about a quarter fewer than the Bush administration over the same time frame.

Meanwhile, Pruitt—who sued the EPA 14 times to block stronger air, water and climate safeguards during his tenure as Oklahoma attorney general—is now trying to roll back environmental protections from the inside. Since taking office, he has moved quickly to delay or weaken a range of Obama-era regulations, including ones that protect the public from toxic pesticides, lead paint and vehicle emissions.

Ironically, Pruitt’s cavalier attitude about following procedures has thus far blunted his wrecking-ball campaign. “In their rush to get things done, they’re failing to dot their ‘I’s and cross their ‘T’s, and they’re starting to stumble over a lot of trip wires,” Richard Lazarus, a Harvard environmental law professor, told The New York Times. “They’re producing a lot of short, poorly crafted rulemakings that are not likely to hold up in court.”

Federalism for all but California

“So process matters, rule of law matters, but let me tell you this: What really matters is federalism,” Pruitt told the CPAC faithful. “We are going to once again pay attention to the states across the country. I believe people in Oklahoma, in Texas, in Indiana, in Ohio, and New York and California, and in all the states across the country, they care about the air they breathe, and they care about the water they drink, and we are going to be partners with these individuals [sic], not adversaries.”

California? He must have forgotten that when he lashed out at the state for embracing stronger vehicle fuel economy standards than what he and the auto industry would prefer. “California is not the arbiter of these issues,” Pruitt said in an interview with Bloomberg TV in mid-March. California sets state limits on carbon emissions, he said, but “that shouldn’t and can’t dictate to the rest of the country what these levels are going to be.”

California, which has a waiver under the 1970 Clean Air Act giving it the right to set its own vehicle emissions standards, reached an agreement with the Obama administration and the auto industry that established the first limits on tailpipe carbon emissions. The next phase of the standards calls for improving the average fuel efficiency of new cars and light trucks to about 50 miles per gallon by 2025 in lab tests, corresponding to a real-world performance of about 36 mpg. By 2030, that would reduce global warming pollution by nearly 4 billion tons, akin to shutting down 140 coal-fired power plants over that time frame.

California wants to stick with the standards. Pruitt, echoing the specious claims of auto industry trade groups, announced in early April that he wants to roll them back. Putting aside the fact that the auto industry’s own analysis concluded that carmakers can meet the 2025 targets primarily with conventional vehicles, what happened to Pruitt’s “cooperative federalism” ideal, especially since California is not acting alone?

Thirteen states, mostly in the Northeast and Northwest, and the District of Columbia have adopted California’s stricter emissions standards. Together they represent at least a third of the U.S. auto market. And in response to Pruitt’s roll-back announcement, 12 state attorneys general and 63 mayors from 26 states released a declaration supporting the stronger standards. “Such standards are particularly appropriate given the serious public impacts of air pollution in our cities and states and the severe impacts of climate change…,” the declaration reads. “If the administration attempts to deny states and cities the basic right to protect their citizens, we will strongly challenge such an effort in court.”

That declaration sounds a lot like what Pruitt endorsed at the conclusion of his CPAC speech, but of course he was referring to state efforts to weaken federal environmental safeguards, not strengthen them. “We are going to restore power back to the people,” he said. “We are going to recognize the regulatory uncertainty and the regulatory state needs to be reined in, we’re going to make sure the states are recognized for the authority they have, and we are going to do the work that’s important to advance freedom and liberty for the future. It’s an exciting time.

“The folks in D.C. have a new attitude,” Pruitt continued. “It’s an attitude that no longer are we going to dictate to those across the country and tell them how to live each and every day. It’s an attitude that says we’re going to empower citizens and the states. It’s an idea of federalism and believing in liberty.”

The CPAC crowd gave him a standing ovation, but the reception he’s now getting from both Democrats and Republicans alike is considerably cooler. At this point, Mr. Pruitt may soon find himself out of a job.

For a Moment, 50+ Percent of CA’s Energy Came From Solar

Photo: Recurrent Energy

On March 4, 2018, solar in California broke a record. Then, on the 5th, it broke another one.

In fact, virtually every day brings new headlines about solar energy’s progress in California and around the world, and solar records are being broken with laudable frequency. Record installation levels, record levels of electricity generation, record investment in solar….

For solar, a whole lot of signs are pointing up.

California: Another solar record (and another, and…)

Spring is a great time for solar, and a great time for solar records. The sun is high and temperatures aren’t yet at summer levels (and solar panels actually like the cooler temps). That makes for excellent solar electricity generation.

The milder temperatures also mean that spring (and fall) are when electricity demand is generally lowest. A stronger numerator (solar production) and lower denominator (energy demand) can make a record-breaking combination.

And, yup, those factors combined to knock it out of the park in California yet again in March, when at one point in time large-scale solar alone met 49.95% of the bulk electricity needs in the territory of the California Independent System Operator (CAISO, which covers 80% of California). Add in what rooftop solar took care of, and that 49.95% figure grows to well over half of electricity needs being met by solar.

An impressive tally—without even taking rooftop solar into account

But wait, there’s more: The very next day, all that solar added up to the largest solar peak to date in the CAISO territory, reaching 10,411 megawatts (10 million kilowatts) for large-scale solar (and a few thousand more megawatts for rooftop).

If that were all on rooftops (it’s not) and composed of typical rooftop residential systems, we’d be talking the equivalent of almost 2 million solar home systems worth of solar capacity.

Both of those records were for just a moment, but both are also a testament to the incredible growth solar has experienced in California, the number one state for installed solar capacity. (They also underscore the wisdom of strengthening the electric connections between California and its neighbors so that all of that solar can be put to good use.)

US: Record solar growth in official 2017 results

At the level of the country as a whole, the newly released official 2017 government stats on electricity from the US Energy Information Administration said a lot about solar’s progress, and the records it keeps shattering:

  • Electricity generation from solar, large and small, hit a new record, leaping 41% from 2016’s tally.
  • Solar accounted for a record 1.9% of electricity generation last year—almost double the percentage in 2015.
  • Solar in 2017 generated the equivalent of the electricity use of more than 8.5 million typical US homes.

Another way to look at it, with the longtime fossil fuel king in mind: With coal’s declining piece of the US electricity mix (from almost half in 2008 to less than 30% in 2017), the ratio of coal to solar has fallen from more than 2000:1 to less than 16:1 (Yup, another record). Not there yet, but that sure looks like progress.

Credit: Dennis Schroeder/NREL

World: Solar grows to record levels—and grows more than coal, gas, and nuclear… combined

And then there’s the global picture, and records broken in terms of new solar capacity and new investment. A new report from the United Nations Environment Programme and Bloomberg New Energy Finance looks at renewable energy investments across the world, and finds a whole lot good happening in solar.

The opening lines of the whole document capture the solar-centric excitement that the numbers provoke (emphasis added):

Solar power rose to record prominence in 2017, as the world installed 98 gigawatts of new solar power projects, more than the net additions of coal, gas and nuclear plants put together. The solar build-out represented 38% of all the net new generating capacity added (renewable, fossil fuel and nuclear) last year.

Think about that for a moment: Once you take retirements into account, as you should, we got more new solar last year than new coal + new gas + new nuclear.

All told, non-hydro renewables accounted for 61 percent of net power generation capacity added in 2017 worldwide, a record, and a consistently growing (and record-breaking) portion of both global power capacity and global power generation.

Source: Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment Report 2018

For solar, UNDP/BNEF found, China was a big piece of 2017’s progress, “…with some 53GW installed (more than the whole world market as recently as 2014), and solar investment of $86.5 billion, up 58%…” Solar investment, though, grew in both developed (17%) and developing (41%) countries.

And more…

Recent tidings have also brought news of record numbers for solar purchases by US corporations, a new US solar panel manufacturing facility in the works in Florida, and a proposal for a record-breaking battery as part of a hefty proposed solar farm in California.

There are caveats with each of those tidbits, or uncertainties, or, for the US, ways that the current administration or state policies could mess things up.

But taken together these stories paint a picture of a sector continuing to do what we need it to. Solar is on the move, across the country and across the world.

It’s clearly a technology that feels that records were meant to be broken.

Colorado Communities Sue ExxonMobil and Suncor for Climate Damages

Suncor Energy owns the only oil refinery in Colorado. Photo: Max and Dee Bernt. CC-BY-2.0 (Flickr)

Two Colorado counties and the city of Boulder are suing ExxonMobil and Suncor Energy, Canada’s largest oil company, to hold them responsible for climate change-related damage to their communities.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in a state district court by Boulder, Boulder County and San Miguel County, is seeking compensation for damage and adaptation costs resulting from extreme weather events.

New York City and eight coastal California cities and counties, including San Francisco and Oakland, have filed similar lawsuits against ExxonMobil and other oil and gas companies, charging that they have injured their communities under common law. The Colorado suit is the first by an inland county or municipality.

“Climate change is not just about sea level rise. It affects all of us in the middle of the country as well,” said Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones. “In fact, Colorado is one of the fastest warming states in the nation.”

