UCS Blog - Clean Energy (text only)

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)

3 Takeaways from the Latest Solar Results

Installing solar panels in PA Photo: publicsource.org

The official industry solar results for 2017 have just been released, and as always there’s a lot to process. Here are three takeaways that jump out.

1. Annual solar installations took a hit.

The amount of solar installed during 2017 was appreciably below what 2016 racked up, say GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) in their annual report.

We were coming off an incredibly strong 2016 performance, driven in part by a key tax policy deadline, so 2017 was going to be a year for the industry to catch its breath anyway. President Trump toying with the idea of solar tariffs, though, unsettled companies and customers. And the late 2017 tax law undermined, or at least muddied, some of the federal incentives for solar.

So that part of the drop was not unexpected.

But we also saw softening in key residential markets. Massachusetts, for example, is (again) bumping up against state-mandated caps on “net-metered” solar, and having some growing pains in moving to a new approach to customer incentives. In California, GTM and SEIA said, the drop was due to “a wet winter and saturation in the state’s largest solar market”.

GTM-SEIA Solar Market Insight, 2017 Year in Review

2. But solar still soared overall.

But pull the lens back a bit, temporally, and it’s easy to see a lot to celebrate in the 2017 results:

  • With 10,618 megawatts of new solar capacity installed during the year, 2017 was second only to 2016.
  • Those 10,618 megawatts are enough to meet the electricity needs of more than 2 million typical US homes.
  • The 2017 total for new solar capacity was more than 40% above 2015’s, and more than three times what got installed just five years earlier.
  • Total installed US solar capacity, at 53,000 megawatts, is now twice what it was at the end of 2015.

The 2017 installation total for the residential sector, down 16% from 2016, still grew in 25 out of the 44 states that GTM/SEIA track, and was 80% higher than in 2014.

And the non-residential sector actually had a great year, with 28% more capacity installed during 2017 than in 2016. That category includes systems for businesses (commercial and industrial), but also community/shared solar, which accounts for 20% of that category. Community solar systems let households or businesses buy into solar by subscribing from a distance. And that’s a great thing as we continue to work to serve households that can’t do solar on the roof (renters, etc.).


3. And… we can do better.

GTM/SEIA are projecting that 2018 installations will be right around the same level as 2017, and that then we’ll start to climb. But their projections—reasoned and well-grounded though they are—aren’t our destiny. “There is no rule that says just because there’s a projection of a flat year or doubling by 2022 that we can’t do better,” says Dan Whitten, SEIA’s vice president of communications.

So how do we bend that curve upward even more quickly?

Credit: Aeon Solar via NREL

GTM’s Austin Perea, the new report’s lead author, points to permitting as one area of real opportunity, pointing out that other countries have much more streamlined processes for residential solar. It’s been clear for years that “soft costs”, the non-hardware piece of solar systems, could be a lot lower than they are.

Stabilizing our national energy policies would help, too. Our president’s obsession with tariffs is now set to make steel and aluminum more expensive, on top of the direct solar tariffs from last month, which hits solar and other renewables, and destabilizes energy markets more broadly.

We also need to get state solar policies aligned with the opportunity that solar represents, for energy, security, and jobs. In Massachusetts, for example, we need to get rid of the caps that are standing in the way of more solar, nail down state incentives, and remove barriers to adoption of solar by a broader swath of our neighborhoods by not discouraging community solar.

And we need to continue to innovate. Lower costs and greater value via innovation will make it that much easier for companies to weather the slings and arrows of federal and state policy swings, and for would-be customers to be able to gauge the solar value proposition.

Bright future, now

However it happens, solar’s future is bright, and solar will grow. As SEIA’s Whitten says, “It’s not a question of if, but when.”

Given the role solar can play, and is playing, in moving us toward clean energy, we just need that future to be as bright as possible, and as soon as possible.

GTM-SEIA Solar Market Insight, 2017 Year in Review


Public Source

Energy Storage Means Energy Security—but Trump’s Budget Gives It the Axe

On Thursday, Rick Perry—the Department of Energy Secretary—is scheduled to testify on the President’s fiscal year 2019 budget request in front of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee. No doubt the secretary will give a charming, yet uncomfortable defense of the budget, just like last year; lots of winking and silent pointing back to the White House, with some convenient ignorance thrown in for good measure.

As a Texan, it pains me to see my former governor, a man who ran the state pragmatically and competently for 14 years, squirm and strain to communicate why it’s good for our country to cut the national labs and reduce our commitment to federally funded scientific and technological innovation.

For the second year in a row the president’s budget guts our nation’s funding for clean energy, energy efficiency, grid modernization, and energy R&D. Alarmingly, the president’s budget calls for a 74% cut to our nation’s energy storage program in the office of electricity.

I say “alarmingly” because it’s a national security issue. This program is severely underfunded at $31 million a year. At scale, the ability to store energy for when we need it means energy security. It means no more fuel supply lines for our military. It means no more blackouts from extreme weather. And it means never having to be dependent on other countries for energy resources. It’s important.

An energy recovery system. Photo: Wikimedia

Energy storage technologies were invented and developed right here in the United States, but now China is threatening to dominate the global market and our administration is proposing that we scale back our nominal federal R&D efforts on energy storage. Appropriators must reject the administration’s misguided proposal, and substantially increase federal support for energy storage research, development, and demonstration.

Why energy storage is important

Energy storage is energy security. Energy is the engine of a nation’s self-determination, and uninterrupted access to energy is fundamental to any nation’s security (and economy). The US is no different, but in this country we possess the technological ability to achieve energy independence through the way we generate, transmit, and consume energy.

How can energy storage make America more secure and prosperous?

  • Energy storage technologies help make the grid more secure, by allowing us to store and dispatch electricity more efficiently and with more control.
  • It also allows us to increase access to renewable energy resources like wind and solar in a way that also improves grid reliability.
  • It can provide energy security to critical facilities like hospitals, police departments and fire stations in the face of blackouts and extreme weather.
  • Mobile applications for energy storage in electric vehicles have the potential to change our entire transportation economy and permanently end our dependence on foreign oil.
  • The military needs it to set up command centers, bases, and other infrastructure in the middle of nowhere. They also need it to eliminate interruptions to their fuel supply and ensure mission success.
  • Energy storage can replace coal or gas plants in low income and minority communities disproportionately affected by air pollution and other public health risks.
  • It also allows rural and islanded communities to be energy independent instead of relying on diesel generators.
  • Energy storage also reduces vulnerability to cyber-attacks by allowing us to put critical systems on independent power sources.

An energy storage project. Photo: Wikimedia

Why does the federal government need to invest in energy storage RD&D?

The federal government must invest in R&D because the private sector simply isn’t doing so. Measures of US private sector energy RD&D show a significant investment gap compared to other sectors, like pharmaceuticals, information technology, and semiconductors.

Federal investments in energy storage RD&D are also lagging significantly, accounting for only 4.5% of DOE clean energy RD&D spending. Only a small percentage of ARPA-E’s budget goes to energy storage, and funding for the dedicated energy storage programs within DOE is extremely insufficient, at just over $50 million a year.

Dept. or Lab Program FY17 Enacted FY18 Request FY18 House FY18 Senate FY19 Request ARPA-E ARPA-E, Total $305 -100% -100% +8% -100% Since 2009, ARPA-E has invested ~$125 million in stationary storage projects. ANL Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) $25 -100% -100% 0% 0% OE Energy Storage Program $31 -74% 0% +20% -74% EERE The solar program recently announced an $18 million solicitation on solar and storage.

The Department of Defense (DOD), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) all have programs that include some energy storage R&D, but are funded at even lower levels.

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 country that dominates energy storage will own energy security, and I for one, am not interested in ceding that to China.

So when Secretary Perry inevitably responds to a tough budget question with some sort of charming iteration of, “I’ve been in government long enough to know that budgets are often good doorstops” (something he’s said several times at these hearings), congress should correct him by highlighting how the president’s budgets are an extension of values and priorities. And it’s clear that when it comes to energy security, the administration’s budget misses a critical opportunity with energy storage.

Las mujeres fortalecen las industrias de energía renovable

En la ciudad de Panamá se está realizando RECAM 2018, una conferencia sobre energía limpia en Centroamérica y el Caribe. En esta conferencia más de 350 líderes regionales e internacionales se encuentran reunidos intercambiando experiencias y conocimiento para construir un futuro energético sostenible para la región.

Reconociendo la importancia del rol de la mujer en la industria de energía limpia y en conmemoración del Día Internacional de la Mujer, la agenda incluye un panel sobre “energía renovable y equidad de género” en el cual participaré.

Pero ¿por qué es importante tener una industria renovable diversa? y, ¿cómo podemos colaborar para que la participación de la mujer en esta industria sea exitosa?

Una fuerza de trabajo diversa se traduce en mejores resultados

Los sectores de la energía, la ingeniería y el área financiera, históricamente, han tenido una muy baja representación de mujeres. Sin embargo, la energía renovable es una industria nueva que brinda múltiples oportunidades para implementar prácticas que conduzcan a un sector sólido e incluyente. Por ejemplo:

  • Hay una fuerte relación entre desempeño financiero y fuerzas de trabajo diversas. Múltiples estudios como el Estudio de Diversidad en la Industria Solar y el reporte Gerencia Financiera muestran que las compañías con mayor diversidad en su fuerza de trabajo tienden a ser más innovadoras, exitosas y resilientes.
  • Es importante que la industria refleje la población a la que sirve. Por ejemplo, a pesar de que más del 50% de la población de EE.UU. son mujeres, tan sólo el 27% de la industria solar de este país está representada por mujeres. Dada esta situación y datos similares en otras variables que miden diversidad en las empresas, muchas están trabajando en estrategias, políticas o programas para fomentar la diversidad en sus lugares de trabajo.
  • Incluir perspectivas diferentes hace que los proyectos sean más sólidos. No sólo los proyectos suelen ser mejor diseñados al incluir una variedad de perspectivas, sino que la satisfacción de los empleados aumenta en las empresas que cuentan con mayor diversidad en su fuerza de trabajo.
El empoderamiento de la mujer es una tarea de todos

Hace poco escuché a alguien resaltando que ‘no se trata de darle voz a las mujeres, porque en efecto ya tenemos una; por el contrario, se trata de poder usar esa voz, y que sea escuchada’. Una compañera resume esto último en una frase: el reto es asegurarnos que nuestros oídos estén dispuestos a escuchar voces e ideas diversas.

En compañía de mis colegas Julie McNamara, John Rogers y Sandra Sattler, acá les compartimos algunos tips para que la voz de las mujeres llegue a la industria de energía renovable, sea escuchada, y logre elevarse y amplificarse para fortalecer la transición a un futuro energético sostenible:

  • Recopilar datos demográficos sobre la fuerza de trabajo. Es difícil evaluar lo que no se ha medido. Las empresas deben captar los datos de su fuerza de trabajo en términos de género, roles y salarios, entre otros, para poder medir su desempeño y evolución en temas de diversidad.
  • Diseñar programas, estrategias o políticas para promover la diversidad en las empresas. Por ejemplo, se pueden establecer estrategias para aumentar la representación de mujeres, crear compromisos o metas de diversidad, así como evaluar el avance logrado en el tiempo para la consecución de estas metas.

    Presenciando como se construye el futuro

  • Diseñar programas con mentores. Estos programas son de trascendencial importancia para lograr desarrollar competencias profesionales, así como fortalecer la confianza de las mujeres que se unen a la industria de energía limpia.
  • Promover programas de educación en energías renovables desde temprana edad. Muchas personas no tienen conocimiento del funcionamiento y potencial técnico, económico y social de la energía renovable. Es importante que las niñas puedan acceder a esta información y que tengan oportunidades educativas que las capacite para poder ingresar a la industria solar cuando así lo deseen.
  • Apoyar el liderazgo de mujeres y su participación en juntas directivas y posiciones ejecutivas. Es crucial reflejar la participación de las mujeres en todos los niveles de una organización, especialmente en posiciones de toma de decisiones. Para lograr esto, es fundamental promover la creación de espacios de participación para el crecimiento profesional.

