UCS Blog - Clean Energy (text only)

10 Ways Andrew Wheeler Has Decimated EPA Protections in Just One Year

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signs the so-called Affordable Clean Energy rule, replacing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan that would have reduced coal-fired plant carbon emissions. Photo: EPA

On July 8, President Trump hosted a White House event to unabashedly tout his truly abysmal environmental record. The next day, coincidentally, marked the one-year anniversary of Andrew Wheeler at the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), first as acting administrator and then as administrator after the Senate confirmed him in late February.

The good news, if there is any, is that Wheeler is an Eagle Scout compared to his ethically challenged predecessor, Scott Pruitt. The bad news is, as predicted, Wheeler has been more effective than Pruitt in rolling back and eliminating EPA safeguards.

My organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists, has compiled a list of 80 Trump administration attacks on science since taking office, and Wheeler has been the driving force behind many of them. Below are 10 of the more egregious ways he has undermined the EPA’s time-honored role to protect public health and the environment so far.

1. Sidelined scientists

Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, has taken a number of steps to systematically reduce the role of scientists in the agency’s policymaking process. Last fall, for example, he eliminated the agency’s Office of the Science Advisor, which counseled the EPA administrator on research supporting health and environmental standards, and placed the head of the EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection on administrative leave. He also disbanded a 20-member scientific advisory committee on particulate matter, or soot; failed to convene a similar panel on ozone; and packed a seven-member advisory committee on air quality standards with industry-friendly participants.

2. Proposed to restrict the use of scientific data

Claiming his intent is to increase “transparency,” Wheeler is promoting a rule Pruitt proposed that would dramatically limit the scientific studies the agency considers when developing health standards. If adopted, the rule would restrict the use of scientific studies in EPA decisions if the underlying data are not public and reproducible, which would disqualify many epidemiological and other health studies the EPA relies on to set science-based public safeguards. Given that EPA health standards often rely on studies that contain private patient information, as well as confidential business information that cannot be revealed, the rule would significantly hamper the agency’s ability to carry out its mission. Wheeler plans to finalize the rule sometime this year.

3. Gutted the coal ash rule

The first major rule Wheeler signed as acting administrator refuted his claim that he could fulfill President Trump’s directive to “clean up the air, clean up the water, and provide regulatory relief” at the same time. By rolling back the Obama-era coal ash rule, Wheeler provided regulatory relief to his old friend the coal industry by weakening environmental protections established in 2015 to clean up coal ash ponds, which are laced with toxic contaminants that leak into groundwater. The move was a top priority for coal baron Bob Murray, owner of Murray Energy, Wheeler’s most lucrative client when he worked for the Faegre Baker Daniels law firm.

Coal-fired power plants have been dumping this residue from burning coal into giant, unlined pits for decades. According to the EPA, there are more than 1,000 coal ash disposal sites across the country, and a recent analysis by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project found that 91 percent of the coal plants filing monitoring data required by the 2015 rule are polluting water with unsafe levels of toxic contaminants. Wheeler’s EPA says the new rule—which extends the deadline for closing some leaking ash ponds and allows states to suspend groundwater monitoring and set their own standards—will save utilities as much as $31 million. But the agency ignored the enormous costs of cancer and neurological and cardiovascular diseases linked to coal ash ingredients, which include arsenic, chromium, lead and mercury.

4. Recommended unsafe levels of drinking water contaminants

Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are used in firefighting foam and a variety of nonstick, cleaning, packaging and other household products, have been linked to thyroid disease and kidney, liver, pancreatic and testicular cancer. According to a recent study by the Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University, these chemicals threaten the drinking water supplies of an estimated 19 million Americans. A 2018 Union of Concerned Scientists report, meanwhile, found that PFAS water contamination at 130 military bases across the country exceed the 11-parts-per-trillion safety threshold determined by the Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Nearly two-thirds of the sites had contamination that was more than 100 times higher than the safe level.

In February, Wheeler announced the “first-ever nationwide action plan” to regulate PFAS chemicals in water, saying the agency would develop and set a limit for two of the most prevalent PFAS chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. During the announcement, he told reporters he believes the agency’s voluntary 70-part-per-trillion health-advisory level for the chemicals is “a safe level for drinking water,” despite the fact that this level is more than six times higher than what the Disease Registry considers safe.

While Wheeler slow-walks the EPA’s response, members of Congress have introduced at least a dozen bills to address PFAS contamination, and the Senate recently passed a defense bill that would require the EPA to set a science-based standard for PFAS in drinking water.

5. Rolled back Clean Water Act protections

Clearing up a decade-long dispute over the scope of the Clean Water Act, the Obama EPA adopted a broad, science-based definition of the law that included protecting intermittent and ephemeral streams and wetlands that do not have surface water connections to other waterways. A 2015 EPA meta-analysis of more than 1,200 peer-reviewed studies concluded that even infrequently flowing small streams and isolated wetlands can affect “the integrity of downstream waters.” Trash them and that pollution could wind up in rivers, lakes, reservoirs and estuaries.

Regardless, Wheeler announced plans during a December telephone press briefing to reverse the Obama EPA definition of waters protected by the Clean Water Act, a thinly disguised gift to land developers and the agriculture industry. When asked what wetlands would no longer be protected, Wheeler replied, “We have not done … a detailed mapping of all the wetlands in the country.” Likewise, EPA Office of Water head David Ross—who represented industry clients against the EPA before joining the Trump administration—told reporters on the call that the agency had no idea how many streams would be dropped from Clean Water Act protection under the proposal.

In fact, Wheeler and Ross were well aware of the damage their new definition would do. At least 18 percent of streams and 51 percent of wetlands across the country would not be covered under their proposed definition, according to an internal 2017 slideshow prepared by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers and obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act.

6. Suppressed an inconvenient formaldehyde report

Last August, Wheeler disingenuously told a Senate committee that the EPA was holding up the release of a report on the risk of cancer from formaldehyde to confirm its veracity. “I am sure we will release it,” he said, “but I need to make sure that the science in the report is still accurate.”

In fact, the report—which concluded that formaldehyde can cause leukemia and nose and throat cancer—was completed by EPA scientists a year before Wheeler testified, according to a Senate investigation, and their conclusion was hardly a surprise. Both the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer and the US Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Program have already classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen.

The EPA’s review process normally takes 60 to 90 days. The formaldehyde report has been in limbo for at least a year and a half, a blatant giveaway to the American Chemistry Council, the US chemical industry’s premier trade association, which has blocked tighter restrictions on formaldehyde for decades.

7. Ignored EPA scientists’ advice to ban asbestos

Instead of heeding the advice of agency scientists and lawyers to follow the example of 55 other countries and ban asbestos completely, the EPA announced in April that it would tighten restrictions on asbestos—not ban it—despite overwhelming scientific evidence of its dangers. Manufacturers will be able to continue to use the substance if they obtain EPA approval.

Asbestos has not been produced in the United States since 2002, but is still imported for use in a wide range of commercial and consumer products, including auto brake components, roofing, vinyl floor tile, fire-resistant clothing, and cement pipes, sheets and shingles. One of the deadliest known carcinogens, asbestos kills nearly 40,000 Americans annually, mainly from lung cancer.

8. Weakened the mercury emissions rule

In late December, the EPA proposed to significantly weaken a rule restricting mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants by recalculating its costs and benefits. The Obama EPA, which issued the rule in 2011, estimated it would cost utilities $7.4 billion to $9.6 billion annually to install pollution controls and lead to $37 billion to $90 billion in health benefits by reducing not only mercury, a potent neurotoxin, but also sulfur dioxide and soot, thus preventing 130,000 asthma attacks, 4,700 heart attacks, and as many as 11,000 premature deaths. The Wheeler EPA ignored the “co-benefits” of limiting sulfur dioxide and soot, and flagrantly lowballed the health benefits of curbing mercury alone at only $4 million to $6 million annually.

Most utilities have already complied with the mercury rule at a fraction of the estimated cost, but health advocates fear that this new, industry-friendly accounting method, which makes it appear that the cost to polluters far outweigh the rule’s benefits, will set a precedent for the EPA to sabotage an array of other public health protections.

9. Slammed vehicle emission rules into reverse

Last August, the EPA and the Transportation Department issued a proposal to freeze vehicle tailpipe pollution and fuel efficiency standards, rolling back a 2012 Obama-era rule requiring automakers to boost passenger vehicle fuel economy to a fleetwide average of 54 miles per gallon by 2025. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled “Make Cars Great Again” published a few days before the two agencies announced their proposal, Wheeler and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao charged that the Obama-era standards—the first to limit vehicle carbon emissions—are too burdensome for automakers and “raised the cost and decreased the supply of newer, safer vehicles.”

Parroting the Trump administration’s line of reasoning, Wheeler and Chao argued that fuel-efficient cars—which weigh less than gas-guzzlers—are not as safe, a contention that has been widely debunked. In fact, a 2017 study concluded that reducing the average weight of new vehicles could result in fewer traffic fatalities.

In any case, freezing the standards at 2020 levels would be hard on the planet, not to mention Americans’ wallets, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. It would result in an additional 2.2 billion metric tons of global warming emissions by 2040, amounting to 170 million metric tons in 2040 alone—the equivalent of the annual output of 43 average size coal-fired power plants. It also would cost drivers billions of dollars. In 2040 alone, they would have to pay an additional $55 billion to fill their gas tanks. Meanwhile, the design improvements automakers have made so far to meet the standards have already saved drivers more than $86 trillion at the pump since 2012, and off-the-shelf technological fixes, the Union of Concerned Scientists says, would enable automakers to meet the original 2025 target.

10. Rescinded the Clean Power Plan

Perhaps Wheeler’s most damaging move to date came late last month when he signed a final rule to repeal and replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which would have required coal-fired power plants to dramatically cut their carbon emissions. Yet another gift to the coal industry, Wheeler’s so-called Affordable Clean Energy rule grants states the authority to determine emissions standards but sets no targets, leaving them the option to do absolutely nothing.

Before Wheeler released the final rule, an April study in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that his draft version would boost carbon emissions in 18 states and the District of Columbia and increase sulfur dioxide emissions in 19 states. The EPA’s own analysis of the draft rule, meanwhile, found that the proposal could have led to as many as 1,400 premature deaths annually by 2030 due to an increase in soot, and as many as 15,000 cases of upper respiratory problems.

Reversing decades of bipartisan protections

If Wheeler truly cared about transparency, he would petition the Trump administration to change the name of his agency to “Every Polluter’s Ally.” In just 12 months, he has killed or weakened dozens of safeguards with the sole intention of bolstering polluting industries’ profit margins even after Congress slashed the corporate tax rate. As a result, millions of Americans will be drinking filthier water and breathing dirtier air, and more will suffer from serious diseases, according to his agency’s own accounting.

Wheeler and his predecessor Pruitt have sullied the bipartisan track record of one of the nation’s agencies entrusted with protecting public health and safety. So it is little wonder that three former EPA administrators who, notably, served under Republican presidents, recently sounded the alarm on Capitol Hill, urging legislators to step up their oversight of the agency and denouncing its attempts to hamstring science.

“There is no doubt in my mind that under the current administration the EPA is retreating from its historic mission to protect our environment and the health of the public from environmental hazards,” former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who served under President George W. Bush, stated in her written testimony for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. “This administration, from the beginning, has made no secret of its intention to essentially dismantle the EPA…. Therefore, I urge this committee, in the strongest possible terms, to exercise Congress’s oversight responsibilities over the actions and direction of the EPA.”

Maine Hits Clean Energy Grand Slam

As a baseball fan, I’m looking forward to watching the best players in the world compete for bragging rights in the 90th Major League Baseball All-Star game tonight. As a Maine resident for the past 11 years, I’m even more thrilled to see Maine regain its all-star status as a clean energy leader.

Thanks to the leadership of Governor Janet Mills and strong bi-partisan support in the legislature, Maine hit a clean energy grand slam this year, passing several major climate and clean energy bills. In addition to creating new jobs and reducing the state’s reliance on imported oil and natural gas, these laws will put Maine on a pathway to achieve its statewide target of reducing global warming emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

UCS was part of a broad coalition of groups representing businesses, municipalities, and clean energy advocates that supported these bills.

On June 26, Governor Mills signs 3 major climate and clean energy bills into law at state’s largest solar farm in Pittsfield.

Increasing renewable energy to 80% by 2030

LD 1494 doubles Maine’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) from 40% by 2017 to 80% by 2030 and sets a goal of 100% renewables by 2050. This puts Maine at the top of the batting order, with the highest RPS in the country by 2030. Maine’s RPS surpasses renewable standards of 50% or more by 2030 recently adopted by other leading states (CA, NY, NJ, NM, NV and VT), as shown in the map below.

Sponsored by Sen. Eloise Vitelli (D-Arrowsic), LD 1494 was enacted with strong bi-partisan support, passing the Senate by a unanimous vote of 34-0 and the House 93-48. In addition to testifying in support of the bill, I was a peer reviewer of an analysis of the bill conducted by Synapse Energy Economics and Sustainable Energy Advantage. The study found that the policy is affordable and would deliver the following benefits between 2020 and 2030:

  • Install 700 MW of new renewable energy capacity in Maine
  • Create 1,900 new jobs in Maine, or about 170 per year.
  • Reduce electric sector global warming emissions attributable to Maine by 55 percent.
  • Avoid $500,000 per year in health-related damages from burning fossil fuels.
  • Result in a modest 1.1% increase in monthly residential and small commercial electricity bills

Maine’s 80% RPS makes the state well-positioned to benefit under a national RPS. The same day Gov. Mills signed LD 1494 into law, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced a national RPS that would more than double the supply of renewable energy to 50% of US electricity generation by 2035. A UCS analysis showed that a 50% RPS would boost the US economy, benefit consumers, and put the nation on a pathway to decarbonize the power sector by 2050. Senator King co-sponsored the bill because of the potential economic and environmental benefits to Maine of selling renewable energy credits to utilities in other states to help them meet their targets. We hope Senator Collins follows suit, as she has voted in favor of a national RPS at least four times it has come up for a vote in US Senate over the past two decades (see votes in 2002, 2005, and 2015).

Joining the solar revolution

While the RPS is expected to drive significant investments in utility-scale solar projects, LD 1711 is a complementary policy that will allow all Maine’s residents, businesses, and municipalities to become more energy independent by investing in distributed solar projects. Sponsored by Senator Dow (R-Lincoln), it uses competitive markets to deploy at least 400 MW of distributed solar projects of 5 MW or less, with prices that decline over time as more solar is deployed.