Oil Industry Knew About Threat 50 Years Ago

The 1,300-square-mile San Miguel County sits in the southwest corner of the state on the Utah border. About a third of the county’s 8,000 residents live in Telluride, a well-known ski resort town. Boulder, 25 miles northwest of Denver, is the county seat of the 740-square-mile Boulder County and home to nearly a third of the county’s 319,000 residents. The three communities have been ravaged by costly climate-related extreme weather events, including wildfires and flash floods, according to the 100-page complaint. Likewise, each community has launched initiatives to curb carbon emissions and adapt to a changing climate.

The Colorado communities contend that ExxonMobil and Suncor were aware that their products caused global warming as early as 1968, when a report commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute (API), the US oil and gas industry’s premier trade association, warned of the threat burning fossil fuels posed to the climate. Subsequent reports and memos prepared for API and its member companies came to similar conclusions. Regardless, ExxonMobil and Suncor not only continued to produce and market fossil fuel products without disclosing their risks, the complaint charges, they also engaged in a decades-long disinformation campaign to manufacture public doubt and confusion about the reality and seriousness of climate change.

The plaintiffs want the two oil giants to “pay their share of the damage” caused by their “intentional, reckless and negligent conduct.” That share could amount to tens of millions, if not billions, of dollars to help cover the cost of more heat waves, wildfires, droughts, intense precipitation, and floods.

“Our communities and our taxpayers should not shoulder the cost of climate change adaptation alone,” said Boulder Mayor Suzanne Jones. “These oil companies need to pay their fair share.”

Higher Temperatures Hurt Ski Industry, Agriculture

Over the last four decades, wildfires in the Rockies have been happening with greater frequency. According to a 2014 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization (RMCO), the region experienced nearly four times as many wildfires larger than 1,000 acres between 1987 and 2003 than between 1970 and 1986.

Rocky Mountain trees also are being ravaged by bark beetles. Over the last 25 years, the UCS-RMCO report found, beetles have killed trees on regional forest land nearly equal in acreage to the size of Colorado itself. Heat and drought are taking a toll, too, exacerbating tree mortality. If global warming continues unabated, the region likely will become even hotter and drier, and the consequences for its forests will be even more severe.

The average temperatures in Colorado have increased more than 2 degrees F since 1983, according to a 2014 University of Colorado Boulder study, and are projected to jump another 2.5 to 5 degrees F by mid-century. That would have a devastating effect on the Colorado economy, which relies heavily on snow, water and cool weather. A 2017 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters found that low-snow winters and shorter seasons are already having a negative impact on the state’s $5-billion ski industry, the largest in the country. Rising temperatures and drought, meanwhile, threaten the state’s $41 billion agricultural sector.

ExxonMobil and Suncor are Major Carbon Emitters

Both ExxonMobil and Suncor have substantial operations in Colorado. Since 1999, ExxonMobil has produced more than 1 million barrels of oil and 656 million metric cubic feet of natural gas from Colorado deposits, according to the complaint, and ExxonMobil subsidiary XTO Energy currently produces 130 million cubic feet of natural gas per day from more than 864 square miles across three Colorado counties. There are also at least 20 Exxon and Mobil gas stations in the state. All told, the company’s production and transportation activities in Colorado were responsible for more than 420,000 metric tons of global warming emissions between 2011 and 2015, according to the complaint.

Suncor gas stations, which sell Shell, Exxon and Mobil brand products, supply about 35 percent of Colorado’s gasoline and diesel demand. Suncor, whose U.S. headquarters is located in Denver, also owns the only oil refinery in the state, which produces 100,000 barrels of refined oil per day. According to the complaint, Suncor’s Colorado operations were responsible for 900,000 metric tons of carbon emissions in 2016 alone.

Besides their Colorado facilities, the two companies are partners in Syncrude Canada, the largest tar sands oil developer in Canada. Tar sands oil—a combination of clay, sand, water and bitumen—produces roughly 20 percent more carbon dioxide emissions per barrel than regular crude oil.

ExxonMobil and Suncor are among the 90 fossil fuel producers responsible for approximately 75 percent of the world’s global warming emissions from fossil fuels and cement between 1988 and 2015, according to the Climate Accountability Institute. Over that time frame, the two companies’ operations and products emitted 20.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide and methane.

“Based on the latest scientific studies, the plaintiffs in Colorado, as well as in California and New York City, can now show the direct connection between carbon emissions and climate-related damages,” said Kathryn Mulvey, climate accountability campaign director at UCS. “Given these companies’ significant contribution to climate change—and their decades of deception about climate science—it is long past time that they should be held accountable for the damage they have caused.”

Clean Energy is Happening, With or Without the Trump Administration

Photo: First Solar

Folks waiting for leadership at the federal level to drive our ongoing clean energy transition better get comfortable. It might be a while. Fortunately, one only has to turn one’s eyes outward from D.C.—in just about any direction—to find utilities, corporations, cities, and states taking the reins of our transition to clean energy.

The rationale for clean energy takes many forms

Whether it’s a sense of moral obligation to tackle the threat of climate change, the benefits of being perceived as “green”, or just economic good sense, there’s a strong argument to be made that clean energy is the right way to go. Wind and solar, increasingly being paired with battery storage, continue to impress with low costs and reliable performance. Energy efficiency continues to be our cheapest and most readily available resource out there.

And as utilities and large corporate purchasers of energy navigate our ongoing and historic transition away from coal, these clean energy resources are proving to be a cost-effective, low risk, and clean option for meeting energy needs.

Utility commitments show a desire to diversify away from fossil fuels

There’s a powerful recent wave of utility announcements to cut carbon emissions and invest in clean energy (see here or here, for example). Just in the Midwest for example, we’ve seen significant commitments from utility powerhouses such as Xcel, Ameren, Consumers Energy, and MidAmerican, just to name a few.

The great news is that the new wave isn’t limited to one region of the country. It’s not about red states or blue states. It isn’t driven by political ideology or, in most cases, regulatory or policy requirements. It’s driven by economics and a growing awareness—by utilities and their customers—of the urgent need to reduce carbon emission and avoid the most damaging effects of climate change.

Of course, these commitments aren’t necessarily binding, and there’s legitimate concerns that utilities are promising clean energy later to bolster arguments for natural gas investments now (as we’ve noted in DTE Energy’s pursuit of a large natural gas plant in Michigan). But the overall trend is unmistakable and promising for our ongoing clean energy transition. More work lies ahead to hold utilities accountable to these commitments and ensure clean energy investments are prioritized in the near term.

Corporate purchasers choosing renewables to power our economic growth

Another area where key players in our energy future are taking clean energy matters into their own hands is in the world of corporate purchasers. These large energy users are increasingly looking beyond their local utility to procure low-cost renewable energy to meet sustainability goals and ensure long-term price stability.

Unlike fuel-fired energy sources, renewable energy prices can be locked in for 20 years or more because the cost of that energy is not dependent on sometimes volatile prices for fuels like natural gas and coal.

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s 2018 Sustainable Energy Report, corporate purchases of renewable energy took off in 2014 and have been a significant player in the renewable energy development growth ever since. Forty US-based companies have signed on to the RE100 Initiative and pledged to source 100 percent of their energy consumption from renewable energy.

Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance 2018 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook

While current corporate commitments still make up a small share of overall energy use in the United States, the trend, once again, is unmistakable and a strong signal that our clean energy transition continues to advance despite what happens in Washington DC.

Cities and states continue to take climate change seriously—and demand clean energy solutions

I started this blog by saying that you only had to look outward from D.C. to find progress on clean energy, but yes—even the District is onboard with a clean energy future. In 2016, it strengthened its renewable portfolio to achieve 50 percent renewable energy by 2032. The new law also included provisions to ensure that everyone would have access to clean energy by funding provisions that would increase access for lower-income households.

The District’s progress on clean energy is just one example of state and local government forging their own clean energy future. At the end of 2016 we saw Illinois and Michigan strengthen their clean energy standards. California is now considering joining the ranks of Hawaii in pursuit of 100 percent clean energy. And just last week, New Jersey strengthened its renewable energy standard to 50 percent by 2030.

We’ve also witnessed direct action against President Trump’s stated intention to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreements. States and cities across the US have pledged that they’re “still in” on meeting the goals of the international Paris agreement, despite President Trump’s intention to withdraw the US from this landmark agreement.

State members of the US Climate Alliance and city members of the Climate Mayors

Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance 2018 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook. Sixteen states have committed to reducing carbon emissions, covering more than 40 percent of the US population.

As utilities, corporations, states, and cities step in to fill the leadership void left by President Trump and his administration, clean energy’s future remains bright. Economics and the moral imperative to address climate change continue to be driving forces behind our ongoing transition.

As our collective commitment to clean energy continues to grow, the federal government will have a harder and harder time turning a blind eye.

Trump Onboard for Offshore Wind?

Workers dwarfed by offshore wind blade tips and towers at Siemens deployment dock in Hull. Offshore wind is part of the revival of many port cities in Europe. Photo: Derrick Z. Jackson

The Trump administration’s quiet embrace of offshore wind became a shout heard around the industry last week. At an offshore wind conference, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said, “We think there’s an enormous opportunity for wind because of our God-given resources off the coast. We’re pretty good at innovating. I’m pretty confident that the wind industry is going to have that kind of enthusiasm.”

