UCS Blog - Clean Energy (text only)

DTE Customers Could Save $340 Million with Clean Energy Compared to Proposed Gas Plant

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Stevendbradley

DTE Energy, Michigan’s largest electric utility, came up short in its attempt to justify charging customers nearly a billion dollars for a proposed new natural gas plant. Expert analysis shows that a mix of clean energy resources would meet customers’ power needs for about $340 million less than the cost to build and run DTE’s proposed plant.

DTE’s proposal to build a large natural gas plant in New China, MI doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Evidence shows a combination of renewables, efficiency, and demand response can do the job at lower cost for customers.

DTE is seeking approval from the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) to charge ratepayers $989 million for a new combined cycle natural gas plant in New China. According to the plan, construction would start in 2019 with the plant scheduled to come online in 2022 as the Belle River coal plant at the same site retires. Before DTE can charge its customers for the new project – along with a hefty profit on its capital expenditures – it must convince the MPSC that its plan is in the best interests of its customers.

After digging into the specifics of DTE’s proposal and the company’s analysis that purportedly supports it, several intervening parties (including the Union of Concerned Scientists) have raised serious doubts that the analysis fairly evaluated clean energy options on a level playing field. What’s more, our own analysis shows that a combination of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and demand response can meet DTE’s needs while coming in at $339 million less than the proposed natural gas plant.

A cheaper, cleaner path forward for DTE customers

Analysis submitted by us and our partners (The Environmental Law and Policy Center, Vote Solar, the Ecology Center, and the Solar Energy Industries Association) shows that a combination of additional renewable energy, energy efficiency, and demand response can meet DTE’s needs at lower cost while supporting more economic development and contributing to a more diverse, lower risk resource portfolio for DTE customers.

Doubling DTE’s commitment to renewable energy – from its plan to achieve just 11 percent in 2030 to 23 percent under our plan – with a combination of wind and solar resources, increasing DTE’s energy efficiency programs to achieve two percent annual savings, and adding a small amount of demand response to help reduce peak demand could meet DTE’s identified needs, and maintain reliability, at lower cost than the proposed gas plant.

The overall cost to build this portfolio of clean energy resources is about $340 million less than the cost to build and run DTE’s proposed natural gas plant. When we modeled this clean-energy portfolio using DTE’s own long-term modeling tool, the results show cumulative savings of over $2 billion through 2040 compared with DTE’s long-term resource plan due primarily to significant reductions in DTE’s capital expenditures and fuel expenses.

DTE’s long term plan would result in just 11 percent of the company’s energy coming from renewable energy and would continue the company’s addiction to fossil fuels – putting its customers and our environment at risk. (“Other Renewables” includes biomass and small-scale hydropower.)

Doubling DTE’s proposed commitment to renewables to achieve a still-modest 23 percent renewable energy diversifies the company’s energy portfolio, reduces its over-reliance on fossil fuels, and will save its customers an estimated $340 million.

The charts above show DTE’s proposed energy generation mix in 2030 compared to our analysis using increased investments in renewables, efficiency and demand response. Even under our more aggressive renewable energy scenario, DTE is still reliant on fossil fuels for nearly 60 percent of its energy needs – 37 percent and 22 percent for coal and natural gas respectively. This level of fossil fuel reliance is still far too high given the urgent need (and demand from DTE shareholders) to reduce carbon emissions and leaves DTE customers far too exposed to the risks associated with future fuel price and regulatory uncertainty.

But under DTE’s proposed plan, the utility would rely on fossil fuels for a whopping 71 percent of its energy needs. This level of over-reliance should raise big red flags with DTE customers, the MPSC, and all Michiganders who value a low risk electricity supply, clean environment, or stable climate.

DTE’s own analysis falls short

In addition to our analysis showing how clean energy can beat DTE’s natural gas proposal, analytic errors, inconsistencies, inaccurate assumptions about expected cost and performance of clean energy options, and blatant biases towards building this plant over other alternatives have been identified. Taking all these flaws together, it’s clear DTE inappropriately skewed its analysis in favor of natural gas over cheaper, cleaner alternatives like renewable energy, energy efficiency and demand response. DTE’s shoddy analysis strips away any confidence in its claim that spending $1 billion to continue its over-reliance on fossil fuels is a good deal for its customers.

The list of issues with DTE’s analysis is long, but the highlights include:

  • Making overly-optimistic assumptions about the future price of natural gas;
  • Failing to take full advantage cost-effective energy efficiency potential;
  • Failing to take advantage of cost-effective demand response potential that would lower peak demand and offset the need for new power plants;
  • Making inaccurate assumptions about the availability, cost, and performance of renewable energy options;
  • Failing to account for key risk factors such as price spikes in natural gas fuel prices;
  • Failing to consider emerging technologies like battery storage as part of the solution;
  • Failing to adequately consider resource options outside of DTE’s service territory.