By removing arbitrary limits on community solar projects, it provides greater access to clean, affordable power for all renters and homeowners, including provisions that will increase solar investments in low- and median-income households. It will also enable businesses, schools and municipalities to invest in larger solar projects and provides incentives to install projects on landfills and brownfields.

Despite being a northern state, Maine has a much better solar resource than you might expect. According to data from the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), a solar PV system installed in Portland will generate slightly more electricity than a system installed in Houston and only 5 percent less than a system installed in Miami.

This bill has a long history going back at least five years. The original proposal was developed by the Maine Public Advocate’s Office following the Maine Value of Solar (VOS) Study in 2014. In addition to participating in the VOS study, I represented UCS in a diverse stakeholder process at the Maine PUC to revise the proposal, which was eventually introduced as legislation. Previous versions of the bill passed the Legislature with bi-partisan support, only to be vetoed by former Governor Paul LePage, who was also a vocal opponent of the RPS.

Governor Mills also signed LD 91 on April 2nd to eliminate so-called “Gross Metering,” reversing a recent PUC decision that penalized homeowners and business for going solar. When combined with LD 91, LD 1711 will finally unleash solar investment in Maine.

Reducing global warming emissions 80% by 2050

LD 1679 establishes the Maine Climate Council, which is charged with developing action plans to reduce Maine’s global warming emissions 45% below 1990 levels by 2030 and at least 80% by 2050. The bill also promotes clean energy jobs and climate resiliency for local communities as Maine transitions to a low-carbon economy. Sponsored by Senator David Woodsome, a Republican from York, this bill shows that climate and clean energy policy is not a partisan issue in Maine.

Electrifying transportation and buildings

Electrifying vehicles, buildings and industry with clean energy has been identified as a key strategy for replacing fossil fuel use in other sectors and achieving deep cuts in emissions. Maine adopted several policies this legislative session that would help accomplish this, including:

Maine’s clean energy future looks bright

We applaud Governor Mills and the Maine legislature for passing strong, bi-partisan clean energy legislation that recognizes the urgency of the climate crisis and takes meaningful steps to address it. Maine can finally rejoin the big leagues and regain its all-star status as a clean energy leader that puts the state on a pathway to achieve significant cuts in global warming emissions.

Photo: Barbara Barrett

How Do Power Grids Beat the Summer Heat?

Credit: iStockphoto/Pleasureofart

In the searing heart of summer, when blazing days stack end on end and the air hangs heavy and still, the power grid gets put to the test as people turn to air conditioners to find reprieve.

Millions upon millions of air conditioners, cranking away on rooftops, in windows, behind buildings; block by block, business by business, home by home: together, these many machines can add up to a major increase in electricity demand.

In Texas, grid operators estimate that such sweltering summer days can result in a doubling of peak electricity use compared with during spring.

When summer rolls around, people start using a lot more electricity to try to stay comfortable. In Texas, grid operators show this surge in summer use and estimate nearly half can be attributed to the weather. Credit: ERCOT.

At the same time, many power plants and power grid components can themselves struggle in the face of sky-high heat, which means even more strain is placed on the grid right when it’s needed most.

The upshot is that while most of us are lying low to try to beat the heat, the power grid is in an all-out sprint to ensure that it keeps up. And that means grid operators pull out all the stops, from long-range planning to moment-of operations, targeting both supply and demand.

Some of these approaches, like keeping polluting power plants around to run just a few times a year, are costly and inefficient. But as cleaner resources come online and technologies on the grid evolve, new and exciting solutions are emerging that are not only cleaner but cheaper, too.

These advances couldn’t come at a more critical time as climate change increasingly points toward more dangerous high-heat conditions that threaten health and well-being, especially in the absence of cooling, which elevates the importance of increased access to cooling itself, as well as ensuring the resilience and reliability of the enabling grid.


The foundation of reliable grid operations is planning: estimating how much electricity people will need and whether there are enough resources around for that need to be met—including during heat waves, and including during heat waves when unexpected incidents occur.

One check on this is the annual summer reliability assessment conducted by the nation’s top reliability cop, the National Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which evaluates just such questions for every region of the grid.

In its annual summer reliability assessment, NERC examines each region of the grid and assesses sufficiency of resources to meet potential summer needs. For the vast majority of regions in 2019, resources far outpace anticipated needs. Credit: NERC (2019).

This consideration of “resource adequacy” and “reserve margins” ends up shaping grid decisions large and small, which makes it critically important to get the underlying assumptions just right. Otherwise, for example, uneconomic power plants might be unnecessarily kept around, wasting consumer money and hindering the transition to clean electricity. Or, operators might not recognize that the timing and magnitude of peak demand can rapidly change in shape as installations of rooftop solar surge across the country, with abundant solar power easing afternoon grid stress and in turn pushing the peak later and lower in the day.

As ISO-New England illustrates, as more and more rooftop solar gets added to the system, the summer load profile can change, with peak demand not only dropping lower but also shifting later, too. Credit: ISO-NE.


But long-range planning is really just the start. Next up is making sure that all those power generating, power saving, and power transmitting resources can actually be used.

Power plants and supporting grid infrastructure routinely undergo maintenance, meaning sometimes they have to go offline. If fixes are quick, then outages during low-demand seasons like spring mean there’s still plenty of slack on the system to mitigate effects. For longer lasting outages, though, operators plan ahead to ensure that not too many outages are planned at once, and that enough resources remain available to make it through those hottest summer days.

Yet even when operators do the best planning they can, equipment still breaks and accidents still happen. And then, too, there’s the fact that summer heat can itself wreak havoc on the grid.

For example, virtually all coal and nuclear power plants require cool water to run; in the summer, as hot weather steadily drives up the temperatures of area waterways, that water can eventually get too hot to be of cooling use or can be limited by drought, meaning those massive generators have no choice but to curtail operations or even entirely shut off—right when we need their power the most.

High temperatures can also decrease the efficiency of transmission lines and increase the likelihood of a disruption on the system, which if not rapidly addressed can quickly cascade into far larger outage events, like the 2003 Northeast blackout which thrust over 50 million people into the dark. And now in California, in the face of climate change and the growing threat of wildfires, utilities are starting to pre-emptively shut off transmission lines in high-risk areas during high-risk days to minimize chances of sparking a new blaze.

Which all means operators need to keep a watchful eye on the grid, managing resources to be prepared for contingencies to occur, and relying on weather forecasters to help them anticipate exactly when such conditions might arise in order to proactively plan for how these situations can be overcome.

Markets and management

And when a heat wave does finally arrive? After all the planning, and the operations, and the forecasts—how does the grid actually manage that overwhelming dystopian symphony of compressors cycling on and off, on and off, day after day after day?

With good offense and good defense.

First, there’s the usual starting lineup of least-cost, most efficient, and often cleanest resources, ready and reporting for action (minus those lost to outages, planned or otherwise). These are the ones that are typically relied on all throughout the year.

Then, as hot days continue and the demand for power grows, the grid is increasingly forced to call on its back bench: the more expensive and less efficient “peaker plants,” some of which run only a handful of times a year.

Peaker plants often take the form of combustion turbines, and can be sited right in the heart of communities—which means on some of the worst air quality days of the year, these polluters are roaring to life, exacerbating exposures to already unhealthy air.

Unsurprisingly, inefficient plants running just a few times a year end up being quite expensive, too. In regions with energy markets, this is when prices on the grid start to spike.

Prolonged hot weather can send real-time electricity prices surging, as seen in this chart of a 2013 heatwave in New York. Credit: EIA.

This way of running the power system is ripe for disruption, and indeed recently, new technologies have started to edge in. In particular, peaker plants are beginning to be replaced by combined solar-plus-storage projects. These projects couple solar power plants with battery energy storage, resulting in clean, reliable, and rapidly dispatchable resources, useful not just in those peak moments, but in fact the whole year round.

But during heat waves, it’s not just power plants coming in to save the day—it’s everyday people, too. That’s because a huge part of responding to peak demand is actually lowering power demand itself during those very highest hours.

Some of these actions are systematic: utilities can permanently preclude the need for that last peaker plant by incentivizing people and businesses to use less electricity during those highest hours of the day, not just during heat waves, but every day. They can guide that response through time-varying electricity rates, which are high during high-demand hours and lower during the rest, to encourage shifting of flexible electricity use, like running a dishwasher or drying laundry, away from periods of grid stress.

Other demand-side interventions are more specific to major peak events. For example, in exchange for handsome compensation, electricity customers can agree to be called on a few times a year to ease their electricity consumption, much of which can be done automatically, like raising thermostats several degrees, or stopping industrial operations, or flipping off every other bank of lights in a big box store, all to avoid bringing the costliest final power plants online.

Yet even after all of that, sometimes, it’s still just not enough. Despite all the planning, all the power plants, all the demand response—still, more power is needed than the grid is able to give. That means first, looking to neighboring regions to see if they might have some electricity to spare and sell. Especially when weather varies across regions, sharing of resources can be an effective and efficient solution.

But sometimes, especially when wide swaths of the country are enduring a heat wave at once, it’s still just not enough. And that means turning to the extreme last resort of “load shedding,” the forgiving term assigned to cutting power to some consumers to keep the lights on for the rest. Because if not, and the grid gets overloaded, it can quickly become lights off not just for some but for all.

Looking ahead

To get through a heat wave, grid operators employ a highly dynamic approach informed by careful planning, toggling switches and turning dials to modulate supply and demand. And it turns out, this dynamic method of operations is in fact where the grid of the future is headed, as more variable renewable resources like wind and solar come online and technologies support far more flexibility and coordination in when and how electricity is consumed.

Indeed, grid management of heat waves can teach us a lot about how to get the most out of the resources we want, and how to limit our use of the ones we don’t.

It also elevates the critical importance of paying attention to these challenges, and proactively planning for an increasingly flexible, resilient, and reliable grid as we face the growing strain and stress of climate impacts in the years to come. Because during a heat wave, reliable access to electricity isn’t only a matter of comfort—it’s a significant matter of health and safety, too. Which makes it all the more important to ensure that grid operators aren’t just prepared for heat waves this summer, but are also looking out for worsening conditions to come.

Postscript: If you want to track heat waves rippling across the grid this summer, take a look at one of these data feeds, including at the national level or from the regional grid operators below:

Credit: iStockphoto/Pleasureofart

6 Maps That Show How Bad Energy Poverty is and Reveal 2 Ways to Make it Better

Fresh off the presses is the latest tool from the US Department of Energy (DOE) that generates color-coded maps (known as choropleths) of the deep energy burden many Americans face. There is a wealth of data and hundreds of different ways to display it (you can check it out for yourself here). I’ve chosen 3 sets of maps (6 maps in total) that show the extent of the energy burden but also illuminates a couple of ways we can address the problem of energy poverty.

The energy burden is incredibly regressive

Economists like to talk about ‘progressive’ and ‘regressive’ policies. These aren’t political descriptors, rather, they describe the distributive effects of various policies. Progressive policies place a higher burden as you move up the income ladder. Regressive policies place a higher burden on lower income folks. Generally, decisionmakers try to avoid creating regressive policies. However, we haven’t succeeded on that front when it comes to energy.

The energy burden is far worse for those already living in poverty. Data from the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

This map on the left isn’t all that exciting, it shows the percent of household income spent on household energy bills (electric, heating, stuff like that) for households that have a combined income four times higher than the federal poverty line (FPL), which is $25,750 for a family of four. It shows a mostly uniform distribution across the US, with households in that income bracket typically spending only 1-2% of their income on household energy. Even if you add in anyone above the federal poverty line the map doesn’t get all that more exciting, in all 50 states, and Puerto Rico, households above the poverty level spend about 2-3% of their income on energy.

Things start to look much different once you look at those households below the poverty level (the map on the right), the burden balloons to 10% up to 26%. 10 percent of household income is also an important threshold because it is often used as the delineation for energy poverty.

This new data suggests that those families in the US that are below the poverty line are far more likely to be suffering from energy poverty.

There are a few clusters of higher burdened areas. Some of the worst burden is in states like Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia. Outside of the northeast two clusters stand out. The first is in the Midwest, in states like Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas. It is worth noting that Kansas and western Missouri are both served by Evergy, while eastern Missouri and parts of Illinois are served by Dynergy.

Michigan has an incredibly high burden, with 22% of low-income household’s income going to energy bills.

Another cluster that stands out is in the southeast. Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi (all served by subsidiaries of Southern Company) along with South Carolina. Some Commissioners in those states claim that the high bills are a function of high AC load, which is odd because Florida, Arkansas, Louisiana, Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada also have high AC loads and they all have lower energy bills and lower energy burden.

Multi-unit buildings are better

Creating affordable housing is an important part of a set of anti-poverty policies, but this new data suggests that it may also be helpful in the fight against energy poverty.

Multi-family households below the poverty line tend to be more efficient and have lower energy bills so the burden is lower on families living in those houses. Data from the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

In every state, the annual energy bill in multi-unit households is lower, and for low-income households it is a considerable saving, by at least $300 and as high as $1,850 a year. That is considerable savings for a family that is below the federal poverty line. Single-family households spend as much as 13% more of their income on energy expenditures.

The split incentive

The split incentive is another wonky piece of economic jargon. It boils down to this:

Owners tend to have the capital and long-term interest to make investments that will lower energy bills but often don’t pay the bill, so the incentive is split with renters. Renters generally don’t have much of an incentive to make investments in the homes they rent but they do pay the energy bills.

Looking at the maps of renters vs owners shows this phenomenon in effect for those below the federal poverty line.

Owners below tend to have an incentive to invest in efficiency (appliances or home retrofits)  and so have lower energy bills. Data from the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Owners tend to have lower energy bills, probably b/c they are more likely to live in their home for long enough periods where investment in more efficient appliances or home insulation will pay off. Renters are sadly facing higher energy bills which could mean that those unable to afford buying a house are also more likely to be unable to afford to pay their energy bill.

The maps illustrate the magnitude of the problem. Luckily there are ways to solve the split incentive which include:

Action worth taking

Policies that promote multi-family households not only help deal with energy poverty but can be a centerpiece the housing crisis. States (like Oregon) and cities (like Minneapolis) are already taking on this issue.