En el panel que se está presentando hoy aquí en Panamá, compartiré estas ideas con los líderes participantes, tanto hombres como mujeres, para aportar al empoderamiento de la mujer en la industria de energías renovables.

Entre tanto, ¡festejemos a las mujeres que están haciendo que esta industria sea resiliente, incluyente y próspera!


P. Garcia

Scott Pruitt Ensnares the Clean Power Plan in More Red Tape

Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons (Flickr)

For a man who swears to be laser-focused on ridding the world of regulatory red tape, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt sure has a funny way of showing it.

Indeed, Mr. Pruitt appears to be something of a red tape-generating savant.

On Monday, our organization responded to a request for information from the EPA about regulating carbon emissions from power plants. Which might sound familiar, because we’ve already done that. In fact, we and several million others have already done that multiple times over. What’s more, the agency itself has already gone down this road, from thinking about it, to issuing and responding to comments about it, to—you guessed it—even publishing a rule on this very topic just a few years ago.

Yet here we are again, answering questions the agency already knows the answer to, responding to challenges the agency has already resolved.

Surely there are better uses of taxpayer dollars and government time.

Surely, that is, except according to Scott Pruitt. That’s because although the EPA is statutorily required to act on climate, the man who made a career out of serving as an eager and willing mouthpiece for oil and gas corporations would really rather not. So what’s he do instead? Wield the rulemaking process as a red tape machine, churning out bright red bows for the fossil fuel industry while tangling up the legs of forward progress for all the rest.

No, no, you’re right—we’ve definitely done this before

Here’s the thing: the scientific and legal backing for the EPA’s regulation of carbon emissions from power plants is remarkably robust, and the record to support it lengthy:

  • In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA that the agency had the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
  • In 2009, the EPA completed its Endangerment and Cause or Contribute Findings, which confirmed the agency’s obligation to act on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
  • In 2015, the EPA issued a final version of those required standards in the form of the Clean Power Plan, the product of a robust and years long rulemaking process.

But then came 2017, and Scott Pruitt appointed as EPA administrator. Though the facts haven’t changed, forward progress has been spinning its wheels ever since.

Unreasonably narrow, inappropriately weak

The Trump Administration cast a long shadow over the Clean Power Plan with its Executive Order on Energy Independence in March 2017, but the rule’s proposed repeal wasn’t actually issued until last October. The agency is still taking comment on that proposal, which, in addition to making a mockery of the value of human health and the environment, attempts to reinterpret the Clean Air Act as well as how the power system works in order to avoid the need for meaningful regulatory action.

At the same time, because the agency is statutorily required to act, the EPA followed up with an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) in December 2017 to simply consider how it might go about regulating greenhouse gas emissions in line with this new interpretation. The result was a remarkably transparent attempt to waste time, ignore facts, and abdicate the agency’s foremost responsibility of protecting human health and the environment.

  • The ANPR gets off to a rocky start by prejudging the outcome of the ongoing—and ostensibly unbiased and objective—proposed repeal’s rulemaking process, limiting the agency’s interest in information to only that which conforms with an incredibly narrow interpretation of compliance.
  • The ANPR repeatedly solicits comment suggesting an overarching motivation that is not rooted in limiting power sector carbon emissions, but rather in finding ways to limit the agency’s own role and responsibilities on this front—up to and including whether the EPA should set limits at all.
  • The ANPR actively ignores the existence of our ever-improving understanding of the costs of climate impacts, as well as the ever-improving fundamentals of clean energy resources. Instead of looking for ways to weaken the Clean Power Plan, the EPA should—must—be doing everything it can to strengthen it, in turn delivering significant near and long-term health benefits to communities around the country while at the same time contributing to global efforts to limit climate change.

Ultimately, the ANPR does little more than crystallize just how much Scott Pruitt does not care about his charge as EPA Administrator, instead advancing cynical charades at the expense of the health and well-being of Americans, now and in the future.

Why we still fight

And yet, we still submitted comments on Monday.

Alongside 250,000 others.

We did this despite knowing that the EPA issued its request for comment with the sole purpose of delaying a statutory requirement to act. We did this despite recognizing that the EPA has shown no signs that it will truly consider our response.

We did this by the hundreds of thousands because respect for our institutions demands nothing less.

Scott Pruitt has made abundantly clear he holds no respect for the mission of the agency he has been appointed to direct, but the thing is, the rest of us still do. So when the agency asks us to write, we write. And when the time comes that the courts rule on the agency’s need to act, all of our many words will be there, waiting and ready to fight the good fight.

3 preguntas y respuestas sobre la energía solar: ¿qué?, ¿por qué?, y ¿cómo?

Ver la energía del sol siendo aprovechada para producir electricidad a través de páneles solares es algo que encuentro profundamente fascinante. El sol es una fuente inagotable de energía, y su uso para producir electricidad proporciona múltiples beneficios, desde generación de empleos, estabilización de e incluso ahorros en la factura de electricidad para sus consumidores, y mejoras en la salud y el medio ambiente porque es una fuente de energía limpia.

Mas, ¿de qué se trata esta tecnología? ¿Cuáles son sus beneficios? Y, ¿cómo podemos tener acceso a ella? ¡Acá les cuento!

¿Qué es la energía solar?

El sol puede cubrir una parte significativa de nuestras necesidades energéticas. Para esto existen diferentes tecnologías como la energía solar fotovoltaica, la energía solar térmica y la energía solar por concentración.

En esta ocasión me enfocaré en la energía solar fotovoltaica.

  • Esta tecnología emplea páneles solares fotovoltaicos para convertir la luz del sol en electricidad para uso en lugares como nuestros hogares u oficinas para prender las luces o nuestros electrodomésticos. Los páneles son usualmente instalados en los techos de viviendas y edificios, así como en campos, vastos terrenos baldíos o rellenos sanitarios.
  • Su funcionamiento consiste en numerosas celdas, construidas usualmente con silicio cristalino, las cuales al ser expuestas a la luz del sol (la radiación solar) emiten electrones que al ser capturados producen una corriente eléctrica. Esta es una tecnología avanzada, precisa y ampliamente usada.
  • Actualmente en los EE.UU. tenemos más 49 Gigavatios de energía solar instalada (fotovoltaica, en su gran mayoría), suficiente para proveer electricidad a casi 10 millones de hogares.
¿Cuáles son los beneficios que brinda esta tecnología?

Usualmente la respuesta sobre los beneficios de la energía solar recae sobre sus bondades ambientales. Si bien estas son de trascendental importancia, sus beneficios cubren un espectro muchísimo más amplio. Exploremos algunos de ellos:

Smiles in the sunshine. Credit: Solar Energy Industries Association

  • Ambientales: Ahora más que nunca necesitamos acelerar el uso de fuentes de energía renovable como el sol, y alejarnos del consumo de combustibles fósiles para contrarrestar las peores consecuencias del cambio climático, como el incremento en desastres ecológicos y pérdida de vidas. Un reciente informe de la Oficina de Responsabilidad Gubernamental (GAO por sus siglas en inglés) concluye que el gobierno de EE.UU. ha gastado más de 350.000 millones de dólares en respuesta a cambios extremos en temperaturas como incendios e inundaciones; y en Latinoamérica se estima que en este momento 14 millones de personas viven en zonas de alto riesgo. La energía solar es una energía limpia que, contrario al uso de combustibles fósiles,  no contamina el aire ni las fuentes de agua, y no produce gases que contribuyen al calentamiento global.
  • Generación de empleos: La energía solar es una de las industrias que ha creado el mayor número de empleos en los últimos años en los EE.UU. contando actualmente con cerca de 250.000 trabajadores. Muchísimos más que la industria del carbón la cual emplea cerca de 160.000. Y lo mejor es que hay empresas y organizaciones como Grid Alternatives y NAACP brindando oportunidades de capacitación y empleo para que todos podamos hacer parte de la industria solar sin importar connotaciones raciales o de ingresos.
  • Mejoras en la salud pública: la contaminación del aire y el agua emitida por plantas termoeléctricas de carbón y gas natural está asociada con problemas respiratorios, daño neurológico, ataques cardiacos, cáncer, muertes prematuras y otros problemas de salud. Estos efectos negativos afectan con mayor frecuencia a comunidades afroamericanas, de bajos ingresos y a grupos minoritarios étnicos y raciales quienes usualmente viven cerca a estas plantas. En contraste, los páneles solares producen electricidad sin emitir contaminantes nocivos para la salud.
  • Ahorros: El costo de la energía solar ha caído drásticamente, más del 70% desde el 2010. Esto ha contribuido a que su costo sea competitivo y hasta más económico que lo que cobran las empresas de energía en ciertos estados. Adicionalmente, la energía solar ayuda a estabilizar los precios a futuro; aunque la inversión inicial puede llegar a ser alta, los costos de operación de la misma son bajos debido a que no se debe pagar por su combustible (¡es gratis!).
¿Como podemos acceder a ella?

Existen varias posibilidades para tener acceso directo a la energía solar fotovoltaica, todo depende del uso que queramos darle (para nuestras viviendas, oficinas, aplicaciones agrícolas y muchos más) y la opción financiera que mejor se ajuste a nuestro presupuesto. En esta oportunidad me enfocaré en las dos modalidades más populares para uso residencial (y en una próxima entrada hablaré de las opciones financieras).

  • Sistemas solares fotovoltaicos en los techos de las viviendas. Para poder instalar los páneles en los techos de nuestras viviendas, lo más importante es que el techo cuente con una buena orientación (hacia el sur), que reciba la menor cantidad de sombras y que se encuentre en buena condición.
  • Instalaciones solares compartidas. Si el techo de nuestra vivienda no es apropiado para instalar los páneles, no los queremos en el techo o no podemos instalarlos por vivir en edificios con múltiples propietarios o en arriendo, existen las instalaciones solares compartidas (community shared solar en inglés). La instalación solar compartida consiste en un proyecto solar desarrollado por una organización o empresa que instala una mayor cantidad de páneles en un lugar apropiado. Los subscriptores invierten en el proyecto, compran su electricidad o reciben otros beneficios específicos como créditos para pagar menos en la factura eléctrica.
La revolución en proceso

En este momento, 1.6 millones de casas en los EE.UU. han instalado páneles solares en sus techos (en comparación con tan solo 30.000 en el año 2006). Esto es una clara muestra de cómo la energía solar es una alternativa que funciona, brinda resultados para sus consumidores y contagia positivamente a que más gente quiera tener acceso a ella.

Los invito a que miremos a los techos de nuestros vecinos, celebremos aquellos que ya han logrado instalar páneles solares en sus casas y demandemos políticas públicas que faciliten nuestro acceso a la energía solar.

pixabay/hans Getty Images/Mint Images/Bill Miles Photo: Black Rock Solar/CC BY 2.0, Flickr

How to Fix Trump’s Infrastructure Plan: Focus on the Right Values and Priorities

Photo: US Air Force/Kemberly Groue

With our nation’s roads, railways, water systems, and other public resources in a shameful state of disrepair, major new federal investment in infrastructure is long overdue. President Trump’s recently proposed infrastructure plan is deeply flawed, but it does draw congressional and public attention to this important issue.

In a recent post, I critiqued the president’s State of the Union address for failing when viewed through the lens of three core values: kindness and decency, respect for facts and expertise, and concern for future generations. Those same values can help us evaluate the Trump infrastructure plan, and envision the plan our nation really needs.

Photo: Des Moines Water Works

Just and equitable infrastructure priorities

A starting point for discussion is this: when public dollars are spent to update our infrastructure, they should be used to maximize social and economic return for the public.

The best returns are likely to come when targeting those communities most in need of infrastructure improvements—communities that are not able to pay for them through private funding or via their cash-starved local governments.

Unfortunately, the Trump plan heads in the opposite direction. In the plan’s proposed scoring system to rank competing projects, 70 percent of the score hinges on whether a project can leverage private or state/local funding, while only five percent is based on the economic and social returns on investment. This means, as a recent New York Times story highlights, that an access road to a luxury condominium development would score high, as a developer would invest in a project that raises the value of his property, but repairs of an existing roadway serving a static population would likely score low. As one professor observed, “instead of the public sector deciding on public needs and priorities, the projects that are most attractive to private investors will go to the head of the line.”