DTE has not conducted a fair and robust analysis of the options available to meet customers’ energy needs. Taken together, the evidence suggests that the analysis was specifically designed to support DTE’s desired conclusion that Michiganders “need” this $1 billion natural gas plant, despite real-world evidence to the contrary.

In all, DTE’s analysis and justification for spending $1 billion in customer dollars on a new natural gas plant simply doesn’t hold water. The evidence – $340 million worth – points towards renewables, efficiency, and demand response as the solutions that are going to cost-effectively meet customer demands while also reducing emissions. Because DTE’s proposal is not in the best interest of its customers, the MPSC should reject it and send them back to the drawing board.


Infrastructure in the Trump Congress: We Must Build for the Future, Not the Past

Photo: Wikimedia

President Trump is expected to announce plans for what he’s characterizing as a $1.7 trillion infrastructure package during his State of the Union address next week. Earlier this week a supposed leaked copy of a White House infrastructure memo revealed the broad outline of an infrastructure plan, only 20 percent of which appears to be direct federal investment.

The math doesn’t quite add up, but the White House is saying $200 billion in federal funds, and that the money will come from spending cuts. The plan includes federal credit support and loan programs, but assumes the vast majority of the infrastructure funding would come from state and local government budgets (which are already strapped), as well as the private sector.

Not surprisingly you won’t find terms like “climate change” or “clean energy” anywhere in the document, but in 2018 not even President Trump can escape the reality of worsening climate impacts and extreme weather threatening our outdated infrastructure. Nor can he ignore the job-creating renaissance happening in renewable energy, displacing old, expensive, harmful electricity generation like coal-fired power, and redefining assumptions about resiliency and the need for a centralized electricity grid.

Years of neglecting federal infrastructure investment have made the hole deeper. The American Society of Civil Engineers says we need to invest a staggering $4.6 trillion by 2025 just to bring our infrastructure up from a D grade to a B grade.

Regardless of what the final appropriation ends up being, the political will to make significant investments in infrastructure represents a huge opportunity to make the lives of Americans much better—public safety, agriculture, consumer, labor, and business interests all win if we get this right. But it will be up to the constituents, ordinary American citizens, to keep their members of Congress from squandering the public treasury on old, outdated ideas and business as usual.

We need an infrastructure plan that looks to the future and matches the reality we are living in in 2018. What is on the table right now doesn’t appear to be that.

How did we become a country with crumbling infrastructure?

State and local governments account for the vast majority of public infrastructure spending (about three quarters), but that spending has been sharply down across the country in recent years as states deal with their own budget crises. Federal capital investment in transportation and water infrastructure has fallen 19 percent over the last 15 years. Some analysis shows total federal spending on infrastructure as a percentage of GDP has dropped by half over the last 35 years.

Prior to the highway bill they passed out of desperation in late 2015, Congress had gone ten years without making a significant infrastructure investment, and the investments they have made are not remotely adequate to keep pace with our nation’s old, and rapidly deteriorating, infrastructure. Additionally, the US federal excise tax on gasoline, which is a primary source of funding for infrastructure projects, hasn’t been increased since 1993 and isn’t adjusted for inflation. As a consequence, our national Highway Trust Fund is at the edge of solvency.

Building for 2018 and beyond

As we’ve seen recently with hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, climate change is making extreme weather events even more intense.

NOAA recently published numbers showing that 2017 was the costliest year on record for US disasters. We simply can’t afford to do things business as usual when it comes to disaster preparedness. Any responsible infrastructure package must include policies and direct investment that strengthen hazard mitigation before a disaster hits. Likewise, it also must include science-based standards that reflect “future conditions” including climate change, assuring that we build to last, stronger, and smarter, instead of letting our investment get washed away by the next storm. A recent UCS white paper describes a set of principles for climate-smart infrastructure.

Our antiquated electric grid is also badly in need of modernization. This includes the way we generate and distribute electricity, and also how we deploy electric vehicle charging or fueling stations. Spending large sums of money to maintain outdated electricity infrastructure squanders a once-in-a-generation opportunity to leap ahead; improving access and electricity reliability, particularly for rural and historically underserved communities, while also benefiting consumers and protecting public health.

But the administration has demonstrated a real lack of understanding of the real challenges vexing our outdated electric grid, and a lack of receptivity to the emerging technologies that can generate and deliver cleaner, cheaper electricity, in a more efficient and reliable way. Constituents will need to continue to weigh in with their members of Congress to make sure we invest in the electricity infrastructure of the future instead of propping up the old electricity infrastructure of the industrial revolution.