The split incentive is also an issue worth tackling. A 2014 study found that fixing the split incentive problem would save consumers $4-11 billion per year.

$4-11 BILLION per YEAR.

That is a lot of money and considering that a lot of those savings would be enjoyed by low-income households it means that it would go a long way at easing the energy burden.

Making households more energy efficient will go a long way to reduce energy costs. That increased efficiency will reduce energy bills, reduce energy burden, and reduce pollution. That last point, reduced pollution, is critically important because low-income households are also disproportionately burdened by healthcare costs.

It turns out, housing policy is energy policy and energy policy is climate policy.

Public Domain

Can Trees, Oceans and Giant Carbon Sucking Machines Save Us from Climate Catastrophe?

The world needs leadership on climate change–as witnessed by the limited progress made by nearly 200 country delegates to the climate conference last week who failed to overcome Saudi Arabia’s block on formal discussion of the latest climate science produced by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  As we confront ever more obvious impacts of a warming world, we must immediately tackle the political and technical challenges of reducing the pollution causing climate change. And, just as actively, seek ways to remove, store and manage carbon to bring our climate back into balance.

Florida is perhaps the US state facing the most obvious evidence of a warming world. Sea level rise has already cost Florida taxpayers billions of dollars to keep the ocean at bay. And they are fighting a losing battle if we don’t act fast to move our economy off fossil fuels.

Democratic presidential hopefuls in the Miami debate spent more time than ever before addressing climate change, and many candidates indicate it will be a high priority. But without truly transformational change, Florida and the rest of this country are destined for a world of more dangerous storms, longer and hotter heat waves, wildfires, and floods threatening the health, homes, and economies of thousands of communities.

While moving to a clean energy economy and adaptation must be our first-line solutions to climate change, scientists are signaling that carbon dioxide removal will also need to be a part of our strategy.  Carbon dioxide removal (CDR), also known as negative emissions technologies (NETs), is a term used to describe a range of options to actively remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.

The host nation for the next world climate conference, Chile, is planning to feature natural ways for trees and oceans to store carbon.  Meanwhile, Exxon and other oil companies, along with Bill Gates, are making news with investments in new technologies to draw CO2 out of the air.  It may well be that both types of approaches are needed to grapple with the climate crisis that is upon us.

What is carbon dioxide removal and why consider it?

A crucial insight from the recent IPCC 1.5° C report is that meeting the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change will require not just getting to zero emissions, but getting to “net negative” global CO2 emissions by mid-century.  Unfortunately, we are rapidly running out of time to avoid severe climate risks through deep cuts in emissions alone, and some sectors of our economy may find it difficult to stop using fossil fuels.

The report highlighted, in a more pointed way than had been done before, the need to invest in measures to protect communities from the impacts that are already unfolding and/or are unavoidable by helping them adapt.  At the same time, there are limits to adaptation, especially as we get closer to high-risk or irreversible climate impacts, like sea level rise.

In this daunting context, understanding the risks and potential of CDR will be essential for climate activists, scientists, the media, and lawmakers.

CO2 removal occurs naturally on land (e.g. forests, soils and wetlands) and the ocean (e.g. seagrasses, microalgae), and we can enhance that natural process to increase the amount of carbon stored.  More attention has been given lately to engineered, technological approaches, include capturing carbon from the air directly (Direct Air Capture or DAC) and storing it in secure geologic formations or converting it into fuel, cement, minerals, and plastics, or used as a feedstock for chemicals – all of which are at various stages of research and development.

The National Academy of Sciences released last year its analysis of the major CDR options, titled Negative Emissions Technologies and Reliable Sequestration: A Research Agenda.  Specifically, they looked at a number of natural and engineered approaches including:

  • Coastal blue carbon (Chapter 2)—Land use and management practices that increase the carbon stored in living plants or sediments in mangroves, tidal marshlands, seagrass beds, and other tidal or salt-water wetlands.
  • Terrestrial carbon removal and sequestration (Chapter 3)—Land use and management practices such as afforestation/reforestation, changes in forest management, or changes in agricultural practices that enhance soil carbon storage (“agricultural soils”).
  • Bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (Chapter 4)—Energy production using plant biomass to produce electricity, liquid fuels, and/or heat combined with capture and sequestration of any CO2 produced when using the bioenergy and any remaining biomass carbon that is not in the liquid fuels.
  • Direct air capture (Chapter 5)—Chemical processes that capture CO2 from ambient air and concentrate it, so that it can be injected into a storage reservoir.

A broad portfolio of negative emissions technologies are needed if we are to reach a goal of limiting global average temperature to well under 2°C. Coastal blue carbon, afforestation/reforestation and soil carbon are among the best options we have available today. Bioenergy with CCS, Direct Air Capture and Accelerated Weather are technologically based approaches that need varying levels of research to determine whether they can be safely and affordably deployed. Source: National Academies of Science

 Important considerations to help evaluate CDR options

CDR options must be evaluated on an individual basis as well as how they interact with each other (e.g. competition for the same land). Some are an enhancement of natural processes and others are more heavily reliant on technological solutions. While some of these options are well-understood and already being implemented, others are still at early stages of research and development. In addition to climate benefits, some of these options also have the potential to provide other valuable co-benefits—such as ecosystem benefits, flood protection, and more productive soils and forests—and might make sense to deploy for those reasons.

Many CDR options may, though, pose significant risks, costs and uncertainties. These include trade-offs in terms of use of scarce resources like land and water and the risks of a sudden release of CO2 from a failed repository. There are many challenges and issues raised by the different CDR approaches, including important questions of sustainability and equity (Dooley and Kartha 2018, Creutzig et al. 2013), that can be addressed broadly by asking three questions:

  • How much land does the approach require, and what kind of land is it? How permanent is land storage, in different ecosystems and at different depths, likely to be?
  • How much (external, non-photosynthetic) energy does the approach require?
  • How much matter (e.g. biomass, rock, or CO2) does the approach require to be transported, pyrolyzed, crushed, buried or otherwise processed, and what kind of processing, transportation and infrastructure are required?

Scenario of the role of negative emissions technologies in reaching net zero emissions. NOTE: For any concentration and type of greenhouse gas (e.g. methane, perfluorocarbons, and nitrous oxide) CO2e signifies the concentration of CO2 which would have the same amount of radiative forcing. Source: UNEP, 2017

It is very important to consider the equity and environmental justice impacts of CDR approaches, with particular attention to competition for land and pollution when evaluating CDR options.  Community groups are already overburdened with pollution from facilities like power plants, whether they are coal, natural gas or bioenergy.

While adding carbon capture technology to a bioenergy facility would reduce CO2 emissions, other pollution control technologies will be necessary to reduce other harmful air pollutants. And there are concerns about the demand these plants present for water and land and how their needs for those natural resources would affect the community that also relies on them.

In addition, the network of pipelines required to transport carbon to safe storage sites could encroach on indigenous people’s lands.  Similarly, even the natural solutions, like reforestation, can pose threats to the rights of indigenous peoples by commoditizing their homes and property.

A less technical and more common risk cited by many is the potential “moral hazard.” Could a focus on CDR give politicians and polluters yet another excuse for delaying action to rapidly reduce fossil fuel emissions and fund adaptation, in the hopes that we could engineer our way out of the climate crisis?

Some argue that CDR could endanger our transition to carbon-free energy options, possibly with drastic consequences, by diminishing both the investments for and the political pressure to eliminate high-carbon energy sources.  Or it could make the transition dependent on negative emissions from CDR approaches that may not pan out or that may have unforeseen risks for ecosystems or environmental justice.  Or it might lock the world in to overshoot scenarios (temporary increases of global average temperature over 1.5 or even 2 degrees) with potentially irreversible climate consequences.

What could a path forward for CDR entail?

The National Academy of Sciences report on carbon removal recommended that the US “launch a substantial research initiative to advance negative emissions technologies (NETs) as soon as practicable:”

A substantial investment would (1) improve existing NETs (i.e., coastal blue carbon, afforestation/reforestation, changes in forest management, uptake and storage by agricultural soils, and biomass energy with carbon capture and sequestration) to increase the capacity and to reduce their negative impacts and costs; (2) make rapid progress on direct air capture and carbon mineralization technologies, which are underexplored but would have essentially unlimited capacity if the high costs and many unknowns could be overcome; and (3) advance NET enabling research on biofuels and carbon sequestration that should be undertaken anyway as part of an emissions mitigation research portfolio.

If the US is to embark on such an initiative, it needs to be paired with significant stakeholder engagement to develop a framework for governance that will minimize the moral hazard threat and ensure equity concerns are addressed in any research and development project.

Policymakers, scientists, private companies and civil society will need a thorough understanding of the costs, benefits, uncertainties, and potential harms associated with various CDR options. Engagement with a diverse set of stakeholders who would be affected by their use should occur ahead of making any major decisions or large investments. And more public education about CDR options is an essential step to help foster an informed stakeholder process.

Robust and inclusive systems of governance that are mindful of relevant societal, environmental, ethical, and political considerations can lead to wiser decisions about all technologies and practices that have potentially far-reaching consequences.


National Academy of Sciences National Academy of Sciences

As Methane Levels in the Atmosphere Soar, Trump Administration Moves to Gut Regulations

Until recently, carbon dioxide has earned top billing among global warming gases. Emitted when fossil fuels burn, it remains the most prevalent heat-trapping emission driving climate
change. Its concentration in the atmosphere has now reached levels unseen for three million years, helping to usher in an unprecedented decline in plant and animal species, according to a recent major United Nations report. Recent science is adding another gas to the marquee: methane. Just as we are learning how desperately we need to curb this gas, the Trump administration
wants to kick the oil and gas industry’s methane standards to the curb.

First, the science.

Methane is the main gas emitted in the extraction of natural gas, which has accelerated dramatically in the United States with the development of hydraulic fracturing to get at previously unreachable reserves layered under shale. Like carbon dioxide, methane is also now present at levels in the atmosphere unprecedented in human history, with an atmospheric concentration that has more than doubled since preindustrial times.

In fact, now that gas has supplanted coal as the single biggest fuel source for American electricity, it has also surpassed coal in carbon emissions since 2015. The federal Energy Information Administration says if there are no changes to policy, regulations and technology, the carbon dioxide from natural gas alone will keep America’s carbon dioxide levels at the 1990 baseline level, preventing many states from their goals of reducing emissions further.

But the picture is greatly changed when we additionally consider the consequences of methane, which was not factored into the climate models guiding the Paris climate goals of holding planetary temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Methane’s full implications have only recently become a scientific priority, at least partly because of the largely positive image natural gas long enjoyed in the mainstream as a “bridge” fuel away from coal. What we do know is that, while it does not last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, methane is 86 times more efficient in trapping heat on a 20-year time scale and 34 percent more efficient over the course of a century.

Methane: Underestimated no longer

Today in the United States, the number of states where natural gas is the top source of electricity has more than doubled, from seven in 2001 to 16 in 2017, according to the New York Times. In a similar time frame, US methane emissions were found to have shot up more than 30 percent in the last decade according to a 2016 study by researchers in Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The team found that those emissions may account for between 30 and 60 percent of the global growth in atmospheric methane observed in the last 10 years.

Not only that, a major study in the journal Science last year found that the United States vastly underestimates the amount of methane emitted and leaked by the gas and oil industry. A team led by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which included researchers from many universities and NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, found that the industry is responsible for at least 60 percent more methane emissions than had been previously estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

According to this report, some 13 million metric tons of methane is spewed into the atmosphere, wasting $2 billion and enough to fuel 10 million homes. Methane leaks even amounted to some 2.3 percent of overall natural gas production. That might not sound like much but the Environmental Defense Fund previously estimated that a leakage rate of around 3 percent would negate any carbon emissions advantage natural gas might have over coal in mitigating climate change. An even more recent study by EDF and researchers at Cornell University found methane emissions at ammonia fertilizer plants to be 100 times higher than reported by industry and far above EPA estimates.

To be sure, not all independent studies come to dire conclusions about methane. Another team of researchers at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado this year found no large increase in US emissions. The team said prior studies, including some cited above, confused ratios of methane with ethane, the second-largest component of natural gas. The American Petroleum Institute seized upon that study, with a blogger hailing it as “good news for America.” The blogger said the study proved industry is successful at capturing methane and reaffirmed natural gas’s “major role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions.”

Even if that study is correct, the comfort it offers is small. Despite some uncertainty in measuring, a study in the Journal of Geophysical Research found that, if methane levels continue rising at current rates, climate change targets set in Paris will likely be unattainable. Making matters worse, scientists need more information to fully determine exactly where the increases in methane levels are coming from. Besides leakage in the fossil fuel supply chain, possibilities include emissions from ruminant livestock such as cattle, sheep and goats, a possible feedback loop in which increased temperatures spark a release of methane from tropical wetlands, and the changes in the atmosphere that diminish its ability to destroy methane over time.

Trump administration plows ahead with rollbacks

As scientists race to pin down answers, there is no question that the bulk of the research clearly points to the fact that this should be a time for dramatic action to curb methane emissions, even if merely to be safe rather than sorry. But the Trump administration, showing a characteristic disdain for science, is racing to repeal the Obama administration’s plan to reduce methane emissions by 40 percent to 45 percent of 2012 levels by 2025. Key among the Obama-era initiatives were rules to control emissions from new and modified wells, and leaks and flaring from public and Native lands. That was just a start as most oil and gas drilling is on private land but, importantly, it was an effort to move in the right direction as is urgently needed.

For its part, the Trump EPA, led by former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, fully admits that relaxing the oil and gas regulations will increase methane emissions and “may also degrade air quality and adversely affect health.” In Wheeler’s twisted view, that is fine because he says the relaxation of regulations will save industry $484 million in compliance costs. Wheeler conveniently ignores the fact that the Obama administration estimated that tighter regulations for new and modified sources gas production sites would have yielded climate benefits of $690 million by 2025, compared to compliance costs of $530 million.

As an exclamation point, Trump recently signed an executive order making it harder for states to block new gas pipelines and the administration is proposing prison sentences of up to 20 years for pipeline protestors who attempt to block construction. At about the same time, Under Secretary of Energy Mark Menezes said the expansion of a liquid natural gas export facility in Texas was an act of  “spreading freedom gas throughout the world.”