Sec. Zinke stoked that enthusiasm by announcing the opening of the bidding process for the final 390,000 acres of federal waters far south of Martha’s Vineyard. Those parcels went unclaimed in a 2015 auction held in the despairing wake of the collapse of Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound, leaving many advocates wondering if offshore wind, which has become an important source of energy in northern Europe, would ever take off in the United States. The prospects came even more into question with the 2016 election of President Trump, who routinely claimed that offshore wind was too expensive.

But the dramatically dropping costs of offshore wind, which is now cheaper than nuclear power and closing in on parity with fossil fuels in Europe, have sparked an explosion of renewed interest in the US. The bidding for those once-orphaned waters off Massachusetts likely will be fierce as they have already received unsolicited bids from the German wind company PNE and the Norwegian energy giant Equinor, the former Statoil.

The Interior Department made two other significant announcements last week to further brighten offshore wind’s prospects. It announced that it was soliciting industry interest and public input on the possibility of establishing offshore wind farms in 1.7 million acres of waters off the New York Bight that curls up from New Jersey to Long Island. It also is soliciting input on an assessment of all Atlantic offshore waters for wind farm development. Zinke’s energy policy counselor, Vincent DeVito, said in a press release, “We are taking the next step to ensure a domestic offshore wind industry.”

This is the surest sign yet that an administration that has pulled out of global climate change agreements and is rolling back environmental protections at the behest of the fossil fuel industry, nonetheless does not want to miss out on the economic potential of a renewable energy industry that has revived many ailing port cities in northern Europe.

Worker gives scale to offshore wind blades nearly a football field long at a Siemens facility in Denmark. Photo: Derrick Z. Jackson

It surely must help politically that onshore wind is now a bedrock of American energy, with rock-solid bipartisan support in an oft-divided America. Rural turbines have dramatically changed the energy landscape in the Republican-dominated states of the Midwest and Great Plains, with Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas being the top wind electricity generating states and with the nation’s fastest growing occupation paying more than $50,000 a year being wind turbine service technician.

A similar bipartisan picture is rapidly developing for offshore wind along the Eastern Seaboard. Democratic and Republican governors alike are staking claims in the offshore industry, from Massachusetts’s game-changing 1,600 megawatt mandate to Clemson University in South Carolina being chosen to test the world’s most powerful turbine to date, a 9.5 megawatt machine from Mitsubishi/Vestas.

Both states happen to have Republican governors who have joined their Democratic counterparts in opposing Zinke’s proposal to also exploit the Atlantic continental shelf for oil and gas. In the same Princeton speech that he praised the possibilities of offshore wind, Zinke acknowledged that offshore fossil-fuel drilling was opposed by governors in every East Coast and West Coast state except Maine and Georgia. “If the state doesn’t want it, the state has a lot of leverage,” he said.

In contrast, offshore wind’s leverage has become almost undeniable. The last two offshore wind lease auctions in New York and North Carolina added a respective $42 million and $9 million to federal coffers. With Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey leading the way, there are now more than 8,000 megawatts of legislative mandates and pledges by current governors. That could meet the needs of between 4.5 million and 5 million homes, based on the proposals made for 800 MW farms in Massachusetts.

An 8,000 megawatt, or 8 gigawatt (GW) market could alone create between 16,700 and 36,300 jobs by 2030, depending on how much of the industry, currently centered in Europe, is enticed to come here, according to a joint report by the clean energy agencies of Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island. But the potential is much greater.

A 2016 report from the US Departments of Energy and Interior estimated that there was enough technical potential in US offshore wind to power the nation twice over. The US, despite being two and a half decades behind Europe in constructing its first offshore wind farm, a five-turbine project off Block Island, Rhode Island, is still in a position to ultimately catch up to Europe, where there are currently nearly 16 gigawatts installed, supporting 75,000 jobs. The 2016 DOE/DOI report said that a robust offshore wind industry that hits 86 GW by 2050 could generate 160,000 jobs.

One can hope that it is this picture that Sec. Zinke and the Trump administration are looking at in their support of offshore wind. Sec. Zinke continues to say that offshore wind is part of the White House’s “all-of-the-above” strategy for “American energy dominance.” Given how little interest there is for any new oil and gas drilling off the coasts of America, offshore wind is becoming the new source of energy that stands above all.

Service boat cruising in the Anholt offshore wind farm in Denmark. Photo: Derrick Z. Jackson

Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson

Department of Energy Releases Bogus Study to Prop Up Coal Plants

A few months ago, the Department of Energy (DOE) made a request to one of its national labs, the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), to study the impacts on the electricity grid of a severe cold snap called the bomb cyclone that hit the Northeast in early January 2018. NETL conducts important R&D on fossil energy technologies. The report released last week uses deeply flawed assumptions to inaccurately paint coal (and to a lesser extent, fuel oil) as the savior that prevented large-scale blackouts during the extreme cold, while greatly understating the contribution from renewable energy sources. It also estimates a bogus value for coal providing these so-called “resiliency” services. One has to wonder whether this deeply flawed and misleading study is part of the administration’s continued attempts to prop up the coal industry at all costs, especially after FERC rejected the DOE’s fact-free proposal to bail out coal and nuclear plants late last year. The utility FirstEnergy, which owns and operates a fleet of coal and nuclear generators, immediately seized upon NETL’s report and is petitioning DOE for an emergency bailout.

Separating the Facts from the Fiction

The report emphasizes the fact that fossil and nuclear power played a critical role in meeting peak demand during the cold snap. Across six regions, according to the report, coal provided 55 percent of daily incremental generation, and the study concludes that at least for PJM Interconnection (which manages the electricity grid across 12 Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states as well as DC), “coal provided the most resilient form of generation, due to available reserve capacity and on-site fuel availability, far exceeding all other sources” without which the region “would have experienced shortfalls leading to interconnect-wide blackouts.” The report then goes on to incorrectly estimate value of these “resiliency” services to be $3.5 billion for PJM.

The nugget of truth here is that we do need reserve capacity to be available in times of peak demand, especially during extreme weather events that lead to greatly increased need for heating or cooling. And this is especially important during the winter, when the demand for natural gas for home heating spikes in some parts of the country, leading to higher prices and less natural gas available for electricity generation (since home heating takes priority over electricity generation in terms of natural gas pipeline delivery contracts). In the Northeast, which uses a lot of natural gas for heating, this shortfall in natural gas led to an increase in electricity generation from [dirty] fuel oil, as the report points out.

However, regional transmission organizations (RTOs) and independent system operators (ISOs) were prepared for the cold snap, and the markets performed as expected. PJM in particular put systems in place to prepare for extreme cold weather following the 2014 Polar Vortex, and electricity markets in the Eastern U.S. are organized to provide payments to power plants for providing either energy (electrons to the grid) or capacity (the ability to switch on and provide a certain level of output if called upon). As fossil generators retire because they are uneconomic, plenty of other resources are under construction or in advanced planning stages and will be ready at the time they’re needed. This is why planning for future electricity needs is critical, and this is the responsibility of regional grid operators—one they take quite seriously.

To that point, grid operators and reliability experts see no threat to grid reliability from planned retirements of coal and nuclear power plants. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), whose mission is to ensure the reliability of the bulk power system for the continent, finds in its 2017 Long-Term Reliability Assessment, that (contrary to NETL raising potential reliability issues from future coal and nuclear retirements) most regions of the country have sufficient reserve margins through 2022, as new additions more than offset expected retirements. PJM, in its strongly worded response to FirstEnergy’s petition to DOE for an emergency bailout (see below), stated “without reservation there is no immediate threat to system reliability.

Beyond this, the report and its pseudo-analytic underpinnings really goes off the rails. Let’s take a few of its misleading points in turn.

How to Quantify Resiliency

NETL decided to consider the incremental generation from each fuel source—that is, how much more electricity was produced by each fuel during the bomb cyclone—as a metric for which fuel provides the grid with resilient services. As they put it:

“…we examine resilience afforded by each source of power generation by assessing the incremental daily average gigawatt hours during the BC event above those of a typical winter day.”

This is a bogus metric not only because it simply reflects the amount of unused or idle generation in the system, but also because the reference time period (the first 26 days of December) is a period when there wasn’t much generation from coal and oil. Turns out, there is a lot of coal-fired capacity sitting around because it is more expensive to run compared to natural gas. The only time it makes economic sense to call on these more expensive resources is when demand pushes electricity prices high enough, as it did during the bomb cyclone.

What NETL is basically saying is that the most expensive resources are the most resilient. The report then argues that the high cost of those expensive resources represents the value of “resiliency”—and that these expensive generators should be compensated for providing that value. It’s circular reasoning, and it’s the same argument that we heard all last fall as part of the fact-free DOE FERC proposal, which boils down to this: our assets can’t compete in the marketplace because they’re too expensive, so you (meaning, the ratepayer) should pay us more money to stay online.