From a climate and clean energy perspective, here’s what we need in an infrastructure package
  • Direct investment and/or policies that prioritize the installation of customer-sited solar power and battery storage systems, which can provide both grid-connected and independent electric operation when needed during outages, rather than relying on expensive and polluting diesel or gas-fired generators. This is especially important for isolated or islanded communities in places like Alaska and Puerto Rico.
  • Direct investment and/or policies that deploy more clean energy micro-grids for isolated communities, and micro-grid systems which reduce outages and increase the resilience of critical public and private facilities such as schools, hospitals, community centers, and police and fire departments.
  • Direct investment and/or policies that modernize the electric grid, including the application of technologies to improve observability, efficiency, design flexibility, and prediction of system performance on the distribution system.
  • Direct investment and/or policies that accelerate investments in our electric transmission system to provide access our nation’s robust wind and solar resources, improve the efficiency of the system, and reduce the long-term costs to consumers.
  • Direct investment in charging infrastructure that will allow people to travel further in electric vehicles—particularly fast-charging stations along high-volume travel routes that connect urban centers.
  • Direct investment and/or policies that incentivize transitioning bus fleets and port trucks to electric vehicles to reduce the pollution impacts on communities that are on busy routes or adjacent to our nation’s ports.
  • Direct investment and/or policies that prioritize hazard mitigation before a disaster hits. This includes investments in hardened and surface infrastructure like roads, bridges, public buildings, military installations, the electricity system, water and wastewater infrastructure, taking into account future conditions from climate change.
  • Direct investment in flood and wildfire mapping, risk assessments, and data collection that can provide the science-based information and tools needed to plan, build, and repair critical infrastructure.
  • Updated building standards and codes that take account of future climate risks, including a robust flood risk management standard for federal infrastructure investments.
  • Prioritization of direct investment in historically disadvantaged communities and economically vulnerable communities, which are more likely to be vulnerable to damage from extreme weather, and have the least means to pay for needed up-front investments in preparedness and hazard mitigation.
The will to get infrastructure right

As noted earlier, Congress has lacked the political will to meet their responsibilities when it comes to investing in and maintaining our nation’s infrastructure. If somehow the stars align in this Congress to work in good faith on comprehensive infrastructure legislation, we shouldn’t squander that opportunity with misguided policy that looks to the past. And we should reject false choices that demand we pursue infrastructure at the expense of public health, safety, and environmental standards that help keep our standard of living high.

We need an infrastructure plan for 2018 and beyond: one that looks to the future, addresses real gaps, and capitalizes on real opportunities to increase access to reliable and affordable clean energy, while also reducing our vulnerability to extreme weather and future conditions from climate change. We need an infrastructure plan that responsibly uses public funds and makes direct investments on improvements. The costs of neglecting this investment are apparent, and the benefits for jobs, public health and safety, national commerce, and the planet should be too.

Reach out to your members of Congress and communicate your priorities for an infrastructure package. Getting this wrong is not an option; and if recent history is any indication, we can’t expect Congress to get it right on its own.


Despite Rhetoric, Coal Jobs Not Set to Increase in the Future

Given the administration’s rhetoric around coal, you’d think that the president sprinkles coal dust on his breakfast cereal each morning. That’s not true—well… at least as far as I know, anyway—but the problem is that there is a great deal of misinformation out there around coal (and honestly, on a whole lot of other issues too).

For example, the president and his senior appointees continually tout an increase in coal mining jobs over the last year as evidence that they are delivering on campaign promises to bring back the coal industry—such as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s wildly wrong talking point about coal jobs last year.

Late last week, Reuters reported that while 2017 saw an increase of 771 coal mining jobs nationally, in fact most coal states actually saw coal mining jobs decline. And this week, a piece in the New York Times proclaims that coal’s decline continues, despite efforts by the administration to roll back environmental safeguards.

What do all these numbers really mean? Here at UCS, we believe that facts and evidence and science really matter, especially these days—and so today I’m kicking off a blog series that I like to call “Coal in Context” to offer some facts and perspective on coal. For this post, I’ll focus on jobs.

A person behind every number

First off, let me emphasize that tables and charts of jobs numbers can feel a bit de-humanizing. Ten jobs created might not sound like a lot, but it might well mean the world to one of those people that landed it!

So, in trying to put those 771 new jobs in context, I don’t mean to imply in any way that those additions aren’t meaningful. Coming from a coal mining family, I understand in my blood what those jobs mean—taking care of a family and providing new opportunities for your children.

Here, though, I want to look at the big picture questions—what do 771 new jobs mean in the context of the broader economy, and are they an indication of a new trend? Spoiler alert: there’s no evidence of a resurgence in the coal industry.

Employment in context

From a big picture perspective, is the administration succeeding in reviving the coal industry as they promised and frequently claim? One metric to evaluate that question (and there are others we’ll explore in this series) is jobs.

According to unreleased and preliminary data from the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), in 2017 net coal mining employment increased nationally by 771 jobs, to a total of 54,819 (an increase of 1.4 percent over the 2016 number). But as the Reuters piece points out, in most coal states the number of coal mining jobs actually declined.

For the top five states in terms of coal mining employment in 2016 (West Virginia, Kentucky, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and Illinois) only West Virginia and Pennsylvania posted employment gains from 2016 to 2017. Notably, Pennsylvania’s gain will be erased early this year with the announcement of the closure of a mine in Greene County that will shed almost 400 jobs in the next few months—a painful reality for the rural community southwest of Pittsburgh, as the NYT article so vividly describes. Beyond the top five coal states, Virginia and Alabama also posted significant gains in coal mining employment (246 and 450 jobs, respectively).