When spreading “freedom” abroad coincides with locking up protestors at home, we are at a new draconian moment in energy policy. As dismissive of science as Trump has been on carbon dioxide, his madness on methane threatens to create a prison of greenhouse gas no one can escape.

public domain

Electric Airport Shuttle Buses Are Taking Off

Photo: Jimmy O'Dea

Today, California is expected to pass a standard that will transition airport shuttle buses to zero-emission battery and fuel cell electric vehicles.

While California established a standard for zero-emission transit buses last year, airport shuttle operators are distinct enough from public transit agencies that a different policy is fitting.

The shuttle bus standard covers an estimated 950 vehicles operating at 13 airports. Transitioning these buses to zero-emission technologies by 2035 will reduce global warming emissions by an estimated 35,000 metric tonnes CO2e per year, the equivalent of taking 7,400 of today’s cars off the road each year.

The operational characteristics of shuttle buses (i.e., fixed, short routes and stop-and-go operation) are well matched to today’s electric vehicle technology. There are already 14 companies that make over 30 different models of electric buses ranging from large transit-style buses to small shuttle buses.

And airports are beginning to adopt these vehicles. One hundred electric shuttle buses are on order or operating at 9 of the 13 airports in California that will be covered by the standard. Notably, San Jose recently unveiled 10 electric shuttle buses and Los Angeles is expected to receive 20 electric buses soon. There are already 16 off-airport electric shuttles taking customers between LAX and a nearby parking garage.

“Why bother?”

Some might say that 950 vehicles is small compared to California’s 1.9 million heavy-duty vehicles. Or that 35,000 metric tonnes of emission reductions isn’t that much compared to the state’s annual 430 million metric tonnes of global warming emissions.

It may look like a small step in the right direction, but there are several reasons this policy—and others like it—can be big leaps.

First, if we’re going to reduce carbon emissions and inequitable exposure to air pollution by electrifying as many or all of the vehicles on the road, we have to start somewhere and airport shuttles are well-suited to be an early adopter of electric technologies. In fact, the policy for airport shuttle buses is even stronger than the one now in effect for transit buses, requiring every bus purchased beginning in 2023 to be zero-emission for airports. Compare that to 2029 for transit agencies.

Second, we usually don’t get big policy shifts without passing small policies first. The good news is that bigger policies—covering all categories of heavy-duty vehicles—are in the works. Even when bigger policies are in place, it often takes smaller policies to further strengthen them.

Third, shuttle buses have a lot in common with trucks. Just look at the two vehicles on the top. One carries passengers and the other carries packages, but otherwise they are the same vehicle.

The same goes for the shuttle bus and box truck on the bottom. They have the same business in the front, just different parties in the back.

What this means is that electrifying shuttle buses will increase the availability and market for all electric trucks.

Finally, heavy-duty vehicles disproportionately contribute to global warming and air pollution compared to cars. Buses and trucks are large vehicles with large engines that consume more fuel per mile than cars. Electric buses offer zero tailpipe emissions and 75 percent lower global warming emissions on today’s grid in California compared to diesel and natural gas buses.

Replacing just one diesel or natural gas bus with an electric vehicle has the same effect as eliminating the emissions from several cars. As mentioned above, this policy’s transition of 950 buses to electric technologies will have the same effect (from a global warming perspective) as taking 7,400 of today’s cars off the road each year.

Policy details

The standard applies to shuttle buses serving all 13 major airports in California, including: Los Angeles (LAX), San Diego (SAN), San Francisco (SFO), Burbank (BUR), Oakland (OAK), Ontario (ONT), Santa Ana (SNA), Sacramento (SMF), San Jose (SJC), Fresno (FAT), Long Beach (LGB), Palm Springs (PSP), and Santa Barbara (SBA).

The standard applies to both public and private airport shuttle buses, but only those with fixed routes less than 30 miles long. Types of vehicles falling under the standard include buses operating between airport terminals, rental car sites, off-site parking lots, or airport hotels. Door-to-door charter services, taxis, and ridehails (i.e., Uber and Lyft) are not included in this policy.

Under the standard, any airport shuttle bus purchased after January 1, 2023, must be a battery or fuel cell electric vehicle. Fleets must achieve the following percentages of zero-emission vehicles on the road by these dates:

  • 33 percent by December 31, 2027
  • 66 percent by December 31, 2031
  • 100 percent by December 31, 2035

With fuel and maintenance savings expected from electric vehicles compared to diesel, natural gas, and gasoline, as well as decreases in vehicle purchase costs, the standard is estimated to save $30 million across the state from 2020 to 2040.

Significant state funding is available to incentivize early action before 2023, providing savings above and beyond the estimated $30 million. California’s HVIP voucher program, for example, provides $25,000 to $160,000 in funding for the purchase of battery electric shuttle buses (depending on the vehicle size) to offset higher purchase costs.

This is just the beginning

With policies only for transit buses and airport shuttle buses, many types of heavy-duty vehicles remain ripe for electrification. Nearly every truck operating in an urban setting with a local operating radius is suited for electrification today.

California is currently working to: a) set standards for manufacturers to make electric trucks and buses, and b) set standards for fleets beyond transit and shuttle buses to purchase these zero-emission vehicles, such as refuse trucks, delivery trucks, and port drayage trucks.

UCS supports the standard for zero-emission airport shuttle buses. It is the result of more than two years of public meetings and significant analysis of the airport shuttle bus industry.

No single policy will solve all of our air quality and climate problems, but progress is the sum of all things, airport shuttle buses included.

Photo: Jimmy O'Dea Photos: Jimmy O'Dea, Thomas R. Machnitzki, and MobiusDaXter

Congress Must Lead with National Energy Standards to Save the Climate

Photo: Leaflet/Wikimedia Commons

It’s well past time for a national standard for low-carbon electricity.  In order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change we must rapidly decarbonize our power sector while rapidly electrifying as much of the transportation, industry, and buildings sectors as possible.  That means adding a lot more carbon-free electricity generation as quickly as possible, and renewables are by far our cheapest option.  A national standard for low-carbon electricity is our best opportunity to accelerate clean energy deployment without costs to ratepayers or taxpayers.

With today’s introduction by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) of the Renewable Electricity Standard Act (RES), the Senate now has two proposals that would create a national standard for low-carbon electricity generation.  Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) kicked off the conversation earlier this year with the introduction of the Clean Energy Standard Act (CES), which would decarbonize the power sector by mid-century using a variety of low and zero carbon sources.  The Udall proposal is focused on ramping up renewables over the next 15 years (in every state), putting the US on a trajectory to decarbonize the power sector by mid-century.

These two proposals take different approaches toward the same goal of transitioning all electricity generation to carbon free sources in a time horizon consistent with the best available climate science, and they do so while preserving the voluntary markets and without interfering with state policy.

If you aren’t supporting one of these bills, you are standing on the sidelines of clean energy progress.

How do they compare?

  • The Smith CES goes till 2050, while the Udall RES goes till 2035 with a requirement to consider revising and extending the policy to decarbonize the power sector by 2050.
  • The Smith CES credits both new and existing renewables, nuclear, and fossil energy with carbon, capture and sequestration (CCS), while the Udall RES mostly credits new renewables like wind and solar, with very little existing generation.
  • The Smith CES credits energy technologies through a carbon intensity standard that ratchets down over time while the Udall RES credits renewables-only at full credit.
  • Both bills focus on “growth rates” rather than an overall national percentage target by a certain year.
  • The Smith CES would ask utilities to grow by 2.75% every year until they hit 60% existing carbon-free electricity (1.75% till they hit 90%), while the Udall RES requires that utilities grow at 2% through the next decade and 2.5% through 2035, until they hit at least 60% renewable electricity.
  • Both bills tier the growth rates, with smaller utilities required to grow at lower rates than large utilities (with retail sales over 2 million and 1 million MWh per year respectively).
  • The Smith CES allows states to opt-out when they reach 90% carbon free generation, while the Udall RES allows states to opt-out if they have 60% renewables, or if the state’s RES or CES requires growth at or above the federal floor-setting standard.
  • The Smith CES incentivizes innovative, first-of-its-kind-projects as well as firm, dispatchable generation through additional credits (1.5 credits declining over time), while the Udall RES incentivizes renewable energy development on Native American lands, and in environmental justice and coal communities (2 credits).
These policies deliver similar outcomes through 2035

Due to the use of different models and different assumptions about natural gas prices, a comparison of the Smith CES using the E4ST analysis by Resources for the Future and the Udall RES using NREL’s ReEDS analysis won’t yield much clarity on the relative benefits of each policy (apples to oranges).  But UCS did model a 95% by 2050 Clean Energy Standard in ReEDS last year with similar assumptions for natural gas prices, which is a good proxy and should give us a rough estimate of how the Smith CES shakes out compared to the Udall RES (apples to apples).

2018 UCS ReEDS Modeling

The graph above looks at the projected electricity generation mix using four scenarios out to 2035 and includes a 95% by 2050 Low-Carbon Energy Standard (LCES), better known as a CES.  Under this policy the US would achieve 50% renewables by 2035; about the same as the Udall RES.  Electricity from coal is projected to be less than a percent by 2035 with either policy.  However, electricity from natural gas is projected to be about 24% by 2035 with the Smith CES bill relative to 36% with the Udall RES.

While the two policies deploy roughly the same amount of renewables by 2035 the location of those renewables would likely be different given the different policy designs.  The Udall RES likely distributes renewables more evenly around the country, with better penetration in laggard clean energy states.

But the Smith CES reduces slightly more power-sector emissions by 2035 (53% in the LCES analysis relative to 46% for the Udall RES bill), the primary reason being that it requires utilities to grow at 2.75% right off the bat, which is pretty steep, especially for states that are adding renewables at or below the national average of 1% annually.  Another reason the Smith CES reduces more emissions is because it helps preserve the carbon-free generation of existing nuclear power plants and delivers about 7% electricity from natural gas with CCS by 2035.

So, pick your policy.  Both policies are affordable and have considerable economic, public health and consumer benefits.  Renewables certainly have public health and environmental benefits that technologies like nuclear and fossil with CCS do not.  That’s an important consideration for equity given that economically vulnerable communities are more likely to be exposed to pollution from electricity generation.  But the Smith CES bill assures that our power sector is virtually carbon-free by mid-century, and the policy is designed to optimize least-cost, it preserves important existing low-carbon nuclear generation (that also means preserving jobs).

Do you prefer a near-term policy to give us a boost and put us on the right trajectory, or a long-term policy that locks us into a carbon-free power sector by mid-century?  The good news is that both policies get us on a pathway to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

I say, the best policy is the one that can pass both chambers of congress and get signed into law by the president.

Photo: Leaflet/Wikimedia Commons

50% by 2035 National Renewable Electricity Standard Would Boost Economy and Cut Carbon Emissions

Photo: Omari Spears/UCS

Today, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and several others introduced The Renewable Electricity Standard Act of 2019, a bill that would more than double the supply of renewable energy from 18% of US electricity generation in 2018 to at least 50% by 2035. It’s a strong proposal that builds on the recent clean energy momentum in the states and establishes a long-term national policy for renewable energy. A new UCS analysis shows that a national renewable electricity standard (RES) of 50% by 2035 would boost the economy, benefit consumers, and put the nation on a pathway to decarbonize the power sector by 2050.

A RES requires electric utilities to gradually increase the amount of renewable energy (wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and hydropower) in their power supplies over time. It uses a market-based approach that stimulates competition among multiple technologies, projects and companies to provide the greatest amount of clean power for the lowest price, and an ongoing incentive to drive down costs. Currently in place in 29 states and D.C., RESs have had a proven track record of success in deploying renewables, creating jobs, and reducing emissions for more than two decades. A national RES would ensure that the entire nation reaps the benefits from accelerating the clean energy transition.

Why a 50% national RES?

A 50% by 2035 RES is feasible and affordable and would help the US meet its climate goals. Over the past decade, the renewable energy share of US electricity sales has grown by nearly 1% per year, on average, according to Energy Information Administration (EIA) data. A 50% RES would more than double that rate through 2035—an aggressive but achievable level consistent with the commitments adopted by leading states and recent analyses showing we can ramp-up to renewables to 80% of US electricity by 2050 and meet mid-century decarbonization goals (see UCS, IPCC, and other studies).

While traditional RES policies establish the overall renewable energy target as a fraction of total retail electricity sales in the future, this proposal takes a novel approach by specifying the amount by which every retail provider in the United States must increase their share of renewable energy each year. This focus on new renewables would help level the playing field between leading clean energy states and states that have underinvested in renewables, regardless of where they are starting from.

Since most existing renewables would not be eligible for federal renewable energy credits (RECs) under the bill, there would be an incentive to build new renewables in-state instead of simply purchasing RECs from existing projects in other states. With the costs of renewables falling dramatically over the past decade, all states now have access to low cost clean energy. The bill would also provide extra credits to install renewable energy projects in economically distressed communities experiencing high levels of pollution or transitioning away from coal.

Key Findings

To understand the impacts of the proposal, we conducted an analysis of a 50% by 2035 RES and found that the policy delivers:

  • $374 billion in cumulative new capital investments from 2020-2035
  • $34 billion (0.6%) in cumulative net savings on consumer energy bills from 2020-2035
  • 46% reduction in power sector CO2 emissions in 2035

For this analysis, we used the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Regional Energy Deployment System (ReEDS) model. We compared the RES policy case to a business as usual (BAU) scenario that assumed no new state or federal policies beyond those that existed at the end of May 2019.  See our slide deck and technical appendix for more details on the scenarios and assumptions.

Here are a few more details on what our analysis found:

Energy diversity

A 50% by 2035 national RES would diversify the nation’s electricity mix and reduce the risks of an overreliance on natural gas. Under a BAU scenario with continued low natural gas prices and no new policies, natural gas generation would see significant growth, increasing from 35% of the US electricity mix in 2018 to 58% by 2035 (Figure 1). Most of this new natural gas generation would replace retiring coal plants and a handful of existing nuclear reactors. This level of dependence on natural gas would pose significant risks to consumers and the US economy from potential supply shortages and price volatility.

In contrast, a 50% national RES would roughly double the share of renewables by 2035 compared to BAU, reducing natural gas generation by 38% and nearly phasing out the relatively small amount of remaining coal generation. It would also ensure that any nuclear retirements are replaced primarily with zero-carbon electricity instead of natural gas.