The NETL report is essentially trying to invent a metric to define resiliency, and it’s wrong. There are certainly qualitative ideas about what resiliency means:

Infrastructure Resilience is the ability to reduce the magnitude and/or duration of disruptive events. The effectiveness of a resilient infrastructure or enterprise depends upon its ability to anticipate, absorb, adapt to, and/or rapidly recover from a potentially disruptive event.”  –NERC, 2012

But there is no agreed-upon quantitative definition for resiliency, which is one reason FERC has opened a docket to study the issue.

Enter Capacity Markets

The NETL report misses another crucial point. These resources are, in many cases, already being paid to be available when needed. In general, there are several ways that a given generating facility of any kind can make money: by providing energy; by offering capacity on demand; and by providing what are called ancillary services (things like voltage and frequency regulation, which ensure the stability of the grid). Without going into a detailed explanation of how these different markets work, it’s sufficient to understand that these markets exist—and are working as intended.

Instead of doing a detailed analysis of how fossil generators were compensated during the cold snap, or which plants may have been cheaper to run, NETL offers a deeply misleading back-of-the-envelope calculation: it multiplies the increase in the daily cost of electricity above an arbitrary baseline (see next section) by the number of days in the cold snap. This calculation fails to acknowledge that some of these generators are already receiving payments for those services by bidding into a market and agreeing to provide the service of additional capacity when needed.

Cherry-Picking Baselines to Attack Renewables

NETL’s flawed analysis also takes aim at renewables, suggesting that because of “below average” renewable generation, resources like coal and fuel oil had to come online to pick up the slack.

What NETL did here is classic cherry-picking. They compared the generation from renewables during the bomb cyclone to what they called a “typical winter day.” Except that it wasn’t. NETL used a 26-day period in December to compare baseline generation. Wind generation during the bomb cyclone event was actually higher than expected by grid operators in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. For example, In PJM, wind output from January 3-7 was 55 percent higher than the 2017 average output, and consistently 3 to 5 times greater than what PJM expected from January 3-5.

Actual Failure Rates

Instead of using NETL’s flawed analysis, looking at the actual failures rate of different generation resources during the extreme weather event provides a more accurate picture of the reliability and resiliency impacts. PJM did this, it turns out. As shown in the chart below, which compares forced outages during the polar vortex and the bomb cyclone, PJM’s analysis finds that coal plants experienced similar failure rates as natural gas power plants during both the 2014 and 2018 cold snaps. For example, on January 7, 2018, a peak winter demand day, PJM reported 8,096 MW of natural gas plant outages, 6,935 MW of coal outages, 5,913 MW of natural gas supply outages, and 2,807 MW of “other” outages (which includes wind, solar, hydro, and methane units).

The NETL study completely ignores the fact that baseload resources like coal and nuclear also pose challenges to reliability—because of limited flexibility, vulnerability to extreme weather events (like the polar vortex and bomb cyclone), extreme heat and drought affecting cooling water, and storm surge. During extreme cold, pipes and even piles of coal can freeze, meaning that coal plants can’t fire up.

FirstEnergy Begs for a Handout

Only a day after NETL’s report was released, the utility FirstEnergy submitted a request to DOE for emergency financial assistance to rescue its uneconomic coal and nuclear plants and heavily cited the NETL report. The basis of the request is section 202(c) of the Federal Power Act, a rarely used portion of the statute that allows DOE to keep power plants online in times of emergency or war. But as NERC, PJM, and others have pointed out, there is no immediate reliability crisis. The request is a Hail Mary pass to save the company from bankruptcy, and is not likely to hold up in court.

Garbage In, Garbage Out.

NETL has produced a document that isn’t worth the few megabytes of disk space it is taking up on my computer. As we often say when evaluating a computer model or analysis—garbage in, garbage out. The study appears to be politically motivated, and it reveals a deep misunderstanding of how the electricity grid works, using simplistic and misleading calculations to justify its conclusions. It is shrouded in insidious, analytic-sounding language that make it seem as if it were a legitimate study. It should be rejected out of hand by any serious person taking an objective look at these issues—as should FirstEnergy’s request for a bailout.

Where Are the Solar Jobs? New Resource Can Tell You

Photo used with permission from publicsource.org

A new tool from The Solar Foundation breaks down the latest solar jobs numbers by state, metropolitan area, county, and congressional district, and looks at who makes up the solar industry. Here’s a taste of what those numbers say, and why they matter.

The interactive map, available at www.solarstates.org, slices and displays the solar census data for 2017 in a range of ways.

One overarching message from the census and the tool is that a lot of people work in solar in this country: 250,271 in 2017, by their count. That’s down 4% from 2016’s number, but still notable within the energy sector. And those jobs take a variety of forms, ranging from manufacturing to project development to sales and installation.

California was far out in front with more than 86,000 people working in the solar industry—1 in every 458 Golden State workers. Other states, though, were in the same per-capita range, including leader Vermont (1:406), Nevada, Utah, Hawaii, and DC.

Solar jobs per capita (The Solar Foundation, Solar Jobs Census 2017, www.solarstates.org)

While solar jobs numbers fell overall, they grew in a lot of places in 2017. The top states for solar job growth in 2017 are all over the map, from the Intermountain West to the Northern Great Plains, from the Southwest to the Mid-Atlantic, and into the Northeast and Southeast. Utah added the most jobs, growing to more than 6,000 solar workers, followed by Minnesota, Arizona, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Ohio, and North Carolina. On a percentage basis, Delaware and Minnesota took top honors, with each achieving around 50% growth in solar jobs over the previous year.

The best metropolitan areas for solar jobs? The Bay Area is at the top, and California metro areas take more than half the top slots. But metro areas in other states also figure prominently: New York/New Jersey/Pennsylvania, Massachusetts/New Hampshire, Arizona, and Nevada.

Solar Jobs Census 2017 (The Solar Foundation, www.solarstates.org)

The Solar Foundation map also lets you look at the data by county, census division, or congressional district, and has some data incorporated from the 2016 and 2015 censuses.

Who’s working in solar?

Another important measure of progress in the solar industry is how well it mirrors the US workforce. The Solar Foundation’s census and new tool show that veterans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans/Pacific Islanders are parts of the solar workforce in a solid way, but that women and African-Americans are underrepresented.

As with other data, states differ in terms of representation in solar. Women make up almost half the solar workforce in Vermont, for example:

Solar Jobs Census 2017 (The Solar Foundation, www.solarstates.org)

And more than one in six solar workers in North and South Dakota is a veteran (versus one in 14 of US workers as a whole):

Solar Jobs Census 2017 (The Solar Foundation, www.solarstates.org)

The makeup of the solar workforce, and changes in it, in part reflect where solar is happening, as The Solar Foundation’s latest census report explains:

In 2017, states with large Latino/Hispanic populations, such as California and Texas, and states with large Asian populations, such as California and Hawaii, saw declines in solar jobs. As a result, these demographic groups were slightly less represented in the industry compared to 2016. Meanwhile, states with large African-American populations, such as the District of Columbia and several Southeastern states, saw solar job growth, likely causing the boost in African-American representation from 6.6% in 2016 to 7.4% in 2017.

Knowledge is power

So what do we do with this information, and the new Solar Foundation tool? Here are three ideas:

  1. Keep an eye on solar job growth overall. The solar industry has really produced when it comes to US jobs; in 2016, 1 in 50 new American jobs was in solar. Use this the census to look at overall job trends, then think about what’s at stake, if, for example, your president is working to make solar harder for customers, not easier.
  2. Keep an eye on the solar job picture near you. More specifically, is your county/district/state picking up jobs, or losing them? If it’s the latter, ask for answers. Is it that your state’s solar or clean energy policies aren’t rational and clear? Massachusetts is in the #2 spot for overall jobs, but its numbers dropped by 20% between 2016 and 2017 as the industry waited (and waits) for the legislature and administration to provide clarity and remove barriers through solar (and other) policies. And that drop meant it slipped from #1 in solar jobs per capita all the way down to #7.
  3. Watch what’s happening to solar workforce diversity. Diversity builds strength. Are we moving quickly enough? Are we even going in the right direction? If not, why not?

And, #4: Act. Solar isn’t happening in a vacuum; our elected leaders at all levels need to be sending the right signals, ones that say we value this technology, for all the energy security, environmental, resilience, and, yes, jobs benefits it brings.

Strong, stable, forward-looking policies to drive solar growth. Commitments (in policy and in practice) to expanding access to solar across our communities, and to having a workforce that reflects us. And data and tools to help us understand it all.

That sounds like a recipe for a solar jobs picture we can continue to celebrate.

Solar and Wind Need a Larger Electric Grid—and California Might Just Create One

A grid operation control room. Photo: CAISO

Over the past decade years, thousands of megawatts of clean renewable energy have been installed in the West thanks to the declining cost of wind and solar power and state policies like the Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS). Since solar and wind power are by their nature intermittent, large quantities of weather-dependent generation require new solutions to maintain grid reliability while keeping costs low.

Right now, California relies heavily on natural gas to back up the grid during the times of day or seasons of the year when solar and wind power are not as readily available. But that’s not a sustainable solution both for climate change reasons. Plus, ramping the gas plants up and down frequently is not good for air quality and the people breathing that air.