Based on preliminary data from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, this chart shows the change in coal mining jobs by state from 2016 to 2017.

West Virginia far outpaced other states in terms of a net increase in coal jobs, at 1,345 jobs added in 2017. So, is the president correct when he claimed in a recent interview that, “I’m the one that saved coal. I’m the one that created jobs. You know West Virginia is doing fantastically now.”

First, there’s no evidence that this uptick will change the long-term trajectory of West Virginia’s coal mining jobs. West Virginia’s coal mining employment peaked in the middle of the last century, with around 130,000 jobs in 1940. Even with last year’s increase, the state’s total coal mining employment was still just 13,972—still just a shadow of what it once was.

Coal Mining Employment in West Virginia Since 1880. Data Sources: 1880 to 1982, West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety, and Training (http://www.wvminesafety.org/historicprod.htm); 1983 to 2015, MSHA data downloaded from OpenSourceCoal.org; 2016-2017, recent and unpublished data from MSHA.

Over the latter half of the last century, West Virginia’s employment numbers fell steadily, due to increasing mechanization of underground mines and a shift toward large scale mining operations out West. Further, in the last decade or so, cheap and abundant natural gas has steadily eaten away at coal’s market share overall. Electricity generation from coal stood at 51 percent in 2008, but by 2016 had fallen to 31 percent. During that time, the cost of producing energy from renewable sources like wind and solar also fell dramatically.

As much as we hear about coal jobs, you might think that it represents a sizable fraction of the West Virginia workforce. But if you look at the total number of people employed in 2016 in the state (the last year for which the Bureau of Economic Analysis has data)—892,900—the coal miners employed in 2016 represent just 1.4 percent of the state’s workforce. (It’s true that coal mining jobs help support jobs in other sectors of the economy, particularly in rural communities, but let’s save that for a future post.) According to West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, which publishes the Business Outlook for 2018-2022, the state’s three largest economic sectors in 2016 were Government (20 percent); Trade, Transportation, and Utilities (20 percent); and Education and Health Services (18 percent). Natural Resources and Mining (a broader sector than coal alone that includes natural gas, for example) represented just 3 percent of the state’s economy in 2016.

And contrary to the president’s assertion about how fantastic West Virginia is now doing, the WVU report highlights a few critical issues facing the state, including the nation’s lowest labor force participation rate (53 percent), a declining and aging population, and improving health and education outcomes to make the state’s workforce more attractive to new businesses.

So why the increase?

Analysts who follow the industry agree that the uptick in coal production, which helped spur the increase in coal mining employment, had nothing to do with a change in federal policy. As this analysis shows, domestic coal consumption continued to decline last year. Domestic coal production increased because of a growth in exports and a decline in inventory draws. As the Rhodium Group puts it,

“A recovery in Asian coal demand, particularly for steel making, combined with supply cuts in China and Australia boosted global seaborne coal prices… This made US exports more economically viable, increasing Jan-Oct volumes 70% from the same period in 2016…”

The temporary coal supply disruption in Australia resulted from infrastructure damage due to Cyclone Debbie and led to China purchasing more coal from the United States in 2017 to make steel.

Surely the administration’s grand plan for increasing Appalachian coal mining jobs isn’t to promote Chinese steel production?

Economic models also suggest that natural gas prices are the main driver for coal’s economic competitiveness (or rather, lack thereof)—not environmental regulations. In another report, the Rhodium Group found that domestic coal consumption is expected to decline if natural gas prices remain near current levels or if renewable costs fall more quickly than expected—despite the administration’s plans to rollback Obama-era environmental standards. WVU projects that the recent uptick in coal jobs will come to an end, citing ongoing uncertainty about future coal use.

The bottom line

The reality is that a relatively small bump in coal mining employment does not suggest a major resurgence of the coal industry. It’s critical to put the numbers in context and understand the reasons behind the change in order to prepare for the future that’s actually to come. Sadly, this administration’s interest in reckoning with reality seems to be in short supply.

Still, there is hope. Folks in Coal Country understand that coal isn’t returning to its heyday anytime soon. Intrepid business leaders get that—and are hard at work creating over 100 jobs in the heart of Coal Country. Community leaders and folks all around the country are pushing Congress to pass the RECLAIM Act, which would free up existing money from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund and put people to work cleaning up old mine sites—with an emphasis on projects that support economic diversification. If the president really wants to help, this would be great place to start.

This is a series, so if you have ideas on other coal-related topics and questions that I might explore in future blog posts, please leave them in the comments!