Figure 1. US Electricity Generation under Business as Usual and a 50% by 2035 National RES

Most of the new renewable energy development would come from wind and solar under the 50% RES. Wind capacity would more than double from around 100 gigawatts (GW) today to more than 250 GW by 2035. Solar photovoltaic capacity would increase by a factor of nearly 8 over current levels, reaching 505 GW by 2035, and 332 GW more than BAU.

To help integrate increasing levels of variable wind and solar generation, energy storage capacity would nearly triple to 64 GW by 2035, 32 GW more than BAU. In addition, US transmission capacity would increase by 4% for AC lines and 21% for DC lines, for a combined increase of 4.2 million MW-miles, compared to BAU.

Economic development

The renewable energy deployment under a 50% RES would help make the US a leader in the global clean energy race. It would build on the recent growth in renewable energy jobs in manufacturing, construction, operation, maintenance, and many other industries and would drive significant investment across the economy. A 50% RES would deliver the following economic benefits:

  • $374 billion in cumulative new capital investment from 2020-2035; $244 billion more than BAU
  • $12 billion in annual operation and maintenance payments in 2035
  • $5.6 billion in cumulative property tax payments to local governments from 2020-2035
  • $1.4 billion in cumulative wind power land lease payments to rural landowners from 2020-2035

Consumer benefits

Increasing renewable energy use can provide important benefits for consumers. The cost of wind and solar has fallen by more than 70% over the past decade, making renewable energy more affordable for consumers. By increasing competition and diversifying power supplies, renewable energy reduces the demand for fossil fuels, leading to lower and more stable natural gas prices for all consumers.

Under a 50% national RES, power sector natural gas prices are 35% lower than BAU in 2035. The significant reduction in power sector natural gas use would also result in lower costs for homes and businesses that use natural gas for heating, manufacturing, and other purposes.

By 2035, average retail electricity prices are 6.7% higher under the 50% RES compared to BAU, but only 0.2% higher than current levels (Figure 2). However, the reduction in natural gas prices more than offsets the increase in electricity prices, resulting in $34 billion (0.6%) in cumulative net savings on combined consumer natural gas and electricity bills from 2020-2035.

Figure 2. US Average Retail Electricity Prices

A typical household using 600 kWh per month would pay $18 per year in higher electricity bills in 2030, and $51 more in 2035 compared to BAU. However, for the nearly half of U.S. homes that heat with natural gas, typical annual natural gas bills would be $43 lower in 2025, and $94 lower in 2035. Lower natural gas bills for industrial and commercial consumers would also offset slightly higher electricity bills.

A smart climate solution

Increasing renewable energy use is a smart, cost-effective way to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. A national RES is key strategy that would put the US on course to decarbonize the power sector and meet the Paris Climate Agreement.

Under BAU, U.S. power sector CO2 emissions flatten out and then increase after 2030 due to the increase in natural gas generation. In contrast, CO2 emissions would be 46% below BAU levels in 2035 under a 50% national RES (Figure 3). Cumulatively, the 50% RES would reduce CO2 reductions by 4.2 billion metric tons from 2020-2035. These reductions, combined with reductions in other air pollutants, would result in $140 billion in cumulative climate and public health benefits by 2035 based on the U.S. government’s 2016 estimates for the social cost of carbon.

Figure 3. US Power Sector CO2 Emissions

Udall bill offers a pathway to US leadership on clean energy

From our analysis, we can see that Senator Udall’s proposal would put the U.S. on course for decarbonizing the power sector by mid-century. Additional climate and clean energy policies will be needed to meet US climate goals. This includes policies like a carbon price or cap, stronger energy efficiency standards, increased funding for clean energy R&D and infrastructure investments, and incentives for greater electrification of transportation, buildings and industry. Considering the significant economic, consumer, and climate benefits, a strong national RES should be a top priority as Congress considers new policies to transition America to a low-carbon energy future.

Photo: Omari Spears/UCS

Renewable Energy Curtailment 101: The Problem That’s Actually Not a Problem At All

It’s that time of year again. The snow has all but melted and vivid memories of spring flowers begin to fade into the past. Once again, news stories start making the rounds proclaiming record amounts of renewable energy production in California. Renewable energy curtailment has also returned as a frequent early-summer news topic. But why?

It’s quite simple: in the spring and early summer, abundant sunshine, blustery winds, and rushing rivers all coalesce to produce ample amounts of renewable electricity. But all this happens at a time when mild temperatures mean that people aren’t using much electricity in the first place (You don’t usually need to crank the AC in the spring). Since the electric grid must always be balanced so that electricity generation exactly equals electricity usage, inevitably, there are times when there is more electricity available than we can possibly use. This excess electricity results in curtailment of renewables, which is a purposeful reduction in renewable electricity output below the levels that could otherwise have been produced.

So this is the time of year when we resume the annual discussion of all the curtailment records that have recently been broken and opine on the “problem” (or lack thereof) of all that wasted renewable electricity. While curtailment of renewable energy has been on the rise over the past few years in the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) service territory (see graph below), renewable energy curtailment still only amounts to a couple percent of all the renewable energy generated.

But let’s take a step back and ask a more basic question: why does all this curtailment happen in the first place?

Renewable energy curtailment in the CAISO has steadily increased over the past few years as California adds more wind and solar to the grid. However, only 2% of total solar energy in the CAISO was curtailed in 2018, and the CAISO expects only 3-4% of total solar energy to be curtailed in 2019. (The vast majority of curtailed energy is from solar, not wind.)

Causes of curtailment

There are two main reasons behind renewable energy curtailment: system-wide oversupply and local transmission constraints.

  1. System-wide oversupply is what most people think of when explaining renewable curtailment. This kind of curtailment occurs when, on a large scale, there is simply not enough demand for all the renewable electricity that is available. Examples of this occur frequently in California during the spring months when renewable energy production can exceed electricity demand.
  2. Local transmission constraints are an oft forgotten reason for renewable curtailment. This kind of curtailment occurs when there is so much renewable electricity in a local area that there is insufficient transmission infrastructure to deliver that electricity to a place where it could be used. A great example of this is in Texas, where wind energy curtailment fell from 17% in 2009 to 0.5% in 2014 mostly due to construction of additional transmission lines to move that wind energy out of local pockets to places where it could be used.

The CAISO, which operates the grid in most of California, keeps track of how much curtailment happens due to these two reasons. Surprisingly, in the first five months of 2019, just over half of all curtailment occurred due to local transmission constraints. And this isn’t an anomaly – roughly three-fifths of all curtailment in 2018 was due to local transmission constraints as well.

Reducing curtailment

In the first five months of 2019, over half of renewable energy curtailment in the CAISO was due to local transmission constraints.

Curtailment at low levels is more of a fact of life than a problem. In most cases, it simply does not make economic sense to build all the infrastructure (e.g. transmission lines or energy storage) that would be required to utilize every last drop of renewable electricity. But as levels of curtailment rise, instead of viewing curtailment as a problem, all that clean energy that would otherwise be wasted actually poses an incredible opportunity.

The CAISO has put forth a list of eight solutions (shown in the figure below) that could put excess renewable electricity to good use. The Union of Concerned Scientists has supported many of these solutions. For example, our 2015 study demonstrated that curtailment can be drastically reduced if renewable resources, such as solar and wind, are operated flexibly to provide the types of grid services that are currently provided by dirty natural gas power plants.

CAISO’s Eight Solutions to curtailment.

Let’s be smart about curtailment

This brings me to my main point, so listen up: to reduce curtailment, the type of solution required depends on the type of curtailment you are trying to reduce.

While any of the CAISO’s eight solutions could help address system curtailment, it’s a whole other story when it comes to local curtailment. Let me give a few examples:

  • Storage, demand response, and electric vehicles could all help alleviate system curtailment (provided they are operated to do so), but they won’t do much to alleviate local curtailment unless those technologies are deployed in the local area where curtailment is occurring.
  • Expansion of the Western Energy Imbalance Market could help alleviate system curtailment, but it won’t help very much with local curtailment. This expansion would allow excess renewable energy to be sold throughout the western United States, but local curtailment occurs because renewable electricity is trapped in a specific location and there’s not enough transmission to deliver it elsewhere. Increasing the number of entities participating in this west-wide market would not help reduce local curtailment because that electricity would still be trapped in local areas.

What this all means is that we need to be smart about how we approach the “problem” of curtailment. Every year, California sets a new record for the amount of renewable energy that’s curtailed. But that doesn’t mean you can use up all that energy by plugging in a battery at any old place on the grid. This means that, when investing in resources such as storage, we need to be smart about where we are making those investments, because putting it in the right place could increase the amount of excess renewable energy that’s available for the storage to soak up.

A word to the wise

So, in conclusion, curtailment isn’t a problem, it’s an opportunity. But for those of you who have been fantasizing about putting California’s excess renewable energy to good use by setting up a bitcoin mining operation or plugging in thousands of toasters to start an avocado toast factory, I have some bad news for you. No matter where you set up your new business, you won’t be able to take advantage of all of California’s curtailed renewable energy. However, if you put your avocado toast factory in exactly the right place, you might be able to soak up a little more renewable energy that would otherwise be curtailed.

Public Domain CAISO CAISO

With New Power Plant Rule, Trump Administration Plumbs the Depths of the Indefensible

The Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released the final version of its “Affordable Clean Energy” (ACE) rule, a carbon emissions standard for fossil fuel-fired power plants.

And it does nothing.


It does nothing despite the agency’s legal obligation to limit carbon pollution from the power sector, the nation’s largest stationary source of global warming emissions.

It does nothing despite the fact that — even in the face of mounting coal retirements — a growing reliance on natural gas led power sector emissions to rise last year, reversing multiple previous years of decline.

It does nothing despite a rapidly growing list of states, cities, and corporations committing to ever higher levels of renewables in recognition of the climate imperative and the economic and public health opportunities from switching to clean electricity.

It just does nothing.

And it does all this because the administration wants all this: a do-nothing rule that boosts the bottom line of a select polluting few, and heaven help the rest.

Regulation In Name Only

To defend the patently indefensible, the administration stares the incontrovertible case for action straight in the face then sinks it six feet deep. The rule ignores the costs of climate inaction, dismisses the enormous potential for public health gains, and disregards the demonstrated ability of the power sector to adapt—and instead advances a nonsensical set of constraints to intentionally limit the agency’s own authority to act.

ACE, which replaces the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, begins with a narrow conception of what’s possible, then repeatedly narrows it further still.

First, the rule only regulates coal-fired power plants, and declines to regulate other significant power sector carbon emitters like natural gas plants. Next, it evaluates just a small subset of approaches for how these sources can reduce emissions, looking only at minor efficiency improvements at the individual source, which is expected to deliver negligible improvements on the order of <1 to a few percent and could even lead to an increase in emissions from those more efficient plants now running more.

At the same time, the rule excludes other source-based options that would deliver actual meaningful change, like carbon capture and sequestration, not to mention the systems-based approach advanced in the prior Clean Power Plan. Finally, ACE creates a mile-wide loophole that would allow any given coal plant to be excused from investing in any upgrades at all.

The result is a rule that does not actually require any minimum emissions reductions and is, at very best, estimated to achieve a half percent of additional emissions reductions by 2035.

A clear case for federal action

It is easy to roll one’s eyes at this action, another in a long line of the Trump administration’s overt handouts to fossil fuel corporations borne on the backs of the public.

But don’t let apathy reign.

This is our nation’s Environmental Protection Agency, charged with a mission to protect human health and the environment, “acting on climate” in a way that prevents it from truly acting at all. The end result is an effective benching of one of our most powerful current forces for change.

Which means we have a real and true climate crisis on our hands.

Because while states, cities, and even corporations are showing up to show us how to lead, that simply will not be enough to get the nation where it needs to go. There are entrenched fossil fuel interests fighting as hard as they can to keep the status quo, and that fight will only grow harder as the conversation shifts to focus on natural gas.

Because coal? The big money’s leaving coal. But gas? That’s a whole new perilous game. And in increasing numbers of skirmishes breaking out all across the country, we have seen the fossil fuel industry start showing up in a major way, fighting to undermine progress and lock in a lasting path dependency that will only make it harder to break away from unconstrained natural gas—and all its climate-incompatible pollution—with every passing day.

And so we need the federal government, to ensure that it’s not just leaders on the path to change, but laggards, too. Because to avoid the worst of climate impacts, that’s what science, and ethics, compels us to do.

But instead of federal leadership, we get this: a carbon rule that declares the solution is to sink major money into coal, an increasingly uneconomic and health-harming vestige of a high-polluting age, while delivering nearly no emissions gains nor any forward momentum for power sector change.

In the process, the agency foments uncertainty around established science, and hypocritically calculates public health benefits to boost its case for inaction while withholding analysis that would support the case for true action.

Indeed, even in the face of Executive Order 12898, which directs agencies to understand and address disproportionate impacts on minority and low-income populations, the EPA flat-out declines, brazenly justifying its decision by explaining that it effectively has no idea how ACE will play out—“doing so would suggest greater certainty in the regional impacts of this final rule than is warranted”—and simply asserts that even though some plants are expected to increase emissions, and thus increase the health-harming pollution borne by those neighboring communities, “on balance” U.S. populations will gain. Shameless.

Plumbing the depths of the indefensible

The ACE rule looks laughably bad on its surface, but in fact, it’s so much worse.

It is the EPA, our EPA, instantiating the evisceration of science to purposefully hamstring its own ability to act on climate, now and in the future. And for what? Not the people, anyway.

The magnitude of the climate crisis has never been clearer; the urgency of the climate crisis has never felt nearer. But actual implementation of the full solution set? It has never, ever felt so far away.

The EPA will be challenged in court, and the administration will be hard-pressed to defend the indefensible. But worse yet will be the leadership squandered, the time lost, the investments wasted, the people forsaken. And again: for what? Nothing but the short-term profits of a select polluting few.

Do not let apathy reign.

Photo: justice.gov

Energía Eólica Marina en los EE.UU.: Escala, Empleos e Innovación

Read in English >

Cuando visité el parque eólico marino de Block Island sabía que estaba presenciando un momento histórico. Este proyecto es el primero y único en operación en los EE. UU., cuenta con 5 poderosas turbinas eólicas y una capacidad instalada de 30 megavatios (MW).

Acabo de participar en la conferencia de Energía Eólica Marina en EE.UU. 2019 y estoy absolutamente impresionada con el progreso que esta industria está teniendo.

Acá les comparto 3 datos claves de la conferencia.