Allowing the private tail to wag the public dog should be an absolute non-starter. But what would an infrastructure plan look like if it were rooted in the public values of kindness and decency?

Such a plan would recognize that many communities today lack adequate modern necessities: clean water, sewer systems, public transportation, parks, sidewalks, storm drains, streetlights, schools, and libraries. Moreover, if the horror story of Flint, Michigan taught us anything, it is that disregard for the quality of infrastructure that serves the most vulnerable communities can have catastrophic consequences, such as lead levels in kids that may severely harm and limit them throughout their lives.

A truly public-spirited infrastructure plan would identify other similar disasters waiting to happen—and fix them before they do. It would also supply more of what many communities need most—affordable housing near public transit in urban areas, and modern amenities such as fast internet capabilities in rural areas, for example.

While the president’s priorities as stated in his plan are way off the mark, Congress can align the plan with the values of kindness, decency, and equity by passing a bill requiring that special weight be given to infrastructure projects that deliver basic necessities to underserved communities. Prioritizing such investments creates a moral underpinning to an overall infrastructure plan that can lend it both urgency and broad support.

As we look toward the future, we need to promote infrastructure improvements that are built to last and informed by climate-smart principles. Photo: US Coast Guard, Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi/Wikimedia

Infrastructure informed by science and public input

We make our best personal long-term spending decisions when we gather facts carefully and listen to people we trust, including experts; this is true for government infrastructure investment decisions as well.

Unfortunately, rather than encouraging robust fact gathering, public input, and consideration of alternatives, the Trump infrastructure plan calls for a radical streamlining of the environmental review process that has been in place since 1970 under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The law requires that when federal agencies fund or issue permits for major projects, they consider the environmental impacts of the project and assess whether alternative options might better protect the environment, public health, and safety. NEPA mandates the preparation and issuance of an environmental impact statement, with opportunities for the public to weigh in at various stages of the decision-making process. And when agencies disregard this law, citizens have the right to take them to court.

While the NEPA process is often derided, it has a long history of success. In one of scores of well-documented examples, scientific and public input through the NEPA process helped protect the drinking water supply for millions of residents from Phoenix to Los Angeles by preventing a mining company’s highly contaminated uranium tailings from being left near the banks of the Colorado River, requiring instead that they be transported to a secure site. In this example, the NEPA process changed the agency’s mind—without it, it is likely that these contaminants would have been capped and left in place, as this was the agency’s initial “preferred alternative.”

Opponents of the federal environmental review process often discount successes such as this one, claiming that lengthy federal reviews hold up worthy projects. They have a point—in my own experience in state government, I saw the nation’s first proposed offshore wind farm die in part because federal agencies took too long to weigh in, while opponents used the judicial system to delay construction. But there are many ways to coordinate and improve permitting that don’t sacrifice the obvious benefits of environmental review. Here, as in many other instances, President Trump proposes to use a wrecking ball when a scalpel would do.

Rather than eviscerate an open and thoughtful review process, a wise infrastructure plan would encourage our best scientists and experts to weigh in early so that the best decisions are made.

A particularly important area for scientific input is to make sure that new federal infrastructure investments will be able to withstand the future effects of climate change. It is simply imprudent to spend dollars now on projects that will be obsolete in the future, like building a new ramp for a bridge that will routinely flood due to sea level rise, or a roadway that will not be able to withstand anticipated heat waves, or water pipes that won’t carry enough water due to drought conditions. As several of my colleagues at UCS have explained, we need to promote infrastructure improvements that are built to last, and informed by climate-smart principles embedded up front in project selection and review. But that kind of careful debate and analysis can’t be accomplished if the Trump administration succeeds in eviscerating the environmental and public review process.

Photo: Photo: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons

Infrastructure with an eye to the future

Wayne Gretsky is famous, not just for his prodigious hockey skills, but for his oft-quoted line “I skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” This applies not just to sports, but to infrastructure as well.

President Trump’s plan mainly shores up the infrastructure of the past, largely ignoring the investments we need to meet the most pressing challenge of our time—accelerating the transition to clean energy to prevent runaway climate change.

An infrastructure plan for the needs of tomorrow must include and prioritize: transmission lines that connect the country’s plentiful wind and solar energy to the population centers where it’s needed; a modern electric grid that is highly efficient and can accommodate more renewable energy; energy storage demonstration projects to jump-start this promising technology; and electric vehicle charging infrastructure that allows drivers of electric cars, trucks, and buses to more easily travel long distances.

Just as we need a massive federal investment to mitigate climate change, we also need infrastructure to protect us against the harms that will occur due to the climate change that is already locked in by global warming emissions that continue to linger in the atmosphere. A key lesson here is that preventative measures cost far less than rescues and cleanups when disasters hit. The National Institute of Building Sciences estimates that every dollar invested through federal grants to protect against storm surge and floods, fires, earthquakes and wind yields six dollars’ worth of benefits.

A forward-thinking plan should therefore prioritize items such as stormwater management and green infrastructure to minimize flood damage; urban tree planting programs to cope with heat waves; and the fortification of vulnerable national priorities such as water infrastructure, military installations, nuclear power plants, and electric utility lines.

Looking forward

We should welcome a national debate about our infrastructure needs. The president’s plan falls far short but, in this debate, we need to say what we stand for, not just what we oppose. Supporting a plan that is just and equitable, that encourages the input of scientists and the public, and that looks ahead to benefit future generations is a very good start.

4 Happy Thoughts about the Trump Solar Tariffs

Photo: U.S. Air Force/Jennifer Green-Lanchoney

I’ve talked about the many problems with President Trump’s recent decision to tax imports of solar cells and modules. I’m an optimist by nature, though, so I’m always looking for the silver lining. Here are four theories I’ll be testing with my sunny-side take on all this: Solar will grow, solar jobs will grow, the solar industry is strong, and we are strong.

1. Solar will grow

We want more, not less. (Credit: John Rogers)

While higher prices due to the Trump tariffs will hurt solar sales, the goal of our president’s move, he says, is to boost US manufacturing of solar cells and panels. And, indeed, it seems likely that new US solar factories will get built… though that might well have happened with or without the import tariffs. (There’s a good discussion of what/who’s in play from GTM here.)

More likely is for some existing US-based concerns to ramp up operations. That’ll include companies using silicon solar cells, the kinds covered by the new taxes, and companies using other materials, like cadmium telluride.

In terms of modules manufacturing, the new policy allows 2.5 gigawatts (2,500 megawatts) of solar cells to come in without the new taxes. That exemption will provide a route to lower costs for some US-based manufacturing operations (assuming the government sorts out who gets the tariff-free cells).

Whether US manufacturing happens or not, modules will come in, though at higher prices; even with a drop last year in new solar installations, US demand for solar far outweighs our own capacity to produce it. While the decision hits most of our major solar trading partners, solar products from some others, too—India, notably, and Turkey, among others—are exempt from the new taxes.

So, while President Trump’s move will slow our climb back up to the heights of 2016 and beyond, it won’t kill it. I’ll be watching for new cell/module manufacturing, and for growth overall in how much solar we have in this country.

2. Solar jobs will grow

US solar jobs fell last year (for the first time since the census began), in part because of uncertainty over the solar tariffs. And there’s more to come, at least versus what would have happened in the absence of the Trump taxes: The Solar Energy Industries Association projects 23,000 lost US solar jobs.

That doesn’t mean that solar jobs will be dropping in absolute terms as they did in 2017; projections have us back up at 2016 levels by this year. But it does mean that the growth in jobs will be a lot slower than it could have been.

Also, while solar jobs fell in 2017, those losses weren’t evenly spread across the states. The top two solar jobs states, California and Massachusetts, lost 17,000 jobs between them. But even in the down year, 29 states plus DC grew, employment-wise. The solar census release calls out growth specifically in Utah, Minnesota, Arizona, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Tennessee.

So I’m going to be paying attention to not just the overall job count, but where US solar jobs are growing, and why.

3. The solar industry is strong

I certainly saw ups and downs during my years in the solar industry, and can attest to its fortitude. As one solar company executive has said,

“The solar industry has come through worse policy decisions and will come through this one, too… The solar industry is nothing if not resilient, and I’m confident the innovative, tough and resourceful members of the industry will find workarounds to the latest obstacle placed in solar’s path.”

Profit margins are tight, but we can expect lots of companies to innovate, to find ways to counteract the negative effects of the Trump tariffs.

What I’ll be looking for: Innovation, cost-savings, economies of scale that get us back on track for making solar more affordable for all despite our president.

Credit: Aeon Solar via NREL

4. We are strong

My strongest hopes, though, rest with us. Because the biggest question surrounding the new Trump tariffs is how we’re going to respond—we who get clean energy, we who understand that solar is a real part of our response to climate change, and a real part of our economy.

We as homeowners don’t need to be deterred by our president’s action, and neither do we as employees, businesspeople, and their customers. While any price increase decreases affordability for solar, plenty of both homeowners and businesses were “going solar” when prices were higher. Solar customers of all stripes are serious, and driven by more than the savings.

And we as constituents, taxpayers, and voters can push to make sure that states and cities more than make up for President Trump’s unfortunate decision, with policies and initiatives to expand solar access, to improve financing, to increase economies of scale.

So maybe the biggest upside of all is that our president’s moves, whatever his motives, give us yet another reason to try harder for solar.

I’ll be watching for states to step up, for companies to innovate, for all of us to keep saying yes to driving energy progress in ways that stabilize energy prices, increase reliability, secure jobs, and accelerate our move toward a vibrant and just power sector with solar fully in the mix.

The Facts About Trump’s Solar Tariffs – Who Gets Hurt? Who Gets Helped?

Credit: Used with permission from publicsource.org

The solar-related shoe we’ve been expecting has finally dropped: President Trump recently announced new taxes on imported solar cells and modules. There’s plenty of downside to his decision, in terms of solar progress, momentum, and jobs. But will it revive US manufacturing?

What the solar tariffs look like

First, the what. The tax has come in at 30% for the first year (starting this month), then it drops 5 percentage points each year through year four, before going away completely.

The worst of both worlds? The Trump solar tariffs (Source: USTR)

Imports from most of our major trading partners in this area are covered by this: China, sure, but also Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia (the origin of the biggest slice of our solar imports in recent times), Canada, Mexico,…

Who they hurt

More jobs are better than fewer. (Credit: istockphoto.com)

The downside of this is pretty clear: A tax on imported solar cells and modules raises the prices of those products. And that makes solar more expensive for all of us.


That unfortunate Trump Bump will be felt more in large-scale solar projects, where solar panels make up more of the cost of the project. We’re already hearing of projects cancelled or delayed because of the tariffs or, earlier, the specter of tariffs.

But it’s not just the large projects: The tariff also makes systems for folks like you and me—rooftop systems or community shared solar—more expensive. Solar will still be as cheap as electricity from your local power company in a lot of states. But other states where solar had just become competitive by that metric will now fall back.

The foregone projects and home systems mean foregone megawatts of solar capacity. Projections say 7,600 megawatts of solar won’t happen because of the tariffs over the next five years—more than a million homes’ worth—compared to close to 12,000 megawatts installed during 2017. And without that solar, we don’t get the benefits that come from that solar.

So that answers part of the “who”: The Trump solar taxes hit you, me, our communities, and our power system.

Who they help(?)

Another really important “who” gets right to the heart of the purported purpose of the tariffs: the US solar industry’s workforce. The tariff case came about because of a couple of US-based manufacturing operations that were having a hard time competing in the global marketplace. Making imports more expensive helps local producers compete, goes the thinking.

Will US solar manufacturing be reborn? (Credit: BP Solar, via NREL/DOE)

But does it? As that chart above shows, these tariffs are brief, and step down pretty quickly. Don’t attribute that to the president’s lack of desire to help (or any misgivings on his part about the wisdom of doing this at all): The relevant section of the US trade code limits the “remedy” to four years, and requires it to drop every year.

The tariffs also actually lower than the tax/quota proposals put forth by the US International Trade Commission, which evaluated the original petition.