Why the Solar Tariff Slows Clean Energy Progress and hurts Californian Workers

Photo: Audrey Eyring/UCS

Yesterday President Trump imposed a new tariff on imported solar photovoltaic (PV) cells and modules. More than 80% of all US solar installations rely on foreign solar modules, mostly from Asia.  The intent of President Trump’s tariff is purportedly to give made-in-the-USA solar panels a boost and support US solar manufacturers. The problem is, of the approximately 260,000 solar jobs in the country, only about 8,000 are in manufacturing. So increasing the cost of solar panels for the majority of US solar companies will have a negative impact on workers that install, operate, and repair solar equipment. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) estimates that more than 20,000 US solar workers could lose their jobs. What’s worse, it’s also likely that the tariff does not go far enough to rescue the companies and workers making solar modules in the US. So, the whole package is a loser for US jobs and clean energy. Sad.

What does the solar tariff do?

The decision imposes a 30% tariff on imported cells and modules in 2018, and declines 5% each year for 4 years, settling at 15% by 2022. The first 2.5 GW of imports are excluded from the tariff every year. GTM Research estimates that a 30% tariff amounts to an additional $0.10-$0.15/watt. For those wanting more details on the tariff and its potential implications for the US solar industry, SEIA put together an informative frequently asked questions webpage.

What does this mean for California?

California has the largest solar market in the country and accounts for more than one-third of workers in the US solar industry.

Source: Solar Jobs Census 2016, Solar Foundation

More than half of those jobs are installing solar modules, which means that these workers become vulnerable, solar costs rise, and as a result fewer people decide to put solar panels on their homes and businesses.

Solar jobs and solar installations have grown rapidly in California in the past few years because we have strong policies in place to promote clean energy investments, but also because scaled-up solar cell manufacturing around the world has helped bring prices down dramatically, making solar PV competitive–and sometimes cheaper–than natural gas generation.

Source: Lazard; Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis 2017

If the Trump Administration wants to protect US workers, making things more expensive for the great majority of the solar industry is not the way to go. According to the Solar Foundation’s 2016 National Solar Jobs Census, the solar industry created jobs in 2016, 17 times faster than the rate of job growth for the overall economy, and accounted for nearly 2% of the 2.07 million jobs added by all US employers in 2016, equal to one in every fifty new US jobs.

Is this really about saving a few thousand solar jobs or about stalling meaningful progress to lower greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change? To me, it looks like another reason why California’s leaders and not the federal government must continue to lead the world on climate change and clean energy policies.

NAACP’s MLK Day initiative makes solar more accessible

Solar Energy Industries Association

The sun shines on everyone, and the benefits of solar energy can too.  Look at the synergies of community-supportive/community-supporting solar, how this can spread.  Solar can create jobs, clean the air, and replace fossil fuel.  As Dr. Martin Luther King said: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”

Smiles in the sunshine. Credit: Solar Energy Industries Association

The NAACP is launching a civil rights economic and environmental justice initiative to connect 30+ communities of color and low income communities across the nation with solar energy infrastructure for homes and community centers, as well as skills training for solar jobs, all supported by strengthened solar equity policies. This will provide solar job skills training, install solar panels on households and community centers, and strengthen equity in solar access policies. Partners supporting this national initiative include GRID Alternatives, Solar Energy Industries Association, Sunrun, United Methodist Women, Vote Solar, and others. The Solar Equity Initiative will advance the aims of multiple NAACP civil rights initiatives: Environmental and Climate Justice, Economic Development, Labor, Education, Health and Criminal Justice.

Installing solar on community buildings will lower the energy bills and strengthen the budgets for those service-providers. Any non-profit can take this up, and the funds raised can be tax-deductible. Profit-minded owners of commercial buildings do this with tax credits, churches can do this with donations that are tax-deductible.

The NAACP kicking off this initiative at the Jenesse Center in Los Angeles will provide lifetime financial savings to that service organization estimated at $48,825. These savings will enable Jenesse to infuse more funds into its life-saving services.  Similar environmental and economic savings will be replicated with installations by this initiative, and others where communities combine social equity and clean energy.

Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by pollution-emitting power plants, impacting health, education, incomes. Environmental justice can be served by using community-based solar to replace the fossil fuel burned at old power plants, and remove the plants entirely.

The NAACP has taken this direct action as part of its Environmental and Climate Justice Program.  There are toolkits, links to local efforts, full-length movies and videos and resources all available from the NAACP.

UCS is developing the science and tools to make the direct replacement of power plants with solar, efficiency and storage or demand response a common practice. We have been inspired by early work of Elaine Krieger  and real cases in California where power plants are to be closed, replaced, or never built as solar plus storage fill the need.  We have watched with hope as the solar solutions for Puerto Rico start to take shape, and as legislation in Illinois paves a path for solar for low-income folks.

To close with more words from Dr. King:

“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”


Solar Energy Industries Association

Cap-and-Invest: A Key Tool to Help Oregon Fight Climate Change

With the Trump administration undermining federal action to address climate change, states like Oregon are stepping up to protect the planet for future generations.