1. 20.000 MW y contando

Los mandatos de energía eólica marina establecidos por los estados se han incrementado de 15.000MW a 20.000MW en los últimos 5 meses

La industria de energía eólica marina ha estado creciendo sin parar.  Stephanie McClellan, de la Iniciativa Especial de Energía Eólica Marina (SIOW, por sus siglas en ingles), compartió cuan difícil es mantenerse al día con respecto a los últimos avances: en los últimos 5 meses los mandatos de energía eólica marina establecidos por los estados se han incrementado de 15.000MW a 20.000MW. Esto podría cubrir el equivalente a la demanda de electricidad de más de 10 millones de hogares en Nueva Inglaterra.

Pronóstico de los mandatos de energía eólica marina establecidos por los estados a 2030

En comparación, Europa es el líder en energía eólica marina con una capacidad instalada de 18.000MW. Se espera que los EE.UU. bata este récord en la próxima década.

2. Una vibrante industria de empleos

Pronóstico de inversión de capital acumulado para los diferentes componentes principales de la cadena productiva de la industria de energía eólica marina

Talento local de New Bedford en la conferencia de OSW. De izquierda a derecha: Brandan Burke, Graduado de la Universidad de Hartford; John “Buddy” Andrade, Director Ejecutivo de Old Bedford Village; y Devaughn Senna, Graduado de la Universidad Bridgewater State

Un reciente análisis de SIOW, identificó que la cadena productiva de la industria de energía eólica marina en los EE.UU. representa una oportunidad de $70.000 millones de dólares. Pueden darse una idea de lo que viene en término de empleos al considerar los diferentes componentes claves que serán requeridos para la construcción y operación de los parques eólicos, incluyendo las turbinas eólicas, el cableado, las subestaciones y los cimientos.

Un sinnúmero de trabajadores serán necesarios para cubrir efectivamente los requerimientos establecidos por los diferentes estados. Y en lugares como New Bedford en Massachusetts donde será construido uno de los principales puertos  marinos eólicos, hay líderes que ya se están asegurando que el talento local haga parte de esta fuerza laboral.

Uno de estos líderes es John “Buddy” Andrade, un organizador de desarrollo comunitario. Fue energizante verlo llevar a la conferencia a 2 candidatos prometedores de New Bedford quienes se encuentran listos y dispuestos a unirse a esta vibrante industria.

3. La energía eólica marina flotante viene en camino

Las plataformas flotantes han sido consideradas una alternativa para aquellas zonas con buen recurso de viento, pero con aguas cuya profundidad es de 60 metros o superior, como las de la costa Oeste de los EE.UU. Es emocionante ver como esta tecnología avanza de discusiones teóricas a proyectos reales, como el que se encuentra en funcionamiento en Escocia y otro en construcción en ¡California!

La energía eólica marina flotante tiene el potencial de liberar 7.000 gigavatios (GW) de energía limpia a nivel global (1 gigavatio = 1.000 megavatios).  En el 2018, el total de capacidad instalada para generación de electricidad en EE.UU. fue de aproximadamente 1.200 GW.

El poder de trabajar juntos

En esta época en que la crisis climática requiere que todos estemos a bordo en la toma de acciones decisivas para contrarrestarla, me alegra ver que la industria de energía eólica está preparada para este reto.  Asegurémonos que, como una sociedad con saberes y experiencias diversas, trabajemos juntos para aprovechar al máximo y obtener los mejores resultados de esta oportunidad.

Photo: Paula Garcia Stephanie A. McClellan, Ph.D., SIOW Stephanie A. McClellan, Ph.D., SIOW Stephanie A. McClellan, Ph.D., SIOW Photo: Paula García

Offshore Wind in the US: Scale, Jobs and Innovation

Lea en español >

When I visited Block Island’s offshore wind farm 2 years ago I knew I was seeing history in the making. This project, the first one in operation in the US, has 5 powerful wind turbines and an installed capacity of 30 megawatts (MW).

I just attended the US Offshore Wind 2019 conference and my mind is blown with the progress this industry is experiencing.

Let me share 3 exciting facts that I learned at the conference.

1. 20,000 MW, and counting

In the last 5 months, states’ requirements have grown from 15,000 MW to 20,000 MW

The offshore wind industry has been growing steadily. Stephanie McClellan, from the Special Initiative on Offshore Wind (SIOW), pointed out how hard it is to stay up-to-speed on the latest developments: in the last 5 months, states’ requirements have grown from 15,000 MW to 20,000 MW. This could cover the equivalent electricity demand of more than 10 million New England households.

Forecasts of state offshore wind power procurements through 2030

For context, Europe is a leader in offshore wind development with an installed capacity of more than 18,000 MW. The U.S. is expected to beat this record over the next decade.

2. A vibrant job industry

Cumulative capital expenditure forecast for key components of the offshore wind supply chain

Local talent from New Bedford at the OSW conference. From left to right: Brandan Burke, Graduate of the University of Hartford; John “Buddy” Andrade Executive Director at Old Bedford Village; and Devaughn Senna, Graduate of Bridgewater State University

The SIOW analysis also shows that there is a $70 billion supply chain opportunity in the US offshore wind industry. You can get a glimpse of what’s coming once you look at key components that will be required including wind turbine generators, cables, substations, foundations, and marine support.

Plenty of workers will be needed to effectively fulfill the requirements already in the pipeline. And in places like New Bedford, MA, where one of the main offshore wind ports will be developed, leaders are already making sure that local talent is part of this workforce.

John “Buddy” Andrade, a community development organizer, is one of these leaders. It was invigorating to see him bringing to the conference promising candidates from New Bedford ready and willing to join this vibrant industry.

3. Floating offshore wind is coming

Floating platforms have been considered an alternative for those areas with good wind resources but with a water depth of 60 meters or more, such as the West coast of the US It’s exciting to see this technology advance from theoretical discussions to a real pilot project being run in Scotland and another one in the making in California!

Floating offshore wind energy has the potential to unleash 7,000 gigawatts (GW) of clean energy worldwide (1 gigawatt = 1,000 megawatts). In 2018, the total capacity of US electricity generating plants was approximately 1,200 GW.

Developers are seeing important market opportunities for this technology across the globe, including the US, France, Scotland, Japan, and South Korea.

The power of working together

In a time when the climate crisis requires all hands on deck, I’m thankful to see that the offshore wind industry is up to the challenge. Let’s make sure that we, as a society with different expertise and knowledge, work together to make the most of this opportunity.

Photo: Paula Garcia Stephanie A. McClellan, Ph.D., SIOW Stephanie A. McClellan, Ph.D., SIOW Stephanie A. McClellan, Ph.D., SIOW Photo: Paula García

5 Ways the Trump Administration Will Eviscerate Science and Undermine Climate Action in New “Affordable Clean Energy” Rule

Official White House Photos by Joyce N. Boghosian

This week, the Trump Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will finalize carbon pollution standards for fossil fuel-fired power plants. Bold federal action on climate change could not come at a more urgent time. Except this rule will be bold for all the wrong reasons.

In the past two and a half years, 32 weather and climate-related disasters have totaled at least a billion dollars in damages each, together affecting at least 44 states and totaling more than $413 billion in costs. From raging wildfires to roiling floodwaters, searing temperatures to deepening droughts, the shocking impacts of climate change have lengthened in reach and strengthened in punch, ravaging communities and upending livelihoods all across the nation.

These devastating events have been made starker still with the parallel clarity that has emerged around the science of where the climate is headed and the magnitude of ambition it will take to avoid that dismal place.

It’s no surprise, then, that climate change has skyrocketed in political salience as a key voting issue and that states, cities, and corporations have begun committing to ever higher levels of renewables to clean up their power supply.

Which brings us to today, and the Trump administration’s mandated plan for limiting emissions from power plants, the country’s largest stationary source of global warming pollution. Cutting these emissions is a linchpin of our nation’s contribution to global efforts to limit the harms of climate change, here and abroad. Except from an administration that gleefully jackhammers facts on the daily and an EPA with a former coal lobbyist at the helm, we get this, the “Affordable Clean Energy” (ACE) rule, which will at very best tinker at the frayed fringe edges of the problem, minimally boosting efficiencies at coal plants while at the same time advancing a mile-wide loophole that would allow those exact same plants to be exempt.

It takes dedicated work to justify such a gallingly insipid response to incontrovertible evidence on climate, on health, on economics, and on an affirmative statutory obligation to act—but then again, this administration has had a whole lot of practice, and a whole lot of gall to boot.

Here are five attacks on science we’ll be on the lookout for as the administration attempts to subvert facts and evidence in order to eviscerate climate action and arrive at this stunning polluter reprieve.

1. Don’t acknowledge dead people

In the Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) accompanying the proposed rule, the EPA demonstrated what has now become a favorite administration point of attack: rejecting the science that makes clear there is no safe level of exposure to one of the most hazardous types of pollution—fine particulate matter (PM2.5)—thereby clearing a path to ignore significant numbers of premature deaths.

The Trump administration’s response? Reject the science that shows there is no safe level of exposure to fine particulate matter, one of the most hazardous types of air pollution.

The upshot of this counter-to-scientific-evidence approach is that the EPA could now report far lower numbers of premature deaths associated with its final rollback, which in the last go-around, according to Office of Air and Radiation Assistant Administrator Bill Wehrum, resulted in an “unfortunate” bit of reporting when headlines unsurprisingly led with the fact that the EPA’s proposal would result in “up to 1,400 more deaths a year.”

2. Actually, don’t acknowledge any people

When it comes to considering different regulatory scenarios and understanding the relative impact of a rule, the associated costs and benefits of regulatory action can be hugely helpful in puzzling out what the various effects may be. Except the Trump administration is now in an all-out battle to limit what counts as a “benefit,” suggesting that only a narrow subset of health and environmental benefits accruing from any given rule should ever be considered at all.

For the ACE rule, look for the Trump administration to lead with a reporting of benefits limited just to the (curtailed) calculations from reducing carbon, while comparing that to the whole of direct and indirect costs of implementation—meaning the administration will outright ignore the enormous public health benefits simultaneously arising from limiting pollution by coal-fired power plants, like fewer premature deaths, heart attacks, asthma attacks, emergency room visits, missed work days, missed school days, and on, and on, and on. Of course, it’s not that these effects will go away; the Trump administration just wants us to no longer acknowledge that they exist. Why the Orwellian dictate? Because these effects are all to the towering benefit of the public, meaning pleading the case of a select polluting few would otherwise look a whole lot worse.

3. Assign a vanishingly small number to the value of acting on climate

Another way to mask the need for regulatory ambition is to minimize the apparent magnitude of the problem itself. In the proposed ACE rule, the Trump administration employed a deeply diminished value for the “social cost of carbon,” or SCC, which is a calculation that attempts to assign a value to the climate benefits (or avoided climate costs) per ton of carbon dioxide reduced in the atmosphere.

The administration slashed the value by first ignoring how cutting heat-trapping emissions in the US has globe-spanning benefits (and conversely, how not cutting heat-trapping emissions in the US has globe-spanning costs—the scientific reality of a global pollutant like carbon emissions), then only considering a subset of “home” by limiting domestic considerations to the lower 48—thereby excluding the far-flung states, territories, possessions, and bases reeling on the front lines of climate change—and finally by applying to whatever was left an inappropriate and indefensibly high discount rate so as to further sink the apparent value of action.

4. Implicate the fewest polluters with the lightest touch

The president campaigned on an outright repeal of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, but once in office, his administration quickly ran up against the reality of being statutorily required to act. The resulting proposed replacement did everything it could to handcuff its own ability to regulate, including by ignoring the historic transition underway in the power sector and adopting a purposefully blinkered view of how the power sector works, which all combined to arrive at a “best system of emissions reduction” (BSER) that was so weak as to hardly register at all.

Previously, this administration failed to reckon with the massive and compelling record underpinning the Clean Power Plan; in the final rule, we’ll look to see if they do more of the same, and in the process leave themselves highly vulnerable to court challenge. We’ll further keep an eye out for whether natural gas plants remain excluded from regulation, despite their now-dominant role in the electricity generating mix and their growing contributions to power sector carbon emissions. And though we now expect changes to the New Source Review program to be advanced under separate cover, we will be looking to see if the agency maintains its significant proposed changes to the implementing regulations, which stretched out timelines and gave states effectively unlimited permission slips to decline to act, thereby greenlighting a race to the bottom and a standard that doesn’t actually require any action at all.

5. Keep attacking science from all sides

In addition to all the attacks on science, health, and the environment within the rule, the Trump administration has also steadily advanced an unrelenting barrage of attacks on science, health, and the environment from outside the rule as well. From attempting to limit the science that is allowed to inform regulations, to hamstringing the scientific advisory committees that provide expert and leading advice on complex issues, to propagating changes to how climate impacts are analyzed to minimize the case for action, to formalizing the exclusion of vast swaths of public health benefits from rulemaking—science is under attack, and the administration is demolishing the very foundations on which the EPA, with a mission to protect human health and the environment, can stand.

Subverting truth for profit, paid for by the public

Who wins when an administration actively hides evidence that the public will be harmed by the actions it proposes to take? What happens when an agency charged with protecting human health and the environment bars science and analysis revealing thousands more will die? Where will we be when facts no longer count?

For the profit margins of a select polluting few, the Trump administration is attempting to find out, subverting truth for money and public health for polluter profit gain.

Photo: The White House The New York Times

What Will DTE’s Electricity Future Look Like?

DTE wind energy facility in Huron County, MI Photo: James Gignac

On June 20th, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) is holding a public forum and information session on an important electricity planning process involving DTE Energy’s electric subsidiary.

This is a key opportunity for residents and business owners to learn about—and share their views and input on—DTE’s long-term proposals for fulfilling customers’ electricity needs.

As Michigan’s largest electric utility, DTE provides electricity to 2.2 million customers in southeastern Michigan. Through a combination of coal, nuclear, gas, hydroelectric pumped storage, and renewable resources, DTE has the capacity to generate over 11,000 megawatts of power.


DTE’s Belle River Power Plant in East China, MI Photo: Flickr/Tgrab

While DTE has taken positive steps by announcing a carbon reduction goal in 2018 and shuttering some of its oldest coal-fired power plants, two of its coal plants have been listed in the top 100 greenhouse gas polluters nationwide. The Monroe and Belle River plants together spewed 23 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere in 2014.