To be clear, I’m definitely not advocating longer or higher solar tariffs (or any new tariffs at all). But this seems like sort of the worst of both worlds: tariffs that are high enough, at least at the beginning, to dent solar’s momentum, but that aren’t high enough or sufficiently long-lived to get much in the way of new US solar factories built.

Here’s how Bloomberg analyst Hugh Bromley put it:

“Anyone expecting a U.S. manufacturing renaissance as a result of these tariffs is set to be disappointed… A tariff lasting only four years and ratcheting down quickly is unlikely to attract any manufacturing investment that was not going to occur anyway.”

And actually, the tariffs may not even last four years: The last time a president tried doing something like this (for steel, in that case, in 2002), the tariffs lasted less than two years (and damaged other sectors of the economy) before the US pulled the plug because of World Trade Organization issues. And the legal action against these new import taxes has already started, with several Canadian companies filing suit earlier this month.

Moves like President Trump’s can also prompt retaliatory action. US makers of the polysilicon that solar cells are made from are still suffering from the tariffs that China put on those materials when the Obama administration put its own taxes on Chinese solar (in reaction to perceived dumping of products below cost).

Who they hurt, part II

In the meantime, the US solar workforce has to deal with the reality of President Trump’s decision. While solar employment has been impressive (and a whole lot more impressive than coal’s), last year, for the first time since data started being collected in 2010, we lost solar jobs—10,000 out of 260,000, or 4%.

The Trump tariffs are only responsible for a piece of that—the cooling-off after a big solar push in 2016 was a big factor—but the uncertainty that the trade case provoked, the rise in prices in anticipation of tariff action, and our president’s unpredictable nature sure didn’t help.

The tariffs do look to be a big factor for jobs in the near term, and not in a good way there either. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), calling the president’s decision “a loss for America”, is projecting 23,000 fewer US solar jobs this year than under business as usual because of the higher prices. That drop equals more than 10 times the number of current US solar cell/module manufacturing workers, meaning we’d have to have an incredible amount of growth in manufacturing just to make up for the losses elsewhere.

Sure looking like pain without gain.

More please. (Credit: Dennis Schroeder/NREL)

No wall

So, where does that leave us?

On balance, these new tariffs aren’t likely to be a good thing. It’s pretty clear that the policy itself will cost more American jobs than it’ll fuel. The higher prices will drive some projects and people out of the market. And anything that disrupts solar’s incredible momentum is unwelcome.

Whether US manufacturing will experience a resurgence depends on a lot of factors, with the new tax being just one part. We’ll hope for the best on that count, but I’m not sure I’d put my money on it. (If you’re looking to invest, there are plenty of other opportunities to get a piece of the action, given that the US solar industry is about so much more than cell/module manufacturing).

However it plays out, solar as a whole is strong, powerful, irresistible. The industry—and many customers—will persevere. The tariffs will hurt (and already have), and may help very little. At a recent solar conference, though, I heard one analyst say the tariffs would be “impactful, but not devastating,” and another call this “a speed bump, not a brick wall,” forcing solar to slow down, but not stopping it. Lots of other forces and needs are pushing solar to accelerate instead.

So drive on, solar. We’re with you.

President Dumps Clean Energy in Proposed Budget

Photo: US Department of Energy

Today, the president released his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year (FY 2019) and as expected, it seeks to eviscerate research and development (R&D) in clean energy technology. The proposal would slash funding in the applied energy technology offices within the Department of Energy (DOE), now housed within the Office of Energy. As my colleague points out, the proposal is “not scaling back, it’s eviscerating the work,” and is another example of this administration’s attacks on clean energy. As the Nation needs to continue to develop and deploy clean energy technologies to solve the threats posed by climate change, hopefully Congress will do what it did last year: yawn, ignore the current administration’s ideologically driven proposal, and do what is best for the Nation.

The Budget Process

The President’s budget request usually happens in February each year, as the Congressional appropriations process begins for the upcoming fiscal year in October. This request follows a massive budget deal signed into law by the president last week. In addition to lifting the debt ceiling, the deal raises domestic and military spending levels by $300 billion in total through September 2019. And it keeps the government open for another six weeks while lawmakers work out a longer-term spending bill that will fund the government through the end of FY 2018, which runs to the end of September.

Republicans seemed eager to raise spending as well as the debt ceiling, even though the party fought tooth and nail against the Obama administration on these issues. Still, Congress rejected the president’s proposed budget cuts last year, giving a bit of hope that Congress will ignore his current proposal as well.

The Hit List
  • ARPA-E, funded at $261 million in FY 2017, would receive no funding in FY 2019. According to the White House, the agency “will wind down operations in FY 2018 with the expectation that it will shut down in FY 2019, with remaining monitoring and contract closeout activities transferred elsewhere within DOE.” Given wide bipartisan support, this seems unrealistic.
  • Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) is slated for drastic cuts—from $2.1 billion in FY 2017 down to just $696 million in FY 2019. This represents a two-thirds cut in funding for clean energy R&D, not much better than the 72 percent cut reported earlier.
  • The Office of Electricity Delivery and Reliability (OE) would be split into two offices focusing on grid reliability (Electricity Delivery) and cybersecurity. Together, the two offices would receive $157 million in FY 2019, which is still a 31 percent cut from OE’s enacted FY 2017 level. Worse, energy storage R&D faces a sharp 74 percent cut ($8 million in FY 2019 compared to $31 million enacted in FY 2017).
  • Other important programs within Electricity Delivery are also facing steep cuts: transmission reliability and resiliency ($44 million to $13 million) and resilient distribution systems ($54 million to $10 million). These cuts seem particularly harsh given all the recent impacts on the electricity system due to severe weather.
  • The budget also completely axes the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) block grants managed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Last year, LIHEAP released about $3.03 billion in block grants for states and tribes to help low-income households pay heating and cooling bills. The president’s budget proposes $0—meaning states and tribes would be left to figure out how to make up the shortfall.
Reflecting the Administration’s Ideology

This president’s budget request reflects a prioritization of basic research and early stage R&D over later stage R&D—but it’s misguided to slash all funding that is deemed “applied research” and assume that the private sector will pick up the slack. As I’ve written previously, DOE’s new organizational structure separates basic research from applied science. The short summary from DOE notes that the Office of Science is slated to receive $5.4 billion in funding in FY 2019—the same as FY 2017 enacted—while the Office of Energy faces a cut of $1.9 billion—roughly a 43 percent cut compared to the $2.5 billion enacted in FY 2017:

“The FY 2019 Request provides $2.5B for energy and related programs, $1.9B below FY 2017 Enacted, and continues the Administration’s prioritization of the early-stage R&D that takes place at the National Laboratories.”

What the number crunchers at the White House don’t seem to recognize is that the National Labs work on both basic science and applied science, as well as both early stage and later stage R&D. All parts of the innovation ecosystem are needed in order to bring new technologies to commercialization.

What’s Next

Congress will continue its work on funding the government for the rest of FY 2018, which ends at the end of September. Once that work is complete, it will move toward deciding on spending levels for FY 2019. We’ll be pushing for Congress to use the power of the purse string to invest in clean energy technology and innovation and ignore the White House’s proposed budget.

The Truth about Coal, in Under Three Minutes

Photo: CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons

Coal’s been on the way out for a while now. Why is that? For a quick and accessible look at the state of the coal industry—where it’s been and where it’s going—check out the new video from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

We’ve been writing about coal’s decline and its implications—and setting the record straight on misinformation about coal—for quite some time: responding to the administration’s cheerleading of coal, assessing and understanding the shift away from coal-fired electricity, why the transition away from coal is hard on workers and communities, and how intrepid business leaders in Coal Country are leading the way to new economic opportunities.

We kicked off a blog series recently with an explanation of why a slight increase in coal jobs in 2017 is no indication of a long-term trend. In this second Coal in Context blog, I’d like to highlight a short video on the reasons behind coal’s decline.


The need for a just transition

Here at UCS, we value facts and evidence—and we’re doing our part to set the record straight in a time of great uncertainty. It’s important to emphasize that the coal industry is not returning to its heyday and will instead continue to decline, despite what you may hear from administration officials and the president himself. That propaganda is dangerous because it leads to false hope—leading some to refuse training opportunities in other industries, hoping that coal mining jobs materialize.

Let’s take the longer-term view and understand that coal communities will need to develop new economic sectors to support good-paying jobs in the future—and that it is our collective responsibility to invest in those communities—through proposals like the RECLAIM Act and the POWER Initiative—so they can succeed.

We also need to take the longer-term view on the power sector as a whole– to address the urgent threat of climate change. Yet the administration continues its efforts to rescind the Clean Power Plan, something I testified against back in November in West Virginia. Please join our efforts to push back on these misguided actions—and share the video with your friends to help spread the truth.

ExxonMobil’s Climate Disinformation Campaign is Still Alive and Well

An ExxonMobil-funded senator from Oklahoma, James Inhofe, cited a debunked ExxonMobil-funded study at a recent Senate hearing. C-SPAN

In a recent blog post, ExxonMobil executive Suzanne McCarron reiterated her company’s claim that it fully accepts the reality of climate change and that it wants to do something about it.

“I want to use this opportunity to be 100 percent clear about where we stand on climate change,” she wrote. “We believe the risk of climate change is real and we are committed to being part of the solution.”

So why is the company still a part of—in fact, a major part of—the problem?

An exchange between Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt during a recent oversight hearing is a case in point, providing a window into how ExxonMobil’s undue influence continues to block climate action.

During the January 30 hearing, which was held by the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, Sen. Cory Booker inadvertently provoked Inhofe by raising the issue of environmental justice. The New Jersey Democrat cited the threat climate change-induced flooding poses to three dozen Superfund sites in his state and asked Pruitt if he was “taking into account the environmental burdens disproportionately impacting communities of color, indigenous communities and low-income communities.”

Inhofe seized the opportunity to contradict Booker, claiming that minority and low-income communities are disproportionately harmed by environmental protections, specifically citing the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which would have dramatically reduced carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants if Pruitt hadn’t repealed it.

Booker, Inhofe said, was implying that Pruitt was trying to “punish” vulnerable Americans. “I wanted to just remind you,” Inhofe told the committee, “that we had a guy I remember so well, Harry Alford. He was the president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. He provided some of the most powerful testimony that I have ever heard when it comes to the effects of the Clean Power Plan and some of the other regulations … on black and Hispanic poverty, including job losses and increased energy costs.

“[Alford] was very emphatic as to who was paying the price on these,” the Oklahoma Republican continued, “and I think sometimes that the previous administration forgot that there are already people out there who are paying all they can pay just to try to eat and keep their house warm.”

ExxonMobil’s Echo Chamber

Inhofe’s source for his assertion? A discredited, ExxonMobil-funded study by an Exxon-funded advocacy group that was based on discredited studies by other ExxonMobil-funded organizations.

Inhofe rested his argument on previous congressional testimony by Harry Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC), a shoestring, mom-and-pop operation that is unapologetic about taking fossil fuel industry money. “Of course we do and it is only natural,” Alford wrote on NBCC’s website. “The legacy of Blacks in this nation has been tied to the miraculous history of fossil fuel…. [F]ossil fuels have been our economic friend.”

One of NBCC’s closest economic friends is ExxonMobil, which has donated more than $1.14 million to the group since 2001.

What did the company get for that money?

In 2015, NBCC commissioned a report that claimed the Clean Power Plan would “inflict severe and disproportionate economic burdens on poor families, especially minorities.”

In fact, unchecked climate change would more than likely hurt those communities most, and investments in energy efficiency under the plan would ultimately lower electricity bills across the country.

How did NBCC arrive at its upside-down assessment? The Union of Concerned Scientists took a close look at the report and found it was based on several flawed fossil fuel industry-friendly studies. Two of those bogus studies were produced by ExxonMobil grantees: the Heritage Foundation, which received $340,000 from ExxonMobil between 2007 and 2013, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which received $3 million between 2014 and 2016.