For example, after President Trump announced that he will withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, Oregon joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of states committed to the goal of reducing global warming pollution consistent with the Agreement. In joining the Alliance last year, Governor Kate Brown said, “it is our moral obligation to fulfill the goals of the Paris Agreement. Oregon will continue to make meaningful strides, with the rest of the world, to ensure our communities and economies adapt to meet the challenge of climate change.”

Fortunately, Oregon lawmakers and Governor Brown have the opportunity this year to take a huge step in Oregon’s fight against climate change. Last year legislators debated the Clean Energy Jobs bill, which would establish a “cap-and-invest” program that cuts global warming emissions by requiring polluters to pay for pollution, and then use the proceeds to invest in clean energy solutions. A cap-and-invest program would be a major new tool in Oregon’s climate-change-fighting toolbox, and the Clean Energy Jobs bill is now poised to be the single-biggest issue before Oregon lawmakers in 2018.

Pricing Pollution and Funding Solutions  

Oregon is already experiencing the impacts of climate change, from higher temperatures, a warmer and more acidic ocean, increased wildfire activity, and reduced snowpack. Putting a price on global warming emissions through a cap-and-invest program helps integrate the risks of climate change into the cost of doing business because it forces the costs of climate impacts and the value of low-carbon technologies to be better reflected in decisions companies make about what to produce and how to produce it, and consumers make about what to buy. This leads to fewer emissions that heat our atmosphere.

In addition, because major polluters are required to pay for their pollution, a cap-and-invest policy also generates significant revenue. These proceeds can be used to fund investments that help reduce climate change emissions, like making renewable energy more affordable, improving the energy efficiency of homes and other buildings, increasing transportation options, and expanding clean energy job training programs.

The Clean Energy Jobs bill is modeled on similar programs in other states and Canadian provinces, which have seen impressive success in making clean energy investments. For example, through the end of 2017, California’s legislature appropriated more than $4.7 billion in proceeds from the sale of cap-and-invest pollution permits for investments in a range of useful programs, from supporting rooftop solar panels to water efficiency projects. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-invest program to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in nine Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, has invested heavily in energy efficiency programs, helping 141,000 households and 5,700 businesses with investments in 2015 that will return $1.3 billion in energy bill savings. Oregon has the chance to build on these successful examples to create a program that reduces pollution and meets the unique needs of Oregonians, including its rural residents.

A Cap-and-Invest Program Will Complement Other Oregon Policies

While Oregon has already taken considerable steps to reign in global warming pollution from electricity production and cars and trucks, the state is not yet on track to meet its pollution reduction goals. Passing a cap-and-invest program is the single-biggest step state lawmakers can take to get Oregon on track.

Fortunately, a cap-and-invest program would nicely complement existing policies in Oregon to reduce global warming pollution, such as the Clean Fuels Program (CFP) and Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). The CFP requires a 10 percent reduction in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels sold in Oregon by 2025 (compared to a 2015 baseline). The program creates a dependable market for cleaner fuels, which facilitates steady investment into research, development, and deployment of low-carbon fuels that are necessary to decarbonize the transportation sector in coming decades.

Meanwhile, the RPS requires that by 2050 half of electricity sold in Oregon is supplied by renewable sources, like wind and solar. Similar to the CFP, this policy creates a dependable market for renewable technologies, which is critical for facilitating investment in clean energy solutions necessary to decarbonize the electricity sector.

A cap-and-invest program would complement these policies by providing greater assurance that Oregon will meet its targets for reducing global warming emissions statewide. That is because the central design feature of a cap-and-invest program is a limited pool of pollution permits (i.e., the “cap”), which shrinks each year to ensure that emissions are staying in line with emission reduction targets. In addition, the revenue from the cap-and-invest program is important for helping overcome market barriers for clean technologies that performance standards—such as the CFP and RPS, but also others like energy efficiency standards—cannot solve on their own.

Finally, the programs complement each other because compliance with CFP or RPS eases compliance with the cap-and-invest program. This reduces the price of pollution permits, reducing compliance costs for all sources covered by the cap-and-invest program.

Clean Energy Jobs Bill is “Fully Baked”

The Oregon legislature has considered various forms of legislation like the Clean Energy Jobs bill for more than a decade, with a sustained push to develop a cap-and-invest policy since 2016. This past fall Senator Dembrow and Representative Helm chaired a work group process to make further refinements to the program’s design. While the Union of Concerned Scientists may not end up agreeing with every detail in the House and Senate bills that will be introduced in February, it is abundantly clear that legislators’ sustained engagement on this topic, along with extensive stakeholder input, has produced a thorough and well-vetted program design. In the parlance of the legislature, the policy proposal is “fully baked” and ready to be passed into law.

The daunting consequences of a changing climate require a swift response from governments around the world. In 2018 Oregon lawmakers have the chance to accomplish something big to maintain the Beaver State’s commitment to seriously addressing this crisis. Let’s hope—and work—to see a cap-and-invest program passed this year.