DTE’s Risky Gas Plant Investment

In December 2016, Michigan enacted wide-ranging energy legislation that included a requirement for utilities to develop and submit integrated resource plans, which are intended to be robust studies into the best resources for providing power needs to customers in the future.

DTE, however, sought approval to build a large new gas-fired power plant after the legislation passed but before the integrated resource planning requirement kicked in.

Gas plants are not clean resources and investing in them is a risky proposition for electric utilities. Union of Concerned Scientists and other advocates showed that the cost to build a portfolio of clean energy resources was about $340 million less than the cost to build and run DTE’s proposed $1 billion gas plant.

Unfortunately, the MPSC approved DTE’s gas plant project in April 2018.

An Opportunity for a New Direction

Now that the integrated resource plan requirement is in effect and DTE has longer-term proposals before the MPSC, it is crucial to ensure the company is retiring additional coal plants quickly and replacing them with clean energy resources—not more gas.

Another large Michigan utility, Consumers Energy, filed its integrated resource plan last year that was just approved by the MPSC. Consumers’ plan includes a phase-out of all its coal plants, replacing them with clean energy resources such as energy efficiency, demand response, and a large increase in solar power.

In its integrated resource plan filing, DTE is currently proposing to retire its Belle River and Monroe coal-fired power plants in 2030 and 2040, respectively. The MPSC must closely examine whether continuing to operate these plants for that long is in the best interests of ratepayers. Additionally, DTE’s plans to increase solar power are mostly delayed until after 2025. Earlier investments in solar could avoid the potential need to build another expensive and risky gas plant contemplated in some of the company’s future scenarios.

Stakeholders, residents, and business owners have an opportunity to make their voices heard to the MPSC on June 20th. Let’s make sure DTE moves away from coal and gas and toward a clean energy future for Michigan.

This Crazy Trick Could Help New Orleans Utility Customers Save Money

Image courtesy of Alliance for Affordable Energy

Over the past year or so, a lot of states with renewable portfolio standards (RPS) have opted to double down on that policy mechanism to set a path to 100% clean electricity. However, most jurisdictions in the deep south have been reticent to pass such policies. That might change later this year, as the City of New Orleans considers passing an RPS. And that’s the crazy trick that could save customers money. Passing an RPS.

EQ Research, DSIRE Database

Map of Proposed new RPS/CES (left) and Maps of Current RPS (Right). Click to enlarge.

I’m not saying that an RPS will guarantee more affordable energy; but, by passing a 100% renewable portfolio standard, the city of New Orleans has the opportunity not only to help reduce carbon emission but also make electricity more affordable for its residents.

I had the privilege to work with the Alliance for Affordable Energy in drafting technical responses to questions posed by the city council—which also serves as the local utility regulator—about the cost complying with an RPS. A copy of the comments can be found here. There are two important takeaways I wanted to share:

Protecting New Orleans’s electricity consumers

While state-level RPS policies have proven to be an affordable driver of new renewable energy development, the best policies feature strong consumer protections to help ensure that people can still pay their electricity bills. Nationally, one in every three Americans struggle to pay their energy bills, and that burden is three-times greater on low-income households.

Income inequality plagues New Orleans. Any increase in energy bills could be devastating. As a result, the Alliance for Affordable Energy has suggested some sound strategies for protecting New Orleans’ most vulnerable power consumers as the city seeks to transition to a renewable energy economy. These recommendations include:

  • Exemption for all low-income households from any RPS rider;
  • A special carveout for renewable resources located at low- and moderate-income households;
  • A mandate that excess credits, or RECs, will be sold, and those revenues will be used to offset REC procurement costs or to fund energy efficiency and renewable procurement;
  • Requiring that utility investors (not ratepayers) will have to bear the costs if the utility doesn’t comply;
  • Recommending an increase in energy efficiency funding and targets, to ensure that reduced electricity consumption (and therefore reduces customers’ bills);
  • Allowing low-cost renewables (such as utility-scale wind and solar) from neighboring states to count towards a portion of the RPS goals; and,
  • A call for the utility to wean itself off above-market, affiliate-contracts.

That last one is important…

What is New Orleans’s utility up to with customer’s money?

New Orleans is served by Entergy New Orleans LLC (ENOL) which is owned by Entergy Corp. If you follow energy utilities like I do, you may recognize ENOL’s name from the infamous antics they pulled: pretending to be New Orleans community residents in an underhanded attempt to trick New Orleans City Council into building a new, unneeded gas-fired power plant. Entergy also owns other vertically integrated utilities (like Entergy Mississippi, Entergy Louisiana, and Entergy Arkansas) and independent power providers like System Energy Resources Inc (which owns the Grand Gulf Nuclear reactor in Mississippi). In 2018, ENOL spent over $100 million buying electricity from many of these companies that are affiliated with ENOL’s parent company.

UCS conducted analysis on coal and nuclear power plants and found many of Entergy’s assets are uneconomic compared to market prices. It appears that Entergy may be using bi-lateral contracts with affiliated companies to prop up otherwise uneconomic coal and nuclear power plants.

For example, ENOL buys electricity from Entergy Arkansas at an average price of $49/MWh in 2018, or roughly 64% higher than average Arkansas Hub market prices in 2018. Entergy Arkansas owns and operates the White Bluff and Independence coal plants, two coal-fired power plants in Arkansas that regularly operate when it is uneconomic to do so. One reason these coal plants might be doing this is that a bi-lateral contract could make them indifferent to market prices—they’re guaranteed money either way. As a result, ENOL customers in New Orleans would be subsidizing uneconomic coal plants in Arkansas.

For comparison, other utilities have signed contracts for solar plus storage at $45/MWh. Solar or wind (without storage) comes in even lower, with solar as low as $25/MWh and the average wind PPA last year coming in at $20/MWh.

ENOL also buys electricity from System Energy Resources Inc (another Entergy subsidiary) owner and operator of the Mississippi-based Grand Gulf nuclear power plant. UCS analysis found that the Grand Gulf plant operates at a cost around $40/MWh; if the power plant were reliant on market prices alone, it wouldn’t be economical to own and operate the reactor. ENOL buys electricity from System Energy Resources at an average price of $77 /MWh or over two times the Louisiana hub market average. Over the long run, rooftop solar in New Orleans today would likely cost about $70-$80/MWh.

Is it possible that ENOL customers are funding a nearly 50% profit margin to Entergy and subsidizing an otherwise uneconomic nuclear plant in Mississippi while simultaneously being deprived of rooftop solar?

Yes, it is entirely possible.

This isn’t the first time someone has accused Entergy of turning a blind eye to cheaper resources in favor of operating more expensive plants it owns. This past April, the state of Mississippi argued in court that Entergy Mississippi defrauded customers by not buying cheaper power off the market and demanding the utility repay up to $2 billion to its customers.

Enacting an RPS will force Entergy to wean itself off those above-market contracts and sign contracts for renewable energy, which as outlined above, are likely to come in at or below the costs of existing contracts for coal and nuclear. An RPS in NOLA is probably going to drive energy costs down.

RPS 101 on the 15th

Click to enlarge.

In mid-June, I’ll be heading to New Orleans to join a convening of community members and local leaders to discuss how well-designed RPS policies have helped other drive the US’s renewable energy growth—key to fighting back climate change—while offering local economic benefits, too. If you’ll be in the area, feel free to come on by and join us. Here is the latest flyer:

The event will take place at Tulane Law School 6329 Freret St, New Orleans, Louisiana 70118. For more information: https://www.facebook.com/events/2133373293620782/

Image courtesy of Alliance for Affordable Energy EQ Research, DSIRE Database

La Energía Eólica Marina – 5 Próximos Pasos

Credit: Ad Meskens

El mundo de la energía eólica marina tiene bastante movida estos días.  Nueva legislación, nuevas propuestas para proyectos, nuevos mercados al punto de abrirse. El momento sigue creciendo.

Este viernes pasado, por ejemplo, el estado de Massachusetts se comprometió a aumentar un 100 porciento su meta de energía eólica marina. Ya era el primer estado con una fuerte meta, con un requerimiento de 1.600 MW establecido en el 2016. Luego pasó una ley en el 2018 pidiendo que la administración del Gobernador Charlie Baker evaluara “la necesidad, beneficios y costos” de un aumento de la meta hasta un total de 3.200 MW antes del 2035. Nosotros contribuimos con nuestros comentarios al estudio, y acaban de aprobar el aumento.

Y viene mucho más. Estas son cinco cosas que estoy esperando en el corto plazo.

1. Los primeros 800 megavatios de Nueva York

Un viaje de 9.000 megavatios (MW), se podría decir, empieza con los primeros 800. Gracias al Gob. Andrew Cuomo, Nueva York tiene la meta más ambiciosa de energía eólica marina en los EE.UU. Y el estado está buscando estar a la altura de esas circunstancias.

El progreso incluye una solicitud de propuestas (RFP, por sus siglas en inglés) para esos primeros 800 MW, publicada a finales del 2018, y las respuestas tienen que ser entregadas en febrero.

Los que actualmente desarrollan proyectos en otros países respondieron fuertemente, con cuatro respondientes proponiendo un total de 18 proyectos. Cualquiera de esos posibles participantes traería experiencia importante al mercado estadounidense.

Las decisiones sobre cual proyecto o cuales proyectos avanzarán se esperan tan pronto como esta semana. Así que estaré pendiente de ellas.

2. Una meta de 2.000 megavatios para Connecticut

Photo by Walt Musial / NREL

La cámara de diputados de Connecticut aprobó el mes pasado una propuesta de ley, con fuerte apoyo bipartidista, que obligaría al estado a contratar hasta 2.000 MW de energía eólica marina. Ahora le toca al senado, donde un voto se podría dar en los próximos días.

El Gob. Ned Lamont recientemente anunció un acuerdo público-privado de $93 millones en inversiones para mejorar el puerto de New London, para que sea apto para equipamiento eólico marino. Parece estar listo el gobernador para aprobar la propuesta de ley después de un voto en el senado. Merece nuestra atención.

3. Los primeros 1.100 megavatios de Nueva Jersey

Un poco más al sur, Nueva Jersey ha estado reactivando sus esfuerzos en cuanto a la eólica marina desde que tomó su puesto el Gobernador Phil Murphy en enero de 2018. Eso ha incluido un RFP en busca de los primeros 1.100 MW de la meta de 3.500 MW que ahora tiene el estado.

Igual que en Nueva York, el RFP de Nueva Jersey ha atraído fuerte interés de actores internacionales, con respuestas de tres de ellos. Y, como en Nueva York, se podría tener una decisión dentro de pocos días.

4. Los próximos 800 megavatios en Massachusetts

Mientras tanto en Massachusetts, los primeros 1.600 MW de la ley del 2016, tienen sus propios avances. El proyecto seleccionado para los primeros 800 MW, Vineyard Wind, ha logrado aprobación para sus contratos con las compañías de energía de Massachusetts, y para la línea de transmisión para conectarse con la red eléctrica del estado.

Y ahora se ha publicado el RFP para el resto de los primeros 1.600MW. Así que esperamos propuestas para proyectos de hasta 800 MW antes de la fecha tope en agosto, y la selección del proyecto o de los proyectos ganadores en noviembre.

5. Arrendamientos marítimos de California

Mientras mucha de la atención está sobre el noreste y medio-atlántico, otras partes del país también merecen atención. En California, por ejemplo, la agencia de manejo de energía oceánica (BOEM, por sus siglas en inglés) ha estado considerando tres áreas cerca de la costa. Catorce compañías han indicado interés en la posibilidad de arrendar una o más de esas áreas para desarrollar proyectos eólicos marinos.

De igual importancia, varios interesados se han involucrado para asegurar que el desarrollo de esta tecnología en la costa oeste se haga correctamente.

Y más

Estos son cinco posibles próximos pasos para la energía eólica marina. Pero este no es un listado completo. También vale la pena prestar atención a Maine, Rhode Island, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Carolina del Norte y los Grandes Lagos, por ejemplo. Y también a los avances tecnológicos y a los acontecimientos en otros mercados.

Porque como sean y donde sean, los acontecimientos con la energía eólica marina sí merecen atención.

Photo: Ad Meskens Dennis Schroeder/NREL Credit: A. Kommareddi

The Billion-Dollar Coal Bailout Nobody Is Talking About: Self-Committing In Power Markets

Xcel Energy's Sherco Generating Station Coal Power Plant Photo: Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons

This interview was first published on May 21, 2019, in Forbes

Nearly two-thirds of the United States’ power plants operate in competitive wholesale markets.  Market rules typically prescribe that only the cheapest set of resources may run—nowadays, those are often renewable energy resources. Despite a growing trend of coal losing on cost to renewables and natural gas, coal generation remains a dominant player in many of these markets.

New research by Union of Concerned Scientists Senior Energy Analyst Joe Daniel uncovered the fact that coal plants in “competitive” wholesale electricity markets were being run uneconomically, meaning they accrued significant losses for months at a time. This behavior defied economic logic, but could be explained by regulation. These plants are owned and operated by vertically-integrated utilities (companies that own their generation sources and directly serve retail customers in an area without alternative suppliers), who receive cost recovery for expenses related to these coal plants under regulatory approval outside of the market.

To investigate the size of the problem, Joe analyzed wholesale electricity market data to better understand what drives investment in fossil fuel and clean energy power plants in those markets. Much of this market distortion was happening for plants owned and operated by vertically-integrated utilities which are permitted to “self-commit” their coal plants, forcing them to run at above-market costs. In this way, regulation functions as a subsidy to keep coal plants running, and customers are on the hook.

Energy Innovation’s Director of Electricity Policy Mike O’Boyle interviewed Joe to learn why this is happening, the risks of this practice, and what it means for consumers and clean energy’s future in these markets.

Mike O’Boyle: Can you explain what you mean by coal self-committing?

Joe Daniel: Most people think the system operators that coordinate competitive power markets are centralized decision-makers for the electricity grid. That’s true, in theory. In practice, it’s a bit more complicated. Market rules give participants like utilities and power plant owners a great deal of decision-making authority. For instance, power plant owners can decide when to make their resources available, then offer those resources into the market for others to purchase.

Some owners allow the market to “commit” their resource by specifying what price and output level they are willing to operate at. Market committed resources allow market forces to drive increases or decreases output, or turn off units entirely. In aggregate, these economic bids provide the system operator with enough information to choose the power plants that minimize overall system costs.