The Chamber study, which came out just days before the EPA released a draft of the Clean Power Plan, was debunked not only by the EPA, but also by PolitiFact.com and The Washington Post. Among its many faults, the Chamber study—which was co-sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute—wildly inflated the cost of the plan and failed to consider the benefits of cutting carbon emissions.

ExxonMobil Spreads its Money Around

But there’s more than just the fact that ExxonMobil financed deliberately flawed studies to try to derail the Clean Power Plan. The company also is a major supporter of a number of Senate EPW Committee members, including Inhofe, who are adamant climate science deniers.

Inhofe has deep ties to the oil and gas industry, which has donated $1.85 million to his campaign war chest over his long career in Congress, more than twice than any other industry. Three oil and gas companies are among the senator’s top 10 corporate contributors: Koch Industries, Devon Energy and … ExxonMobil.

Six of the other 10 Republicans on the EPW Committee also are on ExxonMobil’s donation list, including Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the current committee chairman. Roughly half of the $119,500 ExxonMobil contributed to the seven senators over the last decade went to Barrasso and Inhofe, the committee’s previous chairman.

Then there’s ExxonMobil’s link to Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general before President Trump tapped him to run the EPA. From 2012 through 2013, he chaired the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) and afterward served on the organization’s executive committee. From 2014 through 2016, ExxonMobil gave RAGA $160,000 in three annual installments.

Just a few weeks after the company made its 2016 donation of $50,000, Pruitt and then-RAGA Chairman Luther Strange, at the time Alabama’s attorney general, co-authored a National Review column attacking a coalition of state attorneys general investigating ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies for misleading investors and the general public about climate change. Parroting ExxonMobil’s argument, Pruitt and Strange charged that the coalition was violating the company’s first amendment right to free speech.

“The debate” over climate change, they wrote “is far from settled. Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind. That debate should be encouraged — in classrooms, public forums, and the halls of Congress. It should not be silenced with threats of prosecution. Dissent is not a crime.”

Inhofe Upstaged

In this case, Inhofe’s counterfactual comment didn’t make it into the ensuing media coverage. Along with nearly everything else that was said during the two-and-a-half hour marathon, it was eclipsed by a bombshell dropped by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. The Rhode Island Democrat revealed that during a February 2016 radio interview, Pruitt said Trump would be “more abusive to the Constitution than Barack Obama, and that’s saying a lot.” Whitehouse read Pruitt’s remark aloud and asked him if he recalled making it.

“I don’t,” Pruitt responded, “and I don’t echo that today at all.”

“I guess not,” Whitehouse replied.

Not surprisingly, that embarrassing nugget was the story. There was no way that Inhofe’s rambling, ExxonMobil-sponsored falsehood could compete in the media with red meat like that. But overshadowed or not, Inhofe provided yet another incontrovertible piece of evidence that—despite ExxonMobil’s statements to the contrary—the company is still very much engaged behind the scenes in trying to stymie any government attempt to seriously address climate change.

An Unseasonably “Hot” February for California’s Clean Energy Landscape

By and large, major policy action for California’s electricity sector mimics the seasons: winter is a relatively quiet, reflective time and major policy developments start to bud in the spring. As the air heats up, so do policy debates in Sacramento, which ultimately bloom fully or die on the vine in September, when the Legislature wraps up its session.

But lately, the weather in California and electric sector policy developments seem unseasonably hot. For example, it’s currently 75 degrees outside my office in Oakland. And below are some of the things happening in the policy world that also seem particularly “hot”:

CPUC approves a 2030 clean energy blueprint.

Late last week, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved a blueprint laying out the electricity sector investments through 2030 that will be necessary to reach greenhouse gas reduction goals consistent with the statewide requirement to reduce emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

This system-level blueprint is the first phase of what’s called the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP); the next step is for all investor-owned utilities (IOU) and community choice aggregators (CCA) to submit their individual plans, which are due in August. More information about the IRP and individual IOU and CCA progress can be found here. The publicly-owned utilities (POUs) in the state will submit their plans to the California Energy Commission (CEC) and progress can be tracked here.

UCS conducted analysis in the IRP proceeding to underscore a key blind spot in the CPUC’s own work: the fact that all of the gas generation capacity that exists today was assumed to still be around in 2030 to provide energy and grid services.

It’s well known that California has an excess of natural gas generation capacity on the grid, and it remains a significant source of global warming pollution in California. We built a lot of natural gas plants in the 90s and early 2000s, and we don’t need it all now. Our own analysis showed that a significant portion of the natural gas peaker generation capacity may not have much value to the grid in 2030. But, we also know that some gas will be important for reliability through 2030.

The question is, which plants stay and which plants go? The IRP decision underscores the need to understand the role of gas in California’s clean energy future, to make sure that the inevitable downsizing of the fleet does not jeopardize grid reliability, and benefits people that are most impacted by gas plant pollution, especially “fenceline” communities that bear the brunt of this pollution. UCS is planning some additional analysis on this issue, so stay tuned.

Big bills are being discussed in Sacramento.

Senate Bill (SB) 100, a bill that would set a bold and achievable target of getting 100% of California’s electricity from carbon-free resources by 2045 is still alive, and waiting to be taken up for a vote in the Assembly. Although there is a lot of public support for SB 100, the policy is getting hung up by potential amendments that deal with the treatment of distributed energy resources. UCS is trying to do what it can to break that logjam and in the meantime, communicate to the Assembly that we’d like to see SB 100 move forward without additional amendments.

Assembly Bill (AB) 813 is a bill that would make it possible for the California Independent System Operator (CAISO)—which operates the grid that serves about three quarters of California’s electricity needs—to expand and include other western states. Pivoting California’s energy market into one that’s west-wide is ambitious and complicated, but worth the effort. Expanding the pool of resources that a grid operator has to manage the system is one of the most cost-effective ways to incorporate more wind and solar generation onto the electricity system.

Energy storage and small-scale renewables are giving natural gas a run for its money.

In early January, the CPUC issued a resolution that authorizes PG&E to hold competitive solicitations for energy storage or “preferred resources” (e.g. demand response and distributed solar) to meet local reliability requirements that have previously been met with gas power plants. This decision, combined with the CEC’s recent decision to reject NRG’s request to build a natural gas peaker plant in the Oxnard, is evidence of what will hopefully become a very significant shift away from the assumption that gas plants are the best and most cost-effective way to provide grid reliability services in the future.

These are just three examples of major clean energy advancements that have unfolded in the last six months. And, many decisions are still developing about whether the state will pass SB 100 and nearer-term plans we’ll need in order to move towards a cleaner grid. Clearly, there is more work to do. But there’s no doubt in my mind that we are making meaningful progress on these “hot topics,” and UCS will be working to make sure California continues its clean energy momentum and climate leadership to “cool down” global warming.

Making the Leap from Coal to What Could Be: New Mexico’s Energy Future

Photo: San Juan Citizens Alliance/EcoFlight

After decades and decades of commitment to coal, New Mexico is rapidly heading toward a future that’s coal free.

But a commitment to transition away from coal is just one part of the story; equally important is a commitment to where that transition will lead. What’s more, how this transition plays out—like who has access, and what happens to the communities and industries otherwise left behind—can have ramifications that last long into the future.

Now, legislators in the state are wrestling with one policy tool for transitioning to a truly clean and low-carbon future, and are considering several more that could help speed the journey along.

Legislation that asks not whether, but how

New Mexico’s lawmakers are in the midst of racing their way through this year’s 30-day legislative session, doing their best to deploy limited hours against a towering to-do list.

During these short sessions, which alternate years with regular 60-day sessions, lawmakers tend to prioritize budgetary issues above all else. But as a testament to the growing recognition of just how economically pivotal the state’s energy transition is, this year legislators are also devoting serious hours to SB 47/HB 80, or the Energy Redevelopment Bond Act.

Legislators have the opportunity to deploy policies that will help propel the state to a better, cleaner future.

This bill is a historic piece of legislation, and has the potential to catalyze the clean energy transition that New Mexico’s economy so desperately needs, and that New Mexicans so fully deserve. Achieving that potential, though, is key, and it turns on the central issue flagged above—a commitment away from something just isn’t enough; there must also be a commitment to what comes next.

At its core, SB 47/HB 80 is about enabling the state’s largest power provider—PNM—to issue securitized bonds to recover costs from the early retirement of San Juan Generating Station. Because the terms of such bonds result in much lower interest rates, customers can actually save money by paying PNM to, effectively, move on from coal.

But the bulk of the debate surrounding the bill is not about the proven securitization tool itself. Instead, it has to do with everything that could—and should—happen as a result.

Securitization presents an incredible opportunity to intentionally shape the state’s energy future, and squandering that opportunity (or worse, using it to point the state down a bad path) is too serious to let slide. That’s why stakeholders have been so deeply engaged in trying to make the initial proposal much stronger, including:

  • Securing meaningful support to ensure Farmington and San Juan County are provided a viable opportunity to diversify, develop, and ultimately transition their economy away from the dwindling coal sector.
  • Committing PNM to a future energy mix that would supply customers with 40 percent renewable energy by 2025 and 50 percent renewable energy by 2030—strong and critical waypoints that would keep the utility moving toward an ever-cleaner (and more cost-effective) energy future.
  • Requiring more market competition for the renewable energy resources that replace coal.
  • Ensuring that the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) has full authority to review PNM’s proposed closure costs.

Stakeholder negotiations to develop a consensus bill have improved the text from its original form, but it’s still not yet where it needs to be to warrant passage. A few central issues that demand prudent resolution include:

  • Making sure that a coal plant retired under this legislation cannot reopen again as a coal plant further down the road.
  • Limiting the amount of new resources PNM is guaranteed to own, as more market competition can drive down prices for ratepayers and create more development opportunities for the state’s growing clean energy industry.
  • Ensuring the PRC is sufficiently empowered to do its job as regulator, including by being able to adequately vet any securitization proposals that cross its desk.
  • Making sure the bill works for the communities it’s directly affecting by ensuring all stakeholders have a say.

The negotiating process for this bill has been a winding one, with stakeholders on both sides being brought together to try to come to a workable, consensus agreement. And in a sign that there’s still hope that a sufficiently improved bill will emerge this session, the legislation was tabled—not killed—in a vote by the Senate Conservation Committee last week. If designed well, the tool has incredible potential. We’re looking for legislation that ensures all that potential is met.

But transitions take a lot more than one bill, and a lot more than just bills

The remaking of New Mexico’s power sector cannot hope to be resolved in a single bill. There are many, many policies and regulations that can be brought to bear to best facilitate and accelerate New Mexico’s transition to a vibrant clean energy economy—one that’s open to participation and innovation from people all across the state.

Just this session alone there are multiple additional energy bills under consideration that could help pull the state forward, including:

  • A proposal to reinstate the solar tax credit: Especially in light of the Trump Administration’s recent enactment of solar import tariffs, the state can play a critical role in supporting its nascent-but-growing solar industry by making sure solar stays affordable—and available—for all New Mexicans as the costs of solar continue to fall.
  • A proposal to re-fund the Renewable Energy Transmission Authority (RETA): Cost-effectively shifting to a high-renewables future means taking advantage of all the state’s incredible renewable resource potential, which will require the buildout of new transmission lines to ensure the best opportunities can be brought to market. Refunding RETA would allow for the development of a strategic and centralized transmission planning approach.

And then, of course, there are all the many and varied ways that progress is being facilitated outside the legislature, from local community commitments to go green, all the way up to the PRC investigating the feasibility of PNM joining a broader energy market and considering the development of a Clean Energy Standard, and so much else in between.

New Mexico’s transition away from coal should lead directly to a clean energy future—the least-cost, healthiest, and most economically favorable future for the state. This transition must be open to all, and supportive of those who could otherwise get left behind.

State legislators have the chance now to make a leap toward this vibrant clean energy future—they should do everything they can to make the best of it.

Mr.TinDC/Creative Commons (Flickr)

Your Home vs. Winter: Let these “Game of Thrones” Quotes Be Your Guide

Photo: Norbert Stoop

For fans of HBO’s A Game of Thrones, the phrase “Winter is Coming” may evoke a myriad of feelings—anticipation, dread, (déjà vu),…

For those of us in many parts of the US, winter can mean cold days, colder nights, and the higher utility bills to go along with them. So how do we prepare… or deal with the fact that winter is here?