In California, one better option to improve grid reliability, which is getting much attention from proponents and opponents right now, is regional energy market integration—also known as the creation of a western grid.

Who keeps the lights on today?

Grid reliability across the country is managed by entities called balancing authorities. These balancing authorities keep the lights on by balancing electricity supply and demand every four seconds. Regional reliability in the West is currently managed by 38 separate balancing authorities (Westerners like their independence, and that is reflected in the fragmentation of western balancing authorities). Compare the West to the Eastern Interconnection, where the majority of the power east of the Rockies is managed by six regional transmission organizations (RTOs).

There are 38 balancing authorities just within the western interconnection. Source: Western Electricity Coordinating Council

If balancing authorities can pool their resources together into one western grid, we will need fewer power sources to keep the system reliable. This has the added benefit of keeping costs low and making it easier to integrate more renewables into the electricity grid.

It’s not that there is zero coordination in the West today among the balancing authorities. California currently receives about 30% of its electricity from outside the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), the largest balancing authority in California. But as we increasingly rely more on solar and wind, the CAISO will need more tools in its toolbox to make sure we don’t rely too heavily on the California gas fleet to keep the lights on.

A regional market looks good from several angles

The tool currently being discussed at the California Legislature is the integration of the CAISO with other balancing authorities in the West to create a western independent system operator. Combining the resources of several western balancing authorities into a larger, more integrated regional energy market will make it possible to go farther and faster with renewable deployment in three important ways:

  1. Bigger, cleaner supply: A regional grid makes it easier to access flexible generation from a larger pool of resources, which will make it easier to meet electricity demands when renewables are not as plentiful (like when solar generation declines in the evening).
  2. Cheaper options: A regional grid helps California take advantage of low-cost renewables in other states where solar and wind make environmental and economic sense to build. More states equal more clean energy.
  3. Less waste: A regional grid helps California access a larger energy market to absorb the excess solar generation California customers cannot consume or is not cost-effective to store.
But is it a silver bullet?

There are lots of different ways California can create its low-carbon electricity future. There are efforts underway now to shift more electricity demand to times when renewables are most abundant, build more energy storage and local distributed resources to reduce congestion, make the grid more resilient, and reduce the need to rely on natural gas peaker plants, especially ones in disadvantaged communities. Efforts to establish a western regional energy market should not detract from these important efforts. We need all of it. And in some ways these strategies are even more important than a regional market for accomplishing certain climate and clean air objectives, like reducing the need to rely on specific in-state natural gas plants that provide local capacity.

Regional integration is not a silver bullet to our energy woes. But every day that we add more solar and wind power and come closer to reaching our climate goals, we need more flexibility on our grid to show the rest of the country and world that a clean energy transition can happen.

None of those other clean energy strategies can provide the level of flexibility that a regional energy market can.

What would a western energy market mean for coal?

California enacted a policy in 2006 called the Emissions Performance Standard which has helped to dramatically reduce the amount of electricity California receives from individual coal plants in the West. But coal generation also makes it into California’s power supply by way of unspecified market purchases for bundles of electricity, which is different than electricity purchases from specific plants. Unfortunately, today there’s not much we can do about that through direct California regulations.

However, one thing we can do, which has been the most important driver for coal plant retirements across this country, is expose that generation to more market competition from cheaper resources, like renewables. Having access to a western regional energy market is going to make it much easier for California to buy and build more renewables and help drive dirty coal off the market.

A regional grid also has the benefit of added transparency. Coal that currently makes it to California as unspecified power would have to be disclosed if the plants were located in a western ISO. Right now, our cap and trade program is forced to assign unspecified market purchases a carbon cost that reflects a lower carbon content than coal because we can’t actually see which plants are providing that generation. If we can see the coal, we can accurately assign its carbon value if that electricity is serving California load.

It’s complicated

I don’t want to give the impression that integrating western balancing authorities is an easy step. The CAISO board of governors is appointed by the governor of California and confirmed by the State Senate. If a western ISO is created, the board of governors will not all be California political appointees and that makes some people nervous.

But regional integration is a tool the CAISO needs. It will further expand the market for renewables and will help push California closer to our 100% clean energy goals.

Will Michigan’s Public Service Commission Stand Strong and Reject DTE’s Billion-dollar Natural Gas Gamble?

Photo: Walter/CC BY (Flickr)

Months of technical analysis have wrapped up. Thousands of pages of documents, testimony, and legal briefs have been submitted. And the entity charged with protecting ratepayer interests—Michigan’s Public Service Commission (MPSC)—has the proof it needs to stand up for ratepayers and the environment by rejecting DTE’s proposed $1 billion natural gas gamble. But will the Commission rise to the challenge?

Wind power in Michigan

As DTE looks to transition away from coal, clean energy—including renewables, efficiency, and demand response—are proving to be cheaper and cleaner. They’re also creating more jobs and economic development than natural gas. Photo credit: Flickr user RTD Photography

As DTE, Michigan’s largest utility, laudably looks to transition away from its historic overreliance on coal-fired power plants, it has regrettably turned its eye towards natural gas, figuring it can keep building large—and expensive—power plants that look good on its balance sheets while saddling ratepayers with the costs.

This appears to be DTE’s thinking as it has come to the MPSC seeking approval to build a 1,100 megawatt (MW) natural gas power plant with a cost to ratepayers of $989 million, including about 10 percent profit for its shareholders.

To get approval, DTE must prove that the plant is the “most reasonable and prudent” option for meeting customer demand. However, DTE fell flat in its attempt to do so. In fact, a counter-analysis submitted to the MPSC clearly showed that a combination of energy efficiency, demand response to reduce peak demand, and renewable energy could replace DTE’s retiring coal plants for less money, less pollution, and more jobs.T

Michigan’s energy future shouldn’t be decided by shoddy, biased analysis

I wrote back in January about DTE’s analysis and the multitude of errors, inconsistencies, and biases that were discovered by parties (including UCS) that intervened before the MPSC to review DTE’s proposal. It’s a lengthy list that, by any objective standard, undermines DTE’s purported conclusion that its proposed natural gas plant is the best option for ratepayers.

We also used DTE’s own modeling tools to show how a combination of clean energy alternatives—renewables, efficiency, and demand response—could meet DTE’s power needs at lower cost while providing a more diverse, cleaner, and lower-risk portfolio of energy resources. Then last month a study completed by BW Research Partners (commissioned by UCS and Vote Solar) showed how this portfolio of clean energy resources would create more jobs and more tax revenues than DTE’s proposed project.

Other intervenors agreed with our assessment of DTE’s analysis. Even the MPSC’s staff agreed that DTE’s analysis of the proposed plant and alternatives fell short, finding they would have “preferred a more robust analysis”, that they “had concerns with DTE’s risk analysis”, that they are “concerned with DTE’s renewable energy and distributed energy portfolio”, and that DTE’s energy efficiency program is “bare bones.”

Yet, despite all those concerns, MPSC staff still recommended that Commissioners approve DTE’s application because DTE has “minimally complied” with the law.

Is this how we’re going to make billion-dollar investment decisions that will impact ratepayers and the environment for decades to come? I hope not. DTE, and all of Michigan’s monopoly utilities, should be held to far higher standards.

DTE on clean energy: I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today Installing solar panels in PA

Actions speak louder than words. DTE’s proposal to spend the next 10 years building natural gas plants doesn’t square with its talk about addressing climate change or investing in renewable energy. Photo: used with permission from publicsource.org

You never want to be compared to Popeye’s friend Wimpy, but that’s exactly DTE’s approach to clean energy—give me what I want now and I “promise” to take care of you later. That simply isn’t good enough when it comes to clean energy and addressing climate change. DTE has made strong statements on the growing threat of climate change and pledged to cut it carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. It has pushed back on a looming ballot initiative that would increase the state’s renewable energy standard to 30 percent by 2030 by claiming that the company is already planning to invest heavily in renewable energy.

But here’s the rub: the plan they put before the MPSC would put them in a constant state of build. Not renewables, but natural gas. First the $1 billion plant that it wants approval to start building now to be completed in 2023. Then another $1 billion plant it wants to build starting in 2024 to be completed in 2029.

The majority of DTE’s renewable energy investments wouldn’t happen until after 2030. In fact, under DTE’s plan, only 11 percent of its energy would come from renewables by 2025. If historically low natural gas prices go up, ratepayers will bear the burden—not DTE. If we as a nation get serious about climate change and these plants must be dialed down or shuttered, that would be on ratepayers too. But DTE is asking for its hamburger today and promising it will build lots of renewables on Tuesday.

Time for the MPSC to step up and set a strong precedent

When utilities come to the MPSC asking for $1 billion in ratepayer dollars (including a guaranteed 10 percent rate of return), the MPSC must hold them to a high standard of proof that the investment is a smart one for ratepayers. DTE failed to do that and should be sent back to the drawing board to take a more serious look at all the reasonable alternatives.