However, market participants can bypass this process by self-committing the unit, essentially superseding the market operator’s decision of whether to run that plant. Instead, power plant owners can tell the market that the unit must remain on, which requires that it operate at some minimum level of output. Barring an emergency, the operator can’t tell the unit to turn off even if there’s cheaper energy available on the market.

MO: Please explain how you figured out that self-committing is happening.

JD: A few years back, I was working on a utility proceeding within the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) organized market with a lawyer who noticed that the utility’s coal plant, which previously operated at a high capacity factor, suddenly stopped running. The lawyer and I eventually discovered that the utility-owner had changed its operational paradigm from “self-commitment” to “market-commitment.”

So, I began researching self-commitment, market rules, and hourly coal plant operations across the country to understand why coal plant operators were running at seemingly illogical times, based on the low prices for solar, wind, and other sources in these markets. Originally, my focus was on SPP, but I quickly expanded my analysis to the Midcontinent-ISO (MISO), PJM Interconnection, and Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) competitive energy markets, too.

MO: How many coal plants did you examine and where are they located?

JD: Most recently, I completed an analysis screening every coal-fired power plant that operates in PJM, MISO, ERCOT, or SPP, roughly two-thirds of all existing U.S. coal plants.

RTO/ISO markets in the United States

RTO/ISO markets in the United States

Roughly 100 gigawatts (GW) of coal, or nearly half of the coal in organized markets, received additional scrutiny that included analyzing hourly coal plant revenues. These coal plants operated at a loss for at least one month during the study periods; even worse, customers were footing those bills.

Compared to SPP and MISO, PJM and ERCOT had fewer, but still, some bad actors who engaged in self-committing to the detriment of their customer’s wallets.

MO: What has your research on self-committing shown?

JD: This opaque practice undertaken by coal plant owners hurts customers and contributes to climate change.  My analysis indicates that self-committing uneconomic coal costs consumers an estimated $1 billion dollars a year in the regions I evaluated. But I also found that not all coal plant owners engage in this inefficient practice. Rather, the worst offenders are vertically integrated utilities that can lose money in the competitive market and then recover those losses on the backs of retail customers, including those most economically vulnerable to higher electricity costs. Customers of vertically integrated utilities are “captive”—they have no choice but to accept these costs.

My research is ongoing, so it is hard to say with precision what the cumulative environmental impacts are of coal plants that operate like this, but it’s not good. Statistically, an uneconomic coal plant would be replaced by either (a) emissions-free wind energy; (b) a natural gas plant that, while not clean energy, has lower emissions rates than coal; or in a worst-case scenario, (c) a more efficient coal plant with marginally lower emissions rates.

MO: How does this practice affect renewables in wholesale electricity markets?

JD: Markets are supposed to ensure that all power plants are operated from lowest cost to most expensive. Self-committing allows expensive coal plants to cut in line, pushing out less expensive power generators such as wind, depriving those units from operating and generating revenue.

The practice of self-committing also reduces market revenues for all the generators that do get called. Wholesale electricity prices are set by the marginal cost of supplying one unit of energy – the most expensive power plant selected by the operator sets the price. In the absence of self-committing, this price for energy would increase, raising revenues for all selected power plants.

Coal plant self-committing reduces market revenue for all generators.

Coal plant self-committing reduces market revenue for all generators.

Properly functioning markets are predicated on properly functioning price signals. If the market prices are distorted, then what happens to the market? Nothing good.

MO: You’ve called self-committing coal a hidden coal bailout. What do you mean by this, and how does it compare to state subsidies for renewable energy?

JD: Self-committing is regressive, reducing the efficiency of our electricity grid, exploiting customers, and exacerbating emissions when coal plants run more. It also artificially distorts market prices to favor aging technology while limiting investments in low-priced renewables.

On the other hand, renewable subsidies are policy decisions that are proposed, scrutinized, and enacted by democratically-elected representatives. Consequently, the policies—whatever their strengths and weaknesses—are at least the product of a transparent, intentional process, and those who put them in place are accountable for the subsidies’ effects. But that’s not what we have with self-committing.

MO: Is self-committing coal happening in any states with clean energy goals?  If so, is it undermining the energy transition?

JD: Yes and yes. Minnesota, for instance, has set clean energy goals yet has uneconomic coal plants self-committing in the MISO market. This reduces grid flexibility and may force wind farms to curtail output because the electric grid is essentially zero-sum. If a coal plant is finagling the market to take the electricity it produces, it is preventing some other unit from providing that electricity. That might be a wind farm. It might be a gas plant. Regardless, it is hurting consumer pocketbooks and our health.

MO: What can be done about self-committing coal plants?

JD: Self-committing is a choice the utilities are proactively making. In some markets, this is as simple as selecting a different drop-down option. Power plant operators simply have to change their bidding behavior when offering their power plant into the market, which would allow the market operator to more efficiently run the whole system.

Alternatively, utilities could choose to seasonally operate the plants they own, similar to the strategy taken by owners of several coal plants in Texas and Louisiana. Just this past winter, Cleco and AEP subsidiary SWEPCO announced that Louisiana’s Dolet Hills coal facility will switch to operating only four months of the year. The utilities’ own estimations indicate this will save its customers $85 million by the end of 2020.

State regulators have tremendous influence over the utilities they oversee. They can’t assume the controls of power plants but can create incentives or penalties to ensure utilities behave better.  In some states like Washington, Oregon, and Montana, regulators have come up with a better mechanism to allow for cost/profit sharing that aligns price incentives. Alternately, a regulator can disallow the costs associated with running a power plant uneconomically, forcing investors to take a loss rather than forcing customers to bail out those plants.

Photo: Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons Under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License SustainableFERC

Offshore Wind’s Next Steps: 6 to Watch For

Credit: Ad Meskens

Things certainly aren’t dull in the world of offshore wind these days. Between new legislation to kick-start offshore wind markets, new bids to meet states’ demand for projects, and new markets getting set to open up, momentum just keeps building. Here are six near-term things I’m watching for.

1. New York’s first 800 megawatts

The journey of 9,000 megawatts, it might be said, starts with the first 800. Thanks to Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Empire State has the most ambitious target in the nation, and is working to live into that goal. That included issuing a request for proposals (RFP) for the first 800 or so megawatts late last year, with bids due in February.

Developers responded in a big way, with four proposing a total of 18 projects. Any one of those developers would bring some serious overseas experience to bear on the US market.

Decisions about which project or projects to go forward with could come out as early as this week, so I’m definitely watching for those.

2. A 2,000-megawatt target in Connecticut

September 1, 2010 – Siemens 2.3 MegaWatt Offshore Wind Turbine Installation, Baltic 1 Offshore Wind Farm, Baltic Sea, Germany. (Photo by Walt Musial / NREL)

The Constitution State’s house of representatives earlier this month passed a bill, in strong bipartisan fashion, to have the state contract for up to 2,000 megawatts (MW) of offshore wind. Now it’s up to the senate, where a vote could also happen this week.

Gov. Ned Lamont, who recently announced a $93 million public-private partnership to upgrade New London’s port to handle offshore wind, is poised to sign the 2,000-MW mandate when the senate does its thing. Stay tuned.

3. New Jersey’s first 1,100 megawatts

Meanwhile, just down the coast, the Garden State has been busy re-building offshore wind momentum since Governor Phil Murphy came into office in January 2018. That has included NJ issuing its own RFP in January, to find the first 1,100 of the state’s 3,500-MW target.

As in NY, the NJ RFP attracted strong interest from international players, with bids from three developers. And, as in NY, a decision about the first project(s) could be coming any day now.

4. Massachusetts’s next 1,600-megawatt pull

The Bay State was the first out of the gate with a big legislative pull, putting in place a 1,600-MW requirement in 2016. A follow-on 2018 law asked Governor Charlie Baker’s administration “to investigate the necessity, benefits and costs of requiring distribution companies to conduct additional offshore wind generation solicitations of up to 1,600 MW,” and execute if things look good—in other words, to bring the state’s total up to 3,200 MW.

We and many others weighed in during that study, and it’s due to be wrapped up and presented to the legislature shortly.

5. Massachusetts’s next 800-megawatt bid

Meanwhile, Massachusetts’s first 1,600 MW chunk is moving along, with near-term things-to-watch-for of its own. The project selected to satisfy the first 800 MW of that, Vineyard Wind, has recently gotten state approvals for its contracts with Massachusetts utilities, and for the transmission line for connecting to the state’s electricity grid.

And now the RFP for the second half of the first 1,600 megawatts (stay with me now…) is out, released last week. So watch for the bids of up to 800 MW, due in August, and the project selection, ‘long about November.

6. California leases

And, while a lot of the spotlight is on the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, other parts of the country are well worth keeping an eye on, too. California, for example, where the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is looking at three wind areas off the central and northern parts of the state. Fourteen companies have indicated an interest in one or more of those areas.

And, equally importantly, a broad group of stakeholders is engaging to make sure that as offshore wind happens on the West Coast, it’s done right.

And more

Those are six things I’m watching for in terms of offshore wind’s next steps, but this is far from a comprehensive list. Maine, Rhode Island, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, and the Great Lakes, for example, should also be on folks’ radar screens, along with technological developments and happenings overseas.

Because however and wherever it’s happening, offshore wind development is well worth watching.

Photo: Ad Meskens Dennis Schroeder/NREL

Energy Collision Coming: Technology Evolved, Why Haven’t Utilities?

Photo: Famartin/Wikimedia Commons

Our modern economy depends on electricity, the miracle technology of the 19th century.  Many old policies and practices of the electric utility industry have stuck with us into the 21st century.  Electricity has had heroes and villains along the way, as well as enormous accomplishments of engineering, public service and safety.  While economics and public attitudes have changed about many things since the first electric bill was sent in January 1883, there are tools and techniques, as well as attitudes in the utility industry that do not change as much.  To serve society and maintain a healthy environment, we need a utility industry open to modern ideas and new approaches.

Maybe because the industry was based on a monopoly business model for 100 years, or because the invisible product requires engineering, or because there is a tension between the public interest and companies shrouding themselves in the name “public service company”… but whatever the reason there is a utility company culture that often appears paternalistic or patronizing.  New technologies owned by consumers could make our energy supply safer and less expensive if customer and public interests and investments were better recognized by the old utilities.

Today in the U.S., many changes are bearing down on electric utilities that demand a modern grid approach, such as state and city clean energy goals, and customers adding rooftop solar and electric vehicles.  But the old utility company tendency remains, with assurances to one and all that the large, sophisticated corporation has society’s best interests in mind, and there’s no need to pay too close attention. Sometimes that doesn’t quite work out.

Exhibit A: PJM

By some measures, the largest and most sophisticated U.S. utility is PJM, the grid operator for the region from New Jersey west to Chicago and south to Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina. PJM provides the command and control, the market rules, and the financial clearing for wholesale electricity and high voltage transmission used by 65 million people in 13 states plus D.C. PJM is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

But when we look at recent developments making headlines for PJM, it seems clear that the public is still getting an arrogant utility that is treading on state policies, with too little care for consumers wallets.

Witness the case of Green Hat, a financial trading firm with a questionable history (and a headquarters addressed to a UPS store). In response to Green Hat’s unusual and ultimately failed financial activity, PJM made a series of mistakes, from misunderstanding collateral and risk management, and then incorrectly believed a Green Hat pledge would suffice, or that the situation could get worse. Green Hat’s unchecked speculation in PJM markets ended in default, which led to the departure of the PJM CFO and some $400 million in financial obligations for consumers. An independent report cited “an unwarranted air of confidence” as a contributing factor to this fiasco.

Witness a level of arrogance when PJM fails to report its political contributions.  This is required by law to allow proper public oversight.

Witness the fight PJM has entered by taking to FERC a request to exclude zero carbon and renewable energy plants from its capacity market. The capacity market creates the inventory of plants that count for reliability and transmission infrastructure.  PJM holds that state clean energy policies that support clean air and climate by helping these plants is an unacceptable interference with the market. (This is the “MOPR” rule, for folks following closely.)

The PJM proposal for changes in rules (known as MOPR”) will move state-supported resources out of the capacity market, resulting in higher costs for consumers.

A particularly old-style approach from PJM is seeking additional revenues for coal plants with a vague argument that “fuel security” is a thing we need. (It isn’t.) PJM continues to push this debate, despite PJM meeting all reliability standards and recently boosting power plant payments already used for reliability. In addition, PJM has rejected ideas that would look at winter needs separate from summer needs, saying over and over that there is ample supply in winter. See graph below.

PJM pays for year-round supplies, even though winter needs are lower.

Change is here, what’s the right thing to do?

Meanwhile, changes abound in the energy landscape. Public opinion favoring clean energy is higher than ever, and states as well as local governments and corporations are adopting policies for higher levels, even 100% clean energy. Homeowners (2 million the US) have taken up solar as a DIY energy policy.  In fact, even PJM anticipates current mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standards will lead the PJM region to add 25,000 MW of wind and 12,000 MW of solar resources, with ~8,000 MW of that total behind the meter, by 2034. Thanks to state policy leadership! The economics and investment in renewable energy, demand response tech, and storage are all on the upswing across the U.S.  But PJM has taken steps to hold each of these down.  As PJM stays with old approaches to issues of fuel supply, a year-round capacity approach that over-supplies in winter, and an embrace of old state-sponsored resources while rejecting new state-sponsored resources, a collision is coming.

Elected officials and public interest advocates are championing lower costs and clean energy with a variety of state policies. These policies often address market failures and unpriced environmental externalities. Energy policy is relevant to local economic development, job creation and pollution-reduction. PJM objects to the states making policies that set priorities in energy production.

The way forward

There will be a public interest, and involvement, in the utility industry. PJM will need the participation of assertive state agencies and public interest groups that can look beyond the screen that PJM offers to through its external affairs efforts. PJM could change, and decide to facilitate the existing state RPS laws and demand-side policies. Change could also be driven in a constructive way by Congress and FERC, it could be a gradual erosion of engagement as local jurisdictions go a different way than the PJM vision.  Policymakers and industry have got to keep up with the times.  Changing public needs, technology and economics cannot be ignored forever.  The record shows that PJM has more to do for consumer protection, transparency, and the enabling of a clean energy transition.  In reference to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., these are times of challenge and controversy for the utility industry.

Photo: Famartin/Wikimedia Commons