Fortunately, a few choice Game of Thrones quotes—and our book Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living—can get us where we need to be.

Winter is here. Let’s deal with it.


“Nothing burns like the cold.”

As described in Cooler Smarter, for the average American, heating and cooling are second only to transportation in terms of carbon pollution. They can also represent a sizeable chunk of the household budget, accounting for half of energy use in typical U.S. homes, according to the US Department of Energy.

All that means is that anything we can do to make our houses tighter will help with comfort, carbon emissions, and money, in the cold of winter or the heat of summer. The key, says Cooler Smarter,

…is that it’s not just a furnace or an air-conditioning system that keeps you and your family at a comfortable temperature; it’s the whole house. In cold weather, a house functions as a building-sized blanket, offering insulation from the freezing temperatures outside. In hot weather, a home shields you from the worst of the heat and humidity outside.

You can look for opportunities all over, that is—not just where the furnace or boiler is located.

“Knowledge is a weapon, Jon. Arm yourself well before you ride forth to battle.” (Master Eamon)

As with so many things in life, the first step is knowing where you stand. What do you heat with? How much do you use and spend? How does that compare with others’ energy habits, so that you can get a sense for what sort of opportunities there might be, efficiency-wise?

A few weapons you might turn to for help with that:

Gold and smiley faces. When you get energy efficiency right, the rewards are endless. (Credit: J. Rogers)

  • Your monthly bill – While you can’t necessarily do much about the costs of your energy per unit (kilowatt-hours, therms, gallons), you can see how many units you’re using. You can see how your usage compares to what you were using in previous winters, to get a sense if anything has changed (like, there’s a window open in the basement, or the dungeon…).
  • Online calculators – While you’re looking at your data, you can also see how that compares with how you maybe should be using, based on rules of thumb. Tools like this one can help with that.
  • Your comps – Even better, since it takes into account whether it’s been colder or warmer than usual, is if your utility shows you how you’re doing against others in your neighborhood with similar conditions (house size, heating fuel). It’s not perfect—maybe you’ve got four kids and a needy puppy dog, and they’ve got none. But it can help you orient yourself, particularly if you can look for changes in your relative standing over time; if you used to perform consistently better than neighbors, and now don’t, that might be a clue that something’s amiss.
“Once you’ve accepted your flaws, no one can use them against you.” (Tyrion Lannister)

When you’ve armed yourself as surely as the knights of Westeros (or Dothraki bloodriders across the sea) by seeing what opportunities there might be, it’s time to resolutely dive in.

You can view those opportunities in a few basic buckets: adapting, buttoning, and upgrading.

Adapting (changing how you operate). The easiest, lowest-cost (or no-cost) thing to do is likely to make better use of what you’ve already got.

Part of that is being more conscious about which parts of the house you’re heating (or cooling), and when. If you have the option of heating or cooling only the part of the house you’re using, that can be a fine way of staying comfortable and cutting utility bills.

That goes for the whole house, too, when you’re out for the day, or when you’re nestled all snug in your bed. The easiest way to do that is to not have to think about: a programmable thermostat can do it automatically, dialing the heat back during the day, and after bedtime, and bringing the heat back up in time for dinner or breakfast. (Just be sure to program it!)

Buttoning up your home. Another level of winterizing is helping your house keep you as warm and comfortable as possible with your existing heating system. Per Cooler Smarter:

Depending on how your home is constructed, you may be able to quickly reduce your carbon emissions and save money simply by caulking, sealing, and weatherstripping all seams, cracks, and openings to the outside. In fact, dollar for dollar, plugging these leaks is likely to be one of the most cost-effective energy-saving measures you can take.

Every house is different (and castles are a whole ‘nother kettle of fish), but here’s what leaks look like for the average house:

Source: Cooler Smarter

Replacing windows is a bigger commitment, but what these data suggest is that some caulk, some more insulation, and a few hours some weekend might do you a world of good.

And one thing I’ve learned in my own personal efficiency journey is that the most cost-effective amount of insulation might be much more than you’d think. In northern climes, you might do well to have something like 24 inches of insulation in your attic, if you can swing it.

Upgrading your heating system. The next level. Given that new HVAC equipment can run into the thousands of dollars, this isn’t necessarily something you do lightly. And it’s probably not something you can do unless you own the place.

But if you’re trying to ward off winter’s chill with something that was new when Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House—or even Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan—it might be well worth your while to at least look into options. Furnaces have gotten a whole lot better in recent decades, efficiency-wise.

You’ll want to weigh what a new system will cost vs. what it’ll save you in lower utility bills (not to mention added comfort). That involves making some assumptions about where fuel costs are headed, but so does sticking with your old clunker.

One pretty new option that I’ve gotten excited about is air-source heat pumps that work even in really cold weather, which is a recent innovation (and important where I live).

White Non-Walker (Credit: J. Rogers)

“There’s no shame in fear, my father told me; what matters is how we face it.” (Jon Snow)

These ideas won’t make polar vortexes go away, and they won’t drop utility bills to nothing. But they can help you seize your utility-bill destiny, to save money, increase your comfort, and cut your carbon pollution.

As for games of thrones: I’ve got to admit that I read the first book a while back, but found its don’t-put-me-down-or-else insistence more of a drag on my brain than I could handle. So that’s as far as I’ve gotten (for now).

Besides, I really need to spend less time fighting White Walkers (even vicariously) and more time protecting my family from the weather (or getting outside to enjoy it).

Let winter do what it will. There are heating bills to cut, and snowforts to build.

= = = = =

Some handy resources—because, of course, “One voice may speak you false, but in many there is always truth to be found” (Daenerys Targaryen):

Hat tip to Time and Goodreads for the quote help.

Why a Boring, Bureaucratic Reorganization at the Department of Energy Might Be Worse Than It Seems

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/JSquish

Organizational charts: possibly the most boring topic you can imagine. So why is the reorganization of a federal agency (in this case the Department of Energy, or DOE) the subject of a January 30 Congressional hearing in the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee? I listened in to the live webcast of the hearing so that I could get the low-down on what this reorganization could mean for the future of basic and applied research at DOE. Early indications are that the administration will seek to cut clean energy research by 72 percent.

A Tale of Two Org Charts

Back in December, Energy Secretary Perry announced that his agency is planning to “modernize” its internal organizational structure “to advance its policy goals consistent with its statutory requirements.” That means a new org chart. It includes a big change from the previous administration: splitting the Office of the Under Secretary for Science and Energy into two: The Office of the Under Secretary for Science and the Office of the Under Secretary for Energy. Sounds harmless enough—why should this matter? While reasonable people disagree on what impact this may have on DOE’s operations and priorities—see this great summary piece—this change is potentially significant to our nation’s science and research enterprises and worth keeping an eye on.

The previous org chart, established by former Energy Secretary Moniz in 2013, combined the two Under Secretary positions. Moniz justified the change, arguing that the department required “the ability to closely integrate and move quickly among basic science, applied research, technology demonstration, and deployment” and that there was an advantage to having the majority of the National Labs within one department. He also highlighted the change as necessary for the innovation ecosystem for clean energy, which was critical for implementing President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. However, in March 2017, the current president rescinded the Climate Action Plan, along with a whole host of other efforts aimed at addressing climate change.


Instead of drawing attention to the administration’s ongoing work to sideline efforts to address climate change, Secretary Perry’s team refers to this DOE reorganization as “modernizing” the agency. Ironically, dividing Energy and Science into different offices returns the agency closer to how it was organized a decade ago. The witnesses from the Congressional hearing, the two men nominated and confirmed to lead the two new offices, suggested that this change was consistent with the intent of Congress. Congressman Beyer (VA-08) pushed back on the implication that former Secretary Moniz acted improperly in splitting them up; reading from the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (see video at about 1:16:07), he noted that the responsibilities of the Under Secretary for Science include both “basic and applied research” and suggested that the applied energy technologies offices could well fall under the purview of the Office of Science according to the statute.

In any case, the Secretary of Energy has broad discretion to organize the department and his own team as he sees fit, consistent with the law. The whole question of Congressional intent, in the end, appears to be a red herring. The real reason behind this change (justified by claims of modernization and Congressional intent) is to establish an artificial wall between basic and applied science. This could give leeway to the Administration to push for even deeper cuts for whatever it deems to be applied research—which could include a wide range of vital programs in clean energy and energy efficiency, our national labs, the applied energy technology offices, and R&D that supports the clean energy innovation ecosystem. Simply put, by separating the two offices Secretary Perry is laying the groundwork for the administration to cleave the research efforts they don’t want out of the DOE.

How will this happen? The President’s FY 2018 budget, released almost a year ago, offers a clue: It proposed the largest reduction in funding for scientific research seen in the last 40 years. What’s worse, the administration clearly prioritizes “basic and early-stage” R&D, but continues to suggest that “applied research”—especially technologies that are near commercialization—are best left to the private sector and not worthy of federal investments. In this week’s House hearing, several committee members questioned the witnesses about the distinction between basic and early-stage research and its implications for budget priorities, and the Under Secretaries indicated that they did not support many of the cuts that were proposed by the administration last year.

The chart below shows how last year’s budget proposal included much greater cuts for applied research compared to basic research. Basic Energy Sciences, within the Office of Science, was slated for a 16 percent cut, but many of the applied technology offices were facing cuts upwards of nearly 70 percent or more, including research on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). What’s in store for this year’s proposal?


Our National Labs: A “Crown Jewel”

Interestingly, Secretary Perry has repeatedly promised to defend DOE scientists and research, calling the nation’s 17 National Labs a “crown jewel.” He should know that the National Labs work on both basic and applied research because solving real-world problems requires both. DOE’s Labs develop and invest in breakthrough technologies that are too risky or too expensive for the private sector, and represent a wise investment of taxpayer money.

The ideological distinction between basic and applied research creates an artificial barrier which makes it harder for us to innovate and make breakthroughs. In DOE’s case, it will devastate the work of the National Labs—which are vitally important to our scientific competitiveness—and could force massive job losses in these institutions that are vital to local economies.

We’re Watching

In all the hoopla following the President’s first State of the Union address, we’re paying attention to his ongoing attacks on clean energy. We’ll be watching to see how this reorganization at DOE pans out. We’ll be watching the White House budget proposal (which could be released in just a few weeks) to see his flawed priorities. In fact, our team has already been following these attacks—from DOE’s bogus FERC proposal aimed at bailing out uneconomic coal and nuclear plants that was ultimately rejected, to the president’s decision to slap a 30 percent tariff on foreign made solar panels that threatens thousands of installer jobs in one of the fastest growing industries today. Be sure to follow this ongoing blog series, where we will spotlight administration efforts to hamper the development of clean energy.

When Renewable Energy Costs Fall Quickly, How Should Buyers Get Good Information?

Renewable energy in Illinois Photo: tlindenbaum/Flickr

Now that new wind and solar power plants are cheaper than burning fossil fuel at existing plants, old assumptions and outdated information are hazardous to our health and economy.

Recent news of renewable energy and storage competing to supply electricity is moving so fast, attention now must shift to how energy buyers make comparisons between fossil fuel and up-to-date information about renewable energy.  For years, UCS has pushed slow-moving institutions to keep up with the declining costs and improving performance of renewable energy.

Costs and performance of renewable energy have improved greatly in recent years. Using old information is not helping. Photo from Illinois: tlindenbaum/Flickr

Lowest prices ever!

New renewable energy plants’ success beating fossil fuel keeps spreading, and surprising experts.  The results Xcel found for solar, wind with storage from bids in Colorado made headlines. Median bid prices of 2.1 cents per kilowatt-hour for wind with storage and 3.6 cents per kilowatt-hour for solar plus storage sent shockwaves.  Wind under 2 cents is common in that region.  Corporate energy decisions, at utilities and at Steelcase, IKEA, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Wal-Mart and many more are based on price.  The declining costs of renewable energy seen by these market players are documented in public and industry reports, too.

The falling costs and rising capabilities of renewables are also seen for energy storage. The trajectory of storage replacing power plants demonstrates how zero-fossil fuel alternatives can increase grid reliability.