Robust analysis and careful planning are at the heart of ratepayer protection. Particularly when we are in the midst of an energy system transformation, the MPSC’s role in holding utilities accountable for sound decision-making is as important as ever. Let’s hope they take that role seriously.

Public Source

How Did Climate and Clean Energy Programs Fare in the 2018 Federal Budget?

Late last night the Senate passed the fy18 omnibus spending package to keep the federal government running through September. The bill is a complete repudiation of President Trump’s budget priorities, especially on climate change and clean energy.

In fact, I’d argue that the “art of the deal” approach the administration took in negotiating with Congress over the budget numbers (pushing overly draconian cuts in the hope that Congress would move slightly closer in their direction) proved to have the opposite effect. It galvanized Congress in opposition to the president’s budget priorities and solidified bipartisan coalitions in support of specific programs and agencies, proving once again that bullying Congress on funding is not an effective strategy for the executive branch to take.

The administration’s interests would have been better served working in partnership with Congress—a lesson this president clearly has not learned given his fy19 budget request.

Here’s how some important Climate and Clean Energy Programs fared in the fy18 omnibus:

What does this tell us?
  • Clean energy R&D (and energy efficiency) still matter to both Republicans and Democrats. It’s not so much a climate thing as it is a local thing, an energy security thing, and a “pro-growth” strategy.
  • Climate change (climate science) has become so politicized on the hill that Congress doesn’t want to touch it and instead defaults to continued funding without increases or cuts. While some may see level funding as a victory (especially in this political environment), we know climate change is a growing and serious threat to our economy and national security, and therefore climate science should truly necessitate increased priority and federal support.
  • People are feeling the impacts of a changing climate (especially extreme weather). Both Democrats and Republicans see the logic in investing up-front to be more prepared and save cost and heartache on the back end.

The president signed the bill shortly after a brief veto threat. The budget reflects the fact that science advocacy matters, but it’s also a reminder that we need to be vigilant in our work to depoliticize the issue of climate change and continue to work in strong bipartisan fashion to advance shared goals around clean energy deployment and innovation, as well as community resilience to extreme weather and other climate impacts.

This One Policy Would Provide Billions to Protect Massachusetts from Climate Change

Photo: MBTA

As Massachusetts residents dig themselves out of the fourth Nor’easter in the past three weeks, policy leaders on Beacon Hill are beginning to dig in to some of the critical questions that will determine the future of the Commonwealth in an era of climate change.

Questions like:

  • How do we protect ourselves from the impacts of more intense storms, sea level rise, and increasing flooding from storm surges that are certain to continue to plague our state over the coming decades?
  • How do we build a transportation system that is clean, resilient to the impacts of climate change, fiscally and ecologically sustainable, equitable, and capable of handling the exploding growth in the Boston metro area?
  • And bottom line: how are we going to finance the kind of investments in infrastructure and technology that will be necessary to protect our state and achieve the requirements of Massachusetts climate law?

The good news is that there is a bill in the Massachusetts legislature that has a lot of great ideas for how to move the Commonwealth forward. Many of these ideas have already been covered well by others, including our own John Rogers, as well as David Ismay at Conservation Law Foundation and Ben Hellerstein at Environment Massachusetts.

In this post, I want to talk about one of these ideas, a policy that if enacted could represent one of the most profound changes in Massachusetts climate policy in a decade. That is the requirement that the state enact “market-based compliance mechanisms” to address climate change.

If you’re like most people, you are probably asking yourself: what the heck does that mean?

It means cap and invest. And this provision could unleash over $750 million per year in funding to address some of the state’s critical transportation, energy, and infrastructure needs.

A brief overview of the GWSA

Let me explain.

In 2008, the Massachusetts legislature unanimously passed a law called the Global Warming Solutions Act (“GWSA”). This law requires the state to reduce emissions by at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. It also required the state to set a limit for 2020: in 2009 the state set a limit of 25% from 1990 levels by 2020.

The GWSA, which clocks in at about six pages, does not specify exactly what policies should be enacted to reach these limits. Instead, the GWSA requires executive agencies to figure it out. This strategy, known as cap-and-delegate, is a common approach to addressing climate change. It allows executive agencies to take advantage of their superior technical knowledge and expertise in crafting energy policy. Indeed, Massachusetts’ GWSA is very similar to California’s cap-and-delegate statute, also entitled the Global Warming Solutions Act, although California’s law is more commonly referred to by it’s Assembly Bill number, AB 32.

One obvious question that has dogged the GWSA from the beginning is: what happens if our plan isn’t good enough, and we fail to achieve our limits? This question is particularly vexing because given the speed at which this information becomes available, we will not know whether we made the 2020 limit until 2023. And it’s important to address, because as we look to 2030 we are going to need to make progress in areas such as transportation and heating that have proven challenging thus far.

Market-based compliance mechanisms

The GWSA provides one tool that could help ensure compliance with the statute: the state could enact market-based compliance mechanisms. That means doing three things:

  • Establishing a limit on pollution;
  • Requiring companies that pollute to purchase allowances from a limited pool made available by the state; and
  • Investing the money we generate from these auction sales in efficiency and clean energy.

This is the strategy that the GWSA calls “market-based compliance mechanisms”, the world calls “cap-and-trade” and we call, most accurately, cap-and-invest. It represents a simple, elegant solution to the challenge of reducing aggregate emissions from across broad sectors of our society. It has been used all around the world by countries, states, and provinces looking to reduce emissions and raise money for climate solutions.

We have a cap-and-invest program in Massachusetts. It’s called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI. It’s the funding source for many of our most popular and important climate programs, such as MassSave and the Green Communities Act. It has helped save consumers $600 million on their energy bills, produced over $1 billion in health benefits for our state, and created over 2,000 jobs.

But RGGI only applies to power plants. Today, the largest source of emissions in the state is transportation, with heating homes and businesses close behind. Other jurisdictions, including California, Ontario, and Quebec, have expanded this cap-and-invest model economy-wide, and the result has been billions in new funding for clean transportation and energy projects. It’s time for Massachusetts to do the same.

What would economy-wide cap-and-invest do for Massachusetts?

The bill in the legislature would allow the administration to consider a couple of different approaches to expanding cap-and-invest to transportation and heating.

One possibility, suggested in a recent op-ed by Senator Stan Rosenberg, would be to create a “state-based, market-driven approach to the use of carbon.” Another possibility is that the state could join with the other RGGI states in launching new cap and invest programs modeled after RGGI covering transportation and heating fuels. A third possibility would be for Massachusetts to join with California, Ontario, and Quebec’s program covering transportation and heating fuels.

But either way, cap and invest could be a funding source for climate solutions on a scale that we have never seen before in Massachusetts.

For example, if Massachusetts were to take the California-Ontario-Quebec path, at current auction values it would raise over $750 million that we could invest to reduce emissions and protect the state from climate change. Over $450 million of that would be from transportation fuels, which we could use to fund projects that improve public transportation, encourage electric vehicles, and make our transportation infrastructure more resilient. $300 million would be from heating fuels and other industrial uses, which could be invested in efficiency and new technologies such as heat pumps.

By the way, we could do this without legislation

The proposal in the legislature would require the administration to enact an economy-wide cap and invest program. But if executive agencies want to move forward with market-based solutions to climate change, there is no reason to wait for new legislation: the GWSA already provides the authority for the administration to implement market-based solutions, either on our own or in partnership with our partners in RGGI states and Canadian provinces.

Achieving the limits of the GWSA means ending an era where fossil fuel companies can produce unlimited quantities of pollution for free. Bringing all pollution sources under a market-based cap is a critical next frontier of climate policy in Massachusetts. With the state increasingly focused on how we can make investments in infrastructure to support our transportation system and protect our state from climate impacts, now is the time to take this step and protect the Commonwealth from climate change.

Photo: MBTA

What to Look For in Tomorrow’s DOE Budget Hearing

On Thursday morning, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies (within the Committee on Appropriations) will hold a hearing on applied energy funding for the FY 2019 budget. (The FY 2018 budget, which goes until the end of September, is being finalized this week in order to avoid a government shutdown on Friday.) We’ll see a parade of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries of the applied energy technology offices within the Department of Energy (DOE)—all of whom are political appointees—attempt to justify their boss’s proposal seeking to gut R&D funding for clean energy and low carbon technologies.

The President’s budget takes aim at applied energy programs

It’s pretty clear that the president’s proposed budget, similar to last year, seeks to drastically reduce funding for applied energy research, development, and demonstration (R&D). And the cuts extend beyond the nearly 2/3 reduction in R&D funding for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy—the budget slashes funding by 26 percent for advanced fossil technology like CCS and 26% for advanced nuclear R&D. The Office of Electricity Delivery is hit hard, with its program on Energy Storage facing a 74 percent reduction to its already paltry budget.

For the second year in a row, the administration is proposing to ax ARPA-E, something even Secretary Perry opposes. ARPA-E enjoys strong bipartisan support because the agency is advancing transformational energy projects that can potentially and radically improve U.S. economic strength, national security, and environmental outcomes. And finally, the president’s budget eliminates the Loan Guarantee Program, even though the program has generated more than $1.79 billion in interest repaid to the US Treasury.