Department of Energy Coal Bailout Rejected: Told to Get the Facts First

The Trump Administration got a punch in the nose trying to overthrow energy markets and deprive consumers of the savings created by lower cost, competitive energy supplies. All five Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioners, four of them appointed by Donald Trump, rejected an open-ended bailout proposed by Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

Not the end, a beginning

Hurricane Irma restoration in Fort Lauderdale, FL, on Sept. 11, 2017.

The unanimous Commission decision starts a fresh look at what can threaten the power grid, and what is already being done, this time within the legal system that applies to energy markets. Going forward, FERC will look for a common understanding of resilience, and will ask the organizations that operate the power pools through independent wholesale markets, not monopolies.

The Commission asks over 25 questions to the independent grid operators that serve two thirds of the US population (New England; New York; the PJM region from Northern Illinois across the Ohio Valley to the Mid-Atlantic states; as well as the California ISO, the Midcontinent ISO and the Southwest Power Pool that have operated with very high levels of renewable energy).  Not included in this inquiry are the power pools in the Pacific Northwest, Texas, or the mountain states and southeast region of the U.S., areas where grid operators have not formed an independent system operator subject to Commission market rules.

Time for questions and answers

The Commission poses questions about existing practices, and market-based services that already support resilience. There are questions about how the grid operators assess the resilience of the grids they operate. The Commission asks if there have been studies about resilience in the face of threats, what sorts of threats have been studied, and how these kinds of events are selected. The grid operators are asked to explain their criteria for events, the basic methods for understanding threatening events, and useful preparations or practices for withstanding such events.

This assignment for the grid operators continues, asking what attributes of the power system contribute to resilience, and what design standards are in place, as well as how different generation types perform in drought and other extreme weather, physical attack, or cyber threat. Then the public and UCS can comment on the grid operators’ answers.

What will we say?

First, FERC is right to start with the power pool operators, as these were set up to make the electricity supply better, cheaper, faster.  Grid reliability can be improved, coal plants can be retired. Let’s gather up-to-date information. Unlike the proposal from the Trump Administration to rush a multi-billion dollar cronyism scheme, this is something worth discussing. We depend on electricity, the grid has weaknesses and signs of aging, and the threats to reliability are real. So yes, let’s consider how we can improve what we have built.  Better to look for needs first, and then ask what is available to fill these needs.

Wind and Solar Offer Resilience

Grid support from offshore wind is real in New England. We will urge the grid operators to look West, and to the Plains, where higher levels of wind and solar have provided new ways to make the grid resilient.

Using renewable energy brings the opportunity to forecast the impacts of weather, in more complex and subtle ways. The California ISO was first to implement wind forecasting, beginning in 2004.  The regional grid operators of Texas, New York ISO, and the Midcontinent ISO implemented wind forecasting in 2008 and PJM did so in 2009.

Look now at the Southwest Power Pool, (serving western Plains from North Dakota to northern Texas) where wind has reached 50% of the energy supply in some hours. There, grid operators have learned to adjust the voltage controls when wind is forecasted to be a major supply on the wires. In Colorado, Xcel has learned that there are some predictable aspects to the variability of wind, and operations can be improved by using some simple logic to reduce the costs. California ISO  recently learned it can use solar farms for reliability services. The technology is already in place to meet the need, but the contracts need to be written to gain access to the flexibility.

Water can be a vulnerability

We will urge the Commission to look to the state regulators’ body (NARUC) which resolved to support water-smart energy choices.  UCS has emphasized the impacts of drought on conventional power plants. Knowing fossil and nuclear plants depend on cooling water to run in hot weather, UCS quantified the water withdrawal needed for older generators, and technologies that need little or no water. Renewable energy and energy efficiency came out at the top of that analysis.

Storms can strike suddenly. Credit: Shane Lear

Wires are the backbone of the Grid

Transmission lines are key to the reliability of the grid. Most power outages are traced to transmission for large areas, and local outages are due to problems with wires on the street level. Storms can cause large-spread outages, but so can the frailty of transmission.  Transmission is burdened by the expense of including redundancy for reliability. Look to the role of energy storage to free up more of what is already built, part of a “smart” or modern grid that can diagnose and respond to disturbances.

To be continued

FERC Commissioner Rich Glick wrote in a concurring opinion how more work is needed to clarify resilience issues, and the role of new supply technologies:

“The Department’s own staff Grid Study concluded that changes in the generation mix, including the retirement of coal and nuclear generators, have not diminished the grid’s reliability or otherwise posed a significant and immediate threat to the resilience of the electric grid. To the contrary, the addition of a diverse array of generation resources, including natural gas, solar, wind, and geothermal, as well as maturing technologies, such as energy storage, distributed generation, and demand response, have in many respects contributed to the resilience of the bulk power system.”


Florida Power & Light Florida Power & Light Mike Jacobs owner

Clean Energy in 2018: Here’s What to Expect

While the year 2017 is one I don’t mind seeing in the rear view mirror (and I’ve got colleagues that would agree), in the field of clean energy we made a whole lot o’ progress. A new year, if I’ve done my math right, means 12 more months to move the ball forward on clean energy. Here are a few things I’ll be keeping my eyes on as we traverse the length of 2018.