Reliability can be expensive

Reliability needs in certain areas of the grid, often near population centers, can be especially expensive. But these can drive interest in solutions based on renewables plus storage. In these locations, increased delivery of electricity has a higher value than an average location. Think of the higher value of the electricity in your cellphone or flashlight. The adoption of careful, concentrated efforts to use renewable energy, demand response, and storage in locations where reliability requires an expensive fix was used in northern Wisconsin in 2000.

Now there are policies coming into effect based on the idea that there are more ways to meet reliability.   California recently noted when procurements for meeting reliability needs are open, energy storage has shown an exceptionally high value in bid evaluation. In a new decision last month, the California Public Utility Commission ordered that a proposal to maintain outdated gas-fired peaker plants should be compared with new zero carbon supplies (solar, demand response and storage) in these high value, difficult to reach locations.

In that decision, the CPUC also noted something relevant everywhere: The public needs competition to test the continued support of existing plants.

New ways to meet your needs

This California order opens wide a poorly measured comparison of new energy supplies. Meeting reliability (and adding resiliency), a role previously met by power plants or added wires, is ripe for competition to save money and increase the use of clean energy.

New York City is another place the value of storage and other distributed energy resource such as solar and demand response have been recognized in utility planning.  Five years ago, Con Ed of New York adopted the idea that solar, demand response and storage can be combined as an economic alternative to a large reliability expenditure. The industry is learning in Brooklyn and Queens in New York City to bring these clean distributed resources to the upgrade the grid where the wires alternative was going to be very expensive.   This was a rare break, allowing competition for new technology to be compared to the cost of a wires upgrade.

Watch for non-competitive situations

With all these quickly changing practices in some places, consider how slow the information gathering and decision-making can be. Utilities still consider themselves the best developer and owner of new energy supplies. Utilities will even pretend that there are no alternative suppliers or new technologies capable of meeting their needs. Many oversight agencies (public utility commission and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) require either planning and evaluation subject to debate and review, or a competition with bidders offering supplies to conform to a Request for Proposals. (UCS is involved in these energy plan reviews in Michigan and Minnesota.)

These approaches can drag out over two years, making information stale and creating a high-stakes, winner-take-all situation dependent on hidden assumptions or analysis.

Not everyone has to hold on to old information or even create a new RFP to learn the present price of power from renewables. For an example of more routine gathering of prices without the cost and complexity of issuing an RFP, look at innovations available. As more supply is available and more places are suitable for electricity generation, new tools will be useful to buyers of all kinds. One firm rolling out an easily-updated database of renewable energy supply is Level 10.  The access to sellers’ offers from this firm accelerate the price comparisons, and purchasing from renewable energy plants in more places.

While regulated utilities need to be supervised to protect consumers and avoid monopoly abuses, how they gather and understand information is not necessarily stuck in the slow lane.  UCS is arguing for a fresh attitude to modeling the different tasks and benefits of energy supplies embedded in the power system. In a world where solar energy can be so common the old thinking calls this “a surplus”, and new wind farms can be the cheapest energy on the grid, information and analysis must keep up.

Donald Trump’s State of the Union: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Photo: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

In his State of the Union address to Congress, President Trump exaggerated the benefits of the Republican tax cut bill to average Americans, overlooked the harm that will result from his push to weaken public health and worker safety protections, and disregarded the serious concerns expressed about key elements of his forthcoming infrastructure proposal.

Meanwhile, he failed to even mention a host of other issues where actions being taken by his administration are threatening the health and well-being of all Americans, including the assault on science-based policymaking at federal agencies, the dismantling of strategies to limit and respond to the mounting impacts of climate change, and the dangerous changes being considered to US nuclear weapons policy that would make nuclear war more likely.

Of course, President Trump’s words and actions have contributed to a number of other disturbing trends, including increased expressions of bigotry and racism, a lack of kindness and common decency, growing disrespect for facts and expertise, and a focus on short-term gain for the powerful and wealthy at the expense of longer-term investments for the public benefit. UCS president Ken Kimmell has more to say about that.

Trump’s tax cuts: largesse for the most fortunate endangers benefits for the rest of us

President Trump waxed eloquent last night about the tax cuts he signed into law in December, whose benefits go overwhelmingly to corporations and the wealthiest Americans. While the jury is out on how much of this windfall may eventually trickle down to middle- and working-class Americans, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates the tax cuts will increase the federal deficit by more than $1 trillion over the next decade. This will increase pressure for cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, food assistance, and other programs that benefit low- and middle-income families, along with reduced investments in scientific and medical research, education and job training, infrastructure, and other public goods.

Federal government investments in science research and innovation have led to discoveries that have produced major benefits for our health, safety, economic competitiveness, and quality of life.  This includes MRI technology, vaccines and new medical treatments, the internet and GPS, earth-monitoring satellites that allow us to predict the path of major hurricanes, clean energy technologies such as LED lighting, advanced wind turbines and photovoltaic cells, and so much more. The work of numerous federal agencies to develop/implement public health and safety protections against exposure to toxic chemicals, air and water pollution, and workplace injuries has also produced real benefits to the American people.

The threats to these federal programs aren’t hypothetical; they were spelled out clearly in President Trump’s FY18 budget proposals last spring, which UCS president Ken Kimmell aptly called “a wrecking ball to science.” Other UCS colleagues detailed the devastating impacts of these proposed budget cuts on the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrationworker health and safety, the Forest Service, and early career scientists.

While these cuts have yet to come to fruition (in large part because Congress has been unable to agree on anything other than very short-term spending bills), indications are that President Trump intends to put many of them forward again when he unveils his FY19 budget as early as February 12. The higher deficits resulting from the tax bill will almost certainly be cited by some in Congress as a reason to make these cuts.

“Regulatory rollbacks” = less protection for all Americans

Last night, President Trump touted his success in rolling back a number of science-based safeguards, claiming that “we have eliminated more regulations in our first year than any administration in history.”  While there’s no doubt his administration has been hyperactive on this front, there’s also no doubt who benefits from slashing protections for workers and average Americans: the banks, chemical companies, coal and oil producers, and other corporations whose harmful behaviors led to the regulations in the first place.

At a White House photo op event last month heralding his push for deregulation, President Trump announced that he has canceled or delayed more than 1,500 planned regulatory actions, “more than any previous president, by far,” and said “we’re going to cut a ribbon because we’re getting back below the 1960 level and we’ll be there fairly quickly.”  Of course, not everything was hunky-dory back then, as UCS senior writer Elliott Negin reminds us: “smog in major US cities was so thick it blocked the sun. Rivers ran brown with raw sewage and toxic chemicals. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River and at least two other urban waterways were so polluted they caught on fire. Lead-laced paint and gasoline poisoned children, damaging their brains and nervous systems. Cars without seatbelts, air bags, or safety glass were unsafe at any speed. And hazardous working conditions killed an average of 14,000 workers annually, nearly three times the number today.”

At the White House event last month, President Trump assured us that “We want to protect our workers, our safety, our health, and we want to protect our water, we want to protect our air, and our country’s natural beauty.” But as my colleague Yogin Kothari points out, it is the very regulations that President Trump and his appointees are assailing “that keep our air and water clean, our food safer to eat, our household products and our kids’ toys safer to play with, and our workers safer at work. And it is these regulations that can and should have the greatest positive impact on low-income communities and communities of color, who are often disadvantaged and facing some of the worst public health and environmental threats.”

Infrastructure: the devil is in the details

Last night, President Trump said “I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need,” and White House officials have signaled that he will be putting forward a detailed infrastructure proposal to Congress within the next few weeks. The need for a robust and equitable infrastructure package has never been greater; in its latest comprehensive assessment of the nation’s infrastructure conditions and needs, the American Society of Civil Engineers says that to bring our infrastructure up to a B grade from its current D grade, we need to invest $4.6 trillion by 2025 – some $2 trillion more than the estimated funding now in place.

At first blush, President Trump’s promised infrastructure plan may sound like it’s responsive to that need; but a closer look reveals serious concerns. A White House memo leaked last week indicates that only about 20 percent of these funds would be direct federal investment, with the rest needing to come from state and local governments and private sector investment. Even worse, a White House adviser told the US Conference of Mayors last week that the federal share of the funds would be offset by cuts to existing programs such as Amtrak and mass transit (talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul!).

Another leaked memo indicates the Trump administration will seek radical changes in environmental and other permitting procedures for new infrastructure projects, falsely claiming that these procedures—rather than the investment shortfalls noted above—are the source of the woeful state of our nation’s infrastructure. Scott Slesinger of NRDC charges that “the leaked provision would repeal critical clean air, clean water and endangered species protections and undermine basic environmental statutes. It would also set up a process guaranteed to neuter public input into federal actions and give agency heads free reign to virtually exempt any project from the National Environmental Policy Act, free from court challenge.”

While the leaked White House memos raise serious concerns, it is Congress that will determine the final shape and scale of any infrastructure bill. As my colleague Rob Cowin notes, any infrastructure bill must go beyond traditional investments in highways, bridges, and water projects, by seeking to ensure that our nation’s infrastructure is made increasingly resilient to the worsening impacts of climate change, as well as accelerating deployment of renewable energy, energy storage, and smart grid technologies that can enhance electricity system resiliency, while creating jobs and reducing environmental impacts. An infrastructure package that neglects these vital priorities, cuts other worthy programs to fund new investments, or attempts to gut important environmental review safeguards is not worth supporting.

President Trump’s assault on science and federal agency scientists

The importance of science to American prosperity, well-being, and international leadership went unmentioned in Trump State of the Union address. This is unsurprising, as President Trump’s administration and the 115th Congress have been actively dismantling science-based health and safety protections, sidelining scientific evidence, and undoing recent progress on scientific integrity. More than a year after taking office, President Trump has failed to appoint a presidential science advisor, and three-quarters of the key science and technology positions across the government also remain unfilled.

As my colleague Genna Reed put it recently in an article in Scientific American: “In its first year, the Trump administration has amassed a dismal record on science and science advice. Throughout the federal government, political appointees have misrepresented scientific information, overruled the recommendations of scientific experts, scrubbed scientific content from websites, and even reportedly forbidden some staff from describing their work as “science-based” in budget documents.”

UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy maintains a running list of Trump administration attacks on science—disappearing data, silenced scientists, and other assaults on scientific integrity and science-based policy. Among them:

  • A ban on employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from using the words “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based” in documents being prepared for next year’s budget.
  • Attacks by EPA administrator Scott Pruitt on the independence of EPA’s scientific advisory committees, by ordering that no scientists receiving EPA grant funding could serve on EPA’s Science Advisory Board, Board of Scientific Counselors, or Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. (UCS and Protect Democracy have teamed up to challenge this directive in court).

Unfortunately, these are but a few examples of the administration’s abuses of science—and federal agency scientists—since President Trump took office, and new ones seem to come to light each month. These actions are doing long-term damage to the capability of these agencies to fulfill their mission, and causing real harm to public health and safety; it’s no wonder the president doesn’t want to talk about them.

Ignoring the climate crisis

Despite his brief shout-out to “everyone still recovering in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, California, and everywhere else” from the damages caused by last year’s extreme weather events, President Trump continued to ignore the role of human-induced climate change in worsening those impacts. A federal government report outlines how the costs of these and other natural disasters exceeded $300 billion last year, setting a new US record that blew past previous totals. President Trump’s omission of these facts is not surprising, as he and his administration have been working overtime to dismantle federal government strategies to limit and respond to the mounting impacts of climate change.

Ignoring the advice of other world leaders, the CEOs of hundreds of major corporations, Pope Francis, and many other important voices, President Trump last June announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the historic Paris Agreement on climate change, jeopardizing the health and prosperity of every American as well as people all over the world.  Fortunately, not one country has indicated that they will follow President Trump out the door; in fact, during last November’s climate summit in Germany, Syria announced that it intended to join all the other countries of the world in the agreement, rather than be lumped in with the United States as a climate scofflaw. And the ‘We Are Still In’ coalition of US states, cities, businesses, and other sub-national actors was at the climate summit in full force, unveiling America’s Pledge, committing to meet the US Paris Agreement emissions reduction goals despite the irresponsible and short-sighted actions of President Trump and his administration.