Program FY 2017 Enacted FY 2018 Senate Proposal FY 2018 House Proposal FY 2018 President’s Request FY 2019 President’s Request Proposed FY18 cut Proposed FY19 cut Basic Energy Sciences $1,872 $1,980 $1,872 $1,555 $1,850 -16.9% -1.1% EERE $2,035 $1,937 $1,104 $636 $696 -68.7% -65.8% Office of Electricity $150 $213 $219 $120 $61 -20.2% -59.2% Energy Storage Program $31 $31 $31 $8 $8 -74.2% -74.2% ARPA-E $305 $330 $- $20 $- -93.4% -100.0% Fossil R&D $682 $573 $635 $335 $502 -50.9% -26.4% Nuclear Energy $1,016 $917 $969 $703 $757 -30.8% -25.5% All Dollars in Millions.

The table above shows the current funding levels (FY 2017 Enacted refers to the final numbers passed by Congress through continuing resolutions); the House and Senate committee reports for FY 2018 (likely to be out of date by the end of the week); and the president’s requests for both FY 2018 and FY 2019.

Grid scale energy storage has the potential to change the way the grid functions—with positive benefits for society. But the technologies aren’t quite commercial scale, yet. Most of DOE’s funding for energy storage RD&D comes through the Energy Storage program within the Office of Electricity, various programs and cross programmatic initiatives within EERE, and ARPA-E. And yet, the president is proposing a 74 percent reduction in the Energy Storage program, complete elimination of ARPA-E, and a 66 percent cut to EERE.

Why such steep cuts for all these applied technology programs? As I’ve written previously, the administration continues to drive an ideological wedge between basic and applied research, based on the false premise that the private sector can pick up these technologies and move them to commercialization.

Is there any evidence that the private sector will pick up the slack?

In a word, no.

Funding for energy RD&D is a wise investment for the federal government—to maintain (or regain) US competitiveness in innovation, and to ensure that new technologies are able to reach the market instead of withering on the vine. This piece explains why; in a nutshell:

  • Venture capital is not flowing into energy projects (only 2 percent of venture capital went to energy projects in 2016) partly because these projects often require larger up-front costs;
  • Established energy institutions are risk averse, and in the case of regulated utilities, have a guaranteed rate of return—utilities, for example, generally spend only 0.1% of revenue on R&D.

By investing in energy RD&D (both basic and applied), the federal government unlocks private funding, creating a healthy innovation ecosystem for energy technologies. From solar power, to wind power manufacturing, to the shale gas revolution, and more—DOE has been an “indispensable partner in American energy innovation.”

The President cedes leadership to China

Let’s take our federal investments in energy storage as an example. As the president backs away from RD&D for energy storage, other countries are stepping up. China, India, Germany, the UK, Canada, and Australia have dedicated policies and strategies to advancing energy storage. Elsewhere around the world, policymakers see the value of energy storage and want to be part of a global market that is set to double six times by 2030.

China, for example, is making enormous government investments in storage. Chinese officials see these investments as strategic, and the country is poised to be the clean energy leader of the next decade and beyond. Last fall China published a national plan on the development of the storage industry. Chinese companies already control global markets for key battery components, and China is set to be a global superpower in storage technologies in the 2020s.

The president is proposing that the U.S. simply fold—and the stakes are high: nothing less than who will hold the jobs of the future.

The Administration’s budget will hurt our National Laboratories

Our system of 17 national laboratories “have served as the leading institutions for scientific innovation in the United States for more than seventy years,” according to the DOE’s website. They also serve as anchor institutions that are critical to local economic development—and simultaneously training the next generation of scientists and engineers. Secretary Perry said in January, “DOE’s 17 laboratories are the crown jewels of American science.” For all these reasons, people across the ideological spectrum agree that our nation’s National Labs are critical to innovation and to our nation’s competitiveness.

The thing is, the national labs are funded by government agencies—primarily DOE, to include both Basic Energy Sciences in the Office of Science as well as the applied technology offices in the Office of Energy. This means that federal budget cuts can translate into cuts—and job losses—at national labs.

In Colorado, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) receives about three-quarters of its funding from EERE, according to a report last year on the State of the DOE National Laboratories. The uncertainty created by the administration’s proposed budget is leaving NREL’s 1,700 employees, plus hundreds of contractors, interns, and visiting researchers, in limbo about their future.

In Tennessee, Oak Ridge National Laboratory eliminated 350 jobs in 2017, although it’s unclear how much of that had to do with proposed budget cuts.


Any appropriator will tell you that a president’s budget is basically meaningless, because Congress holds the purse strings. Let’s hope these appropriators continue to recognize the value of applied energy technology and hold the administration’s feet to the fire.

Energy Storage is the Policy Epicenter of Energy Innovation

A darkened Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy. Photo courtesy of David Shankbone.

Right now, the reliability and economics of the electric power grid is changing. A major player in this change might be energy storage. Utilities have always known that storing electricity is valuable, but other than building dams to hold water, it wasn’t a real option. But battery advances—some from government-funded R&D for vehicles, some from laptops and cellphones—have opened a door.

How will utilities and regulators know what to do with battery energy storage?

When the utility industry has gradually seen enough research, testing, safety standards and performance assurances, then they will have the confidence to adopt this new technology. The common experiences with batteries for storing energy are not perfect. Think about your cellphone’s battery. But where a national interest is made into policies or funding, the needed gaps are getting attention.

Where is this happening?

China, India, Germany, Japan, UK, Canada and Australia all have dedicated policies and strategies to bring on the reliability and efficiencies of grid energy storage.

And in the US?

The US Department of Energy has run a small and effective R&D program that leverages the funding of states (Alaska, California, New York and Washington in particular), utilities, and private companies relying on the expertise and staff of national labs in Idaho, New Mexico, Tennessee and Washington. For a look at the budget of this effort, see my colleague’s blog.

Our national interest in security, quality of life and economy based on electricity, and the growth from technology innovation will all benefit from success in energy storage. However, federal funding has lagged far behind that of other countries, and our own needs.

Policy decisions supporting energy storage of many kinds, in many states. Courtesy Energy Storage Association.

To give just one example: the US has not funded the 2014 DOE recommendations for an Energy Storage Safety Strategic Plan.

Meanwhile, the states push policies

Through initial regulatory approvals or bigger plans, states actively supporting adoption of energy storage include Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Vermont, and Virginaa. (There may be more, given the widespread interest in grabbing this opportunity.)

So how far have we come?

Batteries for the grid are still exceedingly rare. The first time a utility company in the US added a battery to its grid was in the late 1980’s. Two demonstrations were built in 1987. One was built by the co-operative electric company based in Statesville, North Carolina, which accepted a test battery from Public Service Electric & Gas in New Jersey. The other, much larger, was installed by Southern California Edison east of Los Angeles.

For comparison, the first nuclear power plant for a utility company started running in 1957, 30 years earlier.  That plant was built from a core that was intended for a Navy ship, a reminder of the national security interest in energy technology innovation.

To shorten power blackouts, strengthen our military bases, reduce our electric bills, and reduce pollution from power plants, we need federal government program commitments that are up to the opportunity and the challenge posed by our international rivals.

Spate of Nor’easters Rips Down Wires, Sparks Calls to Do Better

Photo: Western Area Power/CC BY (Flickr)

Over the first two weeks of March, three separate storms raged their way through my home state of Massachusetts. Each triggered life-threatening emergencies and what are certain to be costly, long-lasting cleanups.

They also resulted in massive and widespread power outages.

Thundering wind, crashing trees, and roiling floodwaters led to a significant number of homes and businesses getting thrust into the cold and dark; all told, each storm resulted in the loss of power for hundreds of thousands of customers across the state.

Two weeks, and three jarring reminders of just how dependent we are on the grid—and how vulnerable that grid is to failure.

And now, another storm is barreling on down the Pike.

Let’s make sure these aren’t suffered in vain.

Grid’s year in review

Our electricity grid is at once an incredible modern marvel and a staggeringly vulnerable piece of critical infrastructure.

And it’s not just been Nor’easters reminding us of that.

Indeed, this past year has been something of a master class in highlighting all the many ways the natural world can yank our electricity system to its knees, from flooding, to hurricanes, to wildfires, and more.

And it’s not just weather. Last week, the US government released an alert regarding Russian government cyber activity relating to energy and other critical infrastructure. Cyber threats are real, and growing.

At the same time, our society is rapidly tipping toward wholesale dependence on an interconnected world, one entirely reliant upon uninterrupted power. Which means that as incredible as these advances have been, it’s also increasingly true that everything stops when the power goes out.

So how do we make sure the lights stay on?

Complex problem, complex solu…zzzzzz

The challenges facing the grid are many, and there’s no one clean fix to solve them all. Worse, there’s no way that we’ll ever stop all power outages from occurring. Which all too often means that lawmakers and regulators find it’s easier to simply leave the problem alone.

But as the hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses across Massachusetts that lost power can attest, willful ignorance in the face of complex problems is an entirely unacceptable solution.