Solar – Sour or soar?

For solar power, February should be when we see the official tally for 2017 progress—how much, where, what price, what sizes. We already know, though, that last year was down from the record-breaking 2016.

One factor is that very record-breaking-ness: Developers and customers pushed to get lots of solar installed before an important investment tax credit was scheduled to expire. The tax credit got extended, but momentum carried many solar projects to completion in 2016. Not a bad thing, certainly, but it left 2017 as a bit of a cooling-off period.

Another really important factor: Right now, US solar companies don’t know what kind of environment they’re going to be operating in, which is something I’ll be watching this very month. We’ve got a president who seems gung-ho about tariffs (in this case, on solar cell/module imports) even when they don’t make sense, and a decision due from him on January 26 about whether to slap tariffs on.

In the meantime, we’re seeing, in the words of Solar Energy Industries Association CEO Abigail Ross Hopper, “what happens when policy uncertainty becomes a disruptive factor…” What we get: Shaky investors, as they try to read the tea leaves from an unstable teacup, and higher prices (temporary though they may be), as solar companies scramble to bring in what they can before any tariff hammer falls.

What that adds up to is that lower 2017, and a 2018 with potentially even fewer new solar installations, even if wisdom prevails on the tariff issue.

Still, the solar totals are and could still be impressive. The third quarter of 2017 saw more solar come online than in all of 2011, and the 2017 totals will show that it was the second-best year ever. And 2018 could bring considerably higher amounts of new solar than any year other than 2016 and 2017—and still enough new solar to power more than a million and a half typical US homes.

And then there’s the broader, and longer-term picture: Solar costs have kept impressively dropping as scale has ramped up, and solar has gotten harder and harder to ignore (even for smaller projects). Global totals for new solar are projected to have ended up much higher in 2017 than in 2016, and to be in that same high range in 2018.

Solar’s (mostly) steady climb (Source: GTM-SEIA)

Wind – Sigh or fly?

Wind power is another exciting technology to watch in 2018, including because the viewing can take you from coast to coast, and from the Great Plains to the waters off our shores. And, like solar, this technology has both headwinds and tailwinds.

  • For wind (and solar), the big holiday almost-spoiler was the federal tax bill. The house and senate versions each had provisions that would have undercut incentives, even for projects already up and running with those incentives in their calculations. That particular crisis was averted—a testament to the strong bipartisan support that wind has earned (and the volume of opposition to wrong-headedness).
  • Another big factor for land-based wind is the planned phase-out of one of those key incentives, the production tax credit (PTC). Wind projects that began construction before last year can get 100% of the tax credit. In 2017, 2018, and 2019, though, that credit is falling to 80%, 60%, and 40%, before going away entirely for projects started in 2020 and beyond. That gives a strong incentive to get projects built now.
  • Wind power also has going for it the incredible cost reductions it has achieved in recent years: In some parts of the country, it’s the lowest-cost thing out there. A utility in Colorado, for example, had projected last year that it could save its customers hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few decades by replacing some of its coal plants with renewable energy. When they asked for bids, though, the wind projects came in at even lower prices than they had assumed (more info here; subscription required).

Lots of tailwinds, and the numbers are bearing that out: The amount of wind capacity under construction as of the third quarter of 2017 was about as strong as ever (and all over the map, in a good way). And the fourth quarters are always the strongest for actually turning projects on. So I’ll be looking for those results in the next few weeks.

Wind power on the move (Source: AWEA)

Wind in the water – Time to buy

And then there’s offshore wind. Since the launch in late 2016 of the first offshore wind project in the country (and the hemisphere), off Rhode Island, this has been a technology on the move. And 2018 looks to bring more progress:

  • Utilities in Massachusetts will be deciding on the offshore wind proposals that got submitted last month by several high-powered collaborations. The timeline calls for the winners to be selected later this year, meaning at least 200-800 megawatts of offshore wind could be on the way, the first phase of the state’s planned 1,600 megawatts by 2030.
  • New York Andrew Cuomo just announced the next step toward realizing the state’s 2030 goal of 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind: a call for the state to get bids for at least 800 megawatts of offshore wind power over this year and next, enough power for some 400,000 Empire State households.
  • With the election last November, New Jersey now has a governor (Phil Murphy) with an even bolder 2030 goal than New York’s or Massachusetts’s: 3,500 megawatts. The Garden State certainly has the coastline, and the wind resource, to support ambitious plans.
  • Meanwhile, Maryland has two projects that were awarded state support last year and that add up to more than 360 megawatts, Connecticut is exploring a requirement that might result in a couple hundred megawatts of offshore wind, and several other East Coast states also have offshore wind areas already leased out. Don’t lose sight of the Great Lakes or the West Coast, either.
For a happy 2018

There’s plenty more to watch beyond wind and solar, of course. Other renewable energy technologies stand ready