On the domestic front, the Trump administration has systematically moved to roll back President Obama’s climate action plan, including by repealing the Clean Power Plan, announcing a review of the highly successful clean car standards, and undercutting the agreement reached in 2016 with Canada and Mexico to sharply cut oil and gas sector methane emissions. What do these actions have in common?  They all put the short-term economic interests of favored corporate interests ahead of the health, security, and prosperity of the American people. While these and other harmful actions are being challenged in court and are being partially offset by the leadership of US states, cities, and businesses, they will make it more difficult to meet the ambitious temperature limitation goals in the Paris Agreement, and are harming America’s reputation across the world.

Increasing the threat of nuclear war

Finally, while President Trump made extensive remarks last night about the security risks posed by North Korea and Iran’s nuclear weapons programs, he failed to mention that his administration is poised to revise America’s nuclear weapons policy in ways that would intentionally lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. As my colleague Lisbeth Gronlund notes, “Every US president since the end of the Cold War has explicitly reduced the role, the types and the number of US nuclear weapons. This leaked draft lays out a policy that does exactly the opposite. It would increase the risk of nuclear use and reduce national security.”

The yawning gap between rhetoric and reality

So there you have it. While President Trump called for American pride and unity in his State of the Union address, and claimed his actions are bolstering our nation’s security and prosperity, there is a yawning gap between the rhetoric and the reality.

One year in to his administration, the damage being done is clear. But like my colleague Rachel Cleetus, I see grounds for hope as well – not only on the issues discussed above, but in the growing resistance to the threats this administration poses to our democracy, our values, and our basic human rights.

New EPA Guidance Stands to Increase Hazardous Air Pollutants in Environmental Justice Communities

Photo: Yvette Arellano/TEJAS

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency reversed long-standing guidance that helps limit hazardous pollution such as mercury and lead from major sources like power plants, large industrial facilities and vehicles. The end result? Potentially, the biggest increase in hazardous air pollution this country has seen in decades, and environmental justice communities are likely to bear the brunt of it.

A history of clearing the air an old coal-fired power plant in Chicago

New guidance from the Trump administration would relax hazardous air pollution protections for powerplants and other industrial sources. Photo: Flickr user swanksalot

The new guidance is bad news. It creates a huge loophole through which companies can emit more hazardous pollution with less scrutiny from the EPA and the move breaks with more than 20 years of precedent in implementing the Clean Air Act.

During these last two decades we’ve seen impressive reductions in many types of harmful air pollutants that cause serious health problems, including heart and lung diseases, cancer, and the exacerbation of asthma. In this case, under the Clean Air Act, people are protected from major sources of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs).

Hazardous air pollutants, also known as air toxics, are a category of pollutants emitted from power plants and industrial facilities that pose very significant health risks. From the Clean Air Act, these are pollutants “known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects, or adverse environmental or ecological effects.” They are regulated at the source, meaning the EPA limits the amount of these pollutants that individual industrial facilities can emit.

These regulations have been incredibly successful. By requiring major pollution sources to employ control technologies (specifically the Maximum Achievable Control Technology or MACT), pollution from these sources has been reduced substantially. When fully implemented, these standards are projected to reduce annual air toxics emissions from industrial sources by about 1.7 million tons. Already, mobile source emissions have been reduced by approximately 50 percent—about 1.5 million tons of HAPs a year—since 1990. With additional fleet turnover, these reductions are expected to increase to 80 percent by the year 2030. But these gains are now in jeopardy.

Ignoring evidence, giving favors to industry

The Trump administration has issued new guidance on interpretation of this rule. Under the new guidance, major pollution sources would be able to avoid employing the maximum achievable control technology if they can demonstrate that they’ve reduced their emissions below the amount that qualifies them as a “major” source according to the Clean Air Act. Then they could be put in the laxer category of an “area” source, a category reserved for smaller sources of pollution which aren’t subject to the same kinds of pollution reduction requirements as major sources. Area sources are typically smaller facilities like laundromats and restaurants, and regulatory control is handled more at the state, county and tribal levels, rather than by the EPA.

In other words, because the policy has been effective in reducing pollution from major sources, it shouldn’t apply to them. This would, in turn, mean that these facilities would no longer need to use the most effective pollution control technologies and instead would be allowed to emit more pollution as long as they stay below the threshold for major sources.

With pollution control technologies advancing all the time, why wouldn’t we want facilities to use cutting-edge equipment and practices? Why wouldn’t we want to reap the health benefits of continuous reductions in pollution? Instead, the latest EPA guidance will likely cause hazardous pollution to rise significantly, and it also hurts businesses that develop innovative pollution control technologies.

EPA decisionmakers in 1995 noticed this potential loophole and issued guidance in response. They stated that the policy of keeping facilities labeled as major sources even after they meet requirements “ensures that MACT emissions reductions are permanent, and that the health and environmental protection provided by MACT standards is not undermined.”

The Trump administration is ignoring this consideration of public health and environmental protection by allowing companies to backslide into less pollution control. And importantly, this weaker air pollution policy will impact some people more than others.

Hotspots and fencelines: disproportionate impacts of hazardous air pollutants

One challenge with US air pollution regulation (that existed long before the Trump administration) has been its scope. Federal air pollution policies are generally not designed to capture and control pollution hotspots, which are subject to air pollution from multiple sources in close proximity. Pollutants like HAPs are regulated at the source, and other pollutants like ozone are regulated in the ambient air—i.e., we regulate the average pollution across a city any given day or hour, not any one spot at any one time.

The consequence of this gap is hotspots—places that tend to have higher air pollution because of their location near multiple sources. Communities in places like this have long worried about cumulative impacts. Sure, individual facilities might be meeting standards, but what is the impact of breathing air from many facilities all together day in and day out? Studies have shown the health risks of cumulative impacts, and many communities have long raised concerns about their own health as a result (see here, here, and here, for example). And who is facing these impacts? Those near industrial pollution tend to be low-income communities and communities of color.

Allowing polluters to avoid protecting public health

This is what makes the new guidance so problematic. The Trump administration’s move to weaken protections from major pollution sources will hit hardest the people that are already burdened by industrial air pollution. Communities that are already exposed to more hazardous air pollutants than elsewhere now stand to get more pollution emitted into the air they breathe and the water they drink. The EPA is rolling back this more than 20-year-old guidance to allow major pollution sources to expose these communities to greater health risks.

In addition to issuing this guidance, the EPA has also indicated that it intends to propose and take comment on additional regulatory text that would codify this harmful guidance. I’ll be watching closely for when the proposal is issued. Submitting public comments to the EPA calling on the agency to reverse this destructive action will be key.

The Trump administration should focus on improving air quality—as Administrator Pruitt has claimed to want—not nixing effective public health protections.

Photo: Yvette Arellano/TEJAS

Clean Energy Leadership: Next Steps for Massachusetts


In 2016, the Massachusetts legislature laid the groundwork for important progress on clean energy with the passing of the Energy Diversity Act. But now it’s 2018, and there’s a lot more work to be done. And the legislative session is nearing its end.

Fortunately, the path is clear: We need to fix our renewable energy targets, make solar work for everybody, and send clear signals about where we need to head on clean energy and climate.

Increase the renewable portfolio standard to 50×30

Staying on top: Smart, strong policies can keep driving renewable energy in and for Massachusetts (Credit: UCS).

The 2016 law included a requirement that Massachusetts utilities contract for 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind energy over the next decade—an unprecedented and inspiring target (which New York has indeed since been inspired to top, and which New Jersey seems to be inclined to more than double). The energy diversity law also required utilities to sign long-term contracts for large amounts of clean energy, to help drive renewable energy and get low, stable prices for Massachusetts electricity customers.

What the 2016 law didn’t include was a strengthening of the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) to make room for all those new renewables. The RPS specifies how much of the electricity mix of each of Massachusetts’s electric utilities needs to come from renewable energy.

Under the clean energy procurement requirement, the state has just announced that it’s going all hydro, all the time, and large hydro doesn’t count toward the RPS. But if something happens to nix that option (it’s a controversial choice for many), and one of the many proposals with RPS-eligible technologies included gets picked instead, that’ll be more flowing into the RPS.

Just the offshore wind piece, though, is more than enough to eat up all the RPS demand growth between now and 2030. And that offshore wind piece is moving forward.

The new frontier for renewable energy for Massachusetts: offshore wind (Credit: M. Jacobs)

A 2017 study showed the results of the mismatch between the push of the new requirements and the pull of the RPS. A full RPS can’t drive any additional renewables beyond those contracts, and we know we need more.

The solution is a much stronger RPS, and a requirement of 50% renewable energy by 2030 standard fits the bill. That same 2017 study showed that a stronger RPS along those lines would bring more renewables on line, reduce our risks from natural gas overreliance, and mean a lot of extra clean energy jobs in the state.

Upping the requirement is not complicated, particularly for a trailblazer/pioneer like Massachusetts, and other states are already sprinting down the path to targets at least that strong, including California, Hawaii, and New York.

With bills like S.1880 (plus S.1841, S.1876, H.2700, and H.1747), upping Massachusetts’s renewable energy game is an easy thing to check off the legislative to-do list.

Make solar work—for everybody

Another thing on the energy list? Getting solar back on track, and moving forward, not backward, on making it accessible.

Massachusetts has been a solar star, but the policy environment has been cloudy lately—particularly for low-income households. The state’s solar progress has meant that it has kept bumping up against its (self-imposed) caps on how much solar gets to get installed. A “fix” in early 2016, though, actually made solar a worse deal for a lot of people.

The new solar law slashed how much people could use shared or community solar to offset their electricity bills—by a full 40%. Shared solar is the option for the many people who can’t put solar on their own roofs: people with shaded roofs, no southern exposure, or roofs in bad condition; people in multi-family buildings; and renters. Most low-income households fall into one or more of those categories.

So 40% cut for shared solar meant that people who can put solar on their roofs get 100% of the value of their solar electrons, while people who don’t or can’t get 60%.

There’s something seriously wrong with those equations.

There’s more to the Massachusetts solar picture, including continuing problems with caps on how much solar we get to do, uncertainty from a change in state incentives, a bad decision just out of Gov. Charlie Baker’s public utility commission, and Pres. Trump’s decision last week to tax solar panel imports, making solar more expensive.

Here again, the legislature already has a range of bills to address the equity issue, and others. Those include H.3396 and S.1831, which would restore full credit for community solar for low-income households, and others to strengthen solar and solar equity (including S.1824, S.1848, H.2712, and H.3403).

Keep solar climbing, for everybody (Credit: J. Rogers).

Tell us where we’re going on climate change

A third area for legislative action is on our climate goals. The state’s landmark 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act provided for 2020 and 2050 targets for reducing our global warming pollution. Having that 30-year gap between milestones potentially allows for “solutions” that look good in the near term, but won’t serve us well in the long term—with Exhibit A being natural gas (still a fossil fuel, people), which fuels two-thirds of in-state generation already and puts electricity consumers at risk.

What we need is clarity on the waypoints, what kind of reductions we want by 2030 and 2040. Those would be important signals on the road to 2050.

Wouldn’t you know it: There are bills ready to fix this, too: S.1880 and S.479, plus ones that would strengthen our overall carbon pollution policies (including, S.1821, S.1869, H.1726, and H.3473).

And more

When the Massachusetts legislature gets rolling on these issues, there’s a lot more for them to consider in what’s already in other bills, including around:

  • Strengthening environmental justice: 2913/S.426
  • Getting serious about driving energy storage (and Massachusetts’s piece of the jobs and industry): 1746, S.1874, H.2600
  • Empowering communities to drive renewable energy forward collectively: 1745, S.1834
  • Modernizing our electricity grid to lower costs, promote energy efficiency, and protect low-income households: 1725, S.1875

Time is short. Fortunately, however you slice it, the legislature has plenty of opportunities—and plenty of proposals already drafted—for taking the next important steps on climate and clean energy.

Mike Jacobs owner