Here, a quick consideration of the multiple parallel vulnerabilities that exist along each part of the power system—vulnerabilities that must be overcome to make the grid more reliable and resilient throughout:

  • Generation. There’s no electricity without a power source, which means that ensuring our power plants can keep on generating is of first-order importance when trying to maintain our power supply. Threats facing generators are many and varied, though rarely result in customer outages: rising seas overtaking coastal sites, warming waters and droughts decreasing the reliability of thermal generators like coal and nuclear plants, an onslaught of cyber attacks looming over complex generator controls, and dependence on a system that’s predominantly reliant upon large central generators as opposed to a multitude of decentralized sources.
  • Transmission. To get electricity from power plants to end users, our system relies upon the transmission grid, a complex network of high-voltage wires that help convey electricity long distances. If these lines go down—whether from trees, fires, extreme weather, or mismanaged operational controls—large disruptions can result.
  • Distribution. Transmission lines bring electricity the majority of the way, but it’s the distribution system that actually delivers power to the end user. And here’s where so often the outages occur. From falling branches to floodwaters to squirrels and more, threats to the distribution network are many and varied.
  • Operations. Improving operations is perhaps most important of all, as it’s a near certainty that the power will go out. If utilities don’t have a plan to return power to the system as expeditiously as possible—while minding the particular and compounded threats facing vulnerable populations and critical services—power failures can quickly cascade into far worse disasters. An operations plan that is centered on system resilience enables rapid bounce-back in the face of inevitable blackouts.

One of the things that makes boosting grid resilience and reliability so challenging is that different areas of vulnerability require different solutions. Many, though, are rooted in the fundamental principle that strength flows through diversity, from generator sizes and types to network pathways and redundancies.

Some solutions are straight forward, like tree-trimming to keep snow-laden branches off power lines, and flood planning to keep critical assets out of the water. Others are more complex, like developing renewables-based microgrids to ensure critical services and vulnerable populations are powered up even if the broader grid goes down.

But the two things all solutions absolutely must have? A commitment to forward-looking perspectives, where climate impacts are considered over the full lifetime of infrastructure investments, and sustained diligence to see the solutions to a complex problem through.

Embracing the slog of incremental solutions

Slowly, we’re seeing the power of painful repetition to eventually, eventually activate the search for solutions.

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, Massachusetts developed a $40 million initiative to bolster community electricity resilience projects served by clean energy technologies, alongside a series of additional resilience-supportive programs. Utilities have also been improving operations response plans reflecting learning from storms past. And finally, the state is also working to drive down its carbon emissions, staving off the worst of climate impacts, through clean energy commitments large and small.

And now, with shovels still scraping away at the mess of the last storm, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has filed legislation that would authorize over $1.4 billion in investments to make the Commonwealth more resilient in the face of climate impacts.

It would be another critical step in the right direction. But still, it cannot be the last step.

We need to make sure not only that such a conversation keeps progressing in Massachusetts, but also that it takes place all across the country. As these Nor’easters have shown, there’s work to do to meet the challenges of today, let alone the rapidly evolving threats of tomorrow.

For long-lived infrastructure upon which we all so heavily rely, we need a system ready and able to face conditions now and in the future. And what’s more, we need leaders who are ready, willing, and able to do the hard work of steadily chipping away at solving a complex problem.

Photo: Western Area Power/CC BY (Flickr)

Black Lung, Abandoned Mines, Struggling Communities—And No Leadership

A miner waiting for a black lung screening. Photo: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

My grandfather was the son of Italian immigrants—many of whom settled in north central West Virginia to work in the coal mines. He worked hard his whole life and built a better life for himself and our family. According to family legend, he famously told my grandmother early in their courtship, “Stick with me, and you’ll wear diamonds.” She did.

My grandfather died of black lung disease in 1988.

Thirty years later, there’s no way that other families should be going through what mine and so many others have. And yet today the disease is making a strong and frightening resurgence. How is black lung related to economic development and mine reclamation? It turns out Congress has an opportunity to address all three by passing the RECLAIM Act—but only if leaders don’t take their eyes off the ball.

What is black lung disease?

The effect of black lung disease. Photo: LeRoy Woodson, Wikimedia

Coal worker’s pneumoconiosis—known as black lung disease or simply black lung—results from long-term exposure to coal dust. The small particles build up in the lungs over time, since the body can’t expel them, leading to inflammation, fibrosis (the buildup of excess connective tissue), and in the worst-case scenario, necrosis (cellular death). Black lung is similar to other forms of lung disease caused by exposure to silica dust. The early stage of the disease is called simple black lung, while the later stage (and more debilitating) form is called complicated black lung.

As the disease progresses, it quite literally becomes harder and harder to breathe. The disease has no cure (short of a lung transplant, only available for miners healthy enough to qualify).

Black lung is, however, entirely preventable—simply by avoiding inhalation of coal dust.

The Obama administration developed stricter rules to lower the level of respirable dust, and to protect coal miners from the health dangers of exposure. Coal companies fought the rule tooth and nail, and lost in court.

But now the current administration is “reevaluating” the rule meant to protect miners’ health as part of its anti-regulatory agenda, although the current head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration claims that the agency has “no immediate plans” to weaken the rule.

“Mining disasters get monuments. Black lung deaths get tombstones.”

In my grandfather’s time underground, the causes of black lung weren’t well understood. But now we know how to prevent the disease—by reducing exposure to coal dust.

And yet, now, near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the disease is actually on the rise. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has uncovered the largest cluster of complicated black lung cases ever reported: 416 cases reported in three central Appalachian clinics from 2013 to 2017. The study followed an investigation by NPR last year that found 963 cases from 11 clinics since the beginning of the decade. In NPR’s ongoing coverage, some 2,000 cases have been documented, far more than government statistics.

Even more alarming, the disease seems to be affecting younger miners, in their 50s, 40s, and even 30s. Why? Epidemiologists have linked the new wave of black lung cases to breathing in more silica dust, likely the result of a long-term shift to mining thinner seams of coal. Getting to these thinner seams requires cutting into surrounding rock—creating silica dust that is also breathed by miners.

The human cost of this disease is almost immeasurable. Have a listen to NPR’s audio report on the NIOSH study, which features several miners suffering with the disease. Local officials call this cluster a public health emergency. As one clinic director notes (also in the NPR story):

Mining disasters get monuments. Black lung deaths get tombstones. And I’ve seen many a tombstone in 28 years from black lung. And I’m seeing more now. A lot more now.

Federal support

According to the Department of Labor, 76,000 miners have died of black lung since 1968. To support miners and families when the coal company can’t be identified or is no longer in business, in 1977 Congress set up the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which has so far shelled out $45 billion in compensation to miners and their families. (When the coal company responsible for a miner’s disability can be identified, it often takes many years for miners to receive compensation, because the company can hire expensive lawyers and its own doctors to dispute the diagnosis, creating an endless backlog of red tape and bureaucracy.)

Payments from the trust fund go to present and former coal miners in part for medical payments arising from disability from working in the mines. The fund also provides monthly payments to disabled miners and their surviving dependents. My grandmother received those payments after my grandfather passed away.

The money for the fund comes from a per ton excise tax on coal, paid by coal companies.

That tax, though, is set to revert to low, 1977 levels at the end of 2018. The Government Accountability Office is currently studying how this reduction would affect the solvency of the Trust Fund. With all the coal companies going bankrupt in the last few years, there may well be a funding crisis on hand for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

Congressional action?

What does all this have to do with abandoned coal mines and economic development?

As I’ve written, the RECLAIM Act, H.R.1731, would release $1 billion over 5 years to clean up and repurpose long-abandoned coal mines. The House version would prioritize projects that spur local economic development. This would represent a win-win for coal communities suffering from the downturn in the industry. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) has championed this legislation in Congress.

Even though RECLAIM would release money from the Abandoned Mine Land Fund, it still represents a payment out of the Treasury; because of budgeting rules, the legislation requires a “pay-for”, meaning adding new revenue or new cuts to offset the payments. Rep. Rogers worked with his colleagues and proposed extending the coal excise tax for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund at current levels for an additional 10 years.

With that change, the bill now represents a win-win-win—ensuring the continuation of much needed medical payments and compensation for miners while also cleaning up abandoned mine sites by funding projects that simultaneously spur local economic and community development.

Opposition from the usual suspects

Rogers and his supporters are working to attach the bill to the Omnibus spending bill for Fiscal Year 2018, which must be completed by March 23 to keep the government open.

Coal mining companies and their national trade association the National Mining Association (NMA), though, hate the RECLAIM Act and are working hard to kill it. All of their lobbying in the name of reducing taxes that would pay for the mess they’ve made, in terms of both environmental destruction and human suffering.

Where’s the leadership?

US House leadership is currently putting together its omnibus spending bill for FY 2018. Is RECLAIM on their minds?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who hails from Kentucky, says that he supports RECLAIM, but actions speak louder than words. Will he acknowledge the broad public support for RECLAIM by his constituents?

As a first generation American, my grandfather was proud to pay his taxes. Coal companies should be too. It’s unconscionable—and sadly, unsurprising—that coal companies continue to put profits over people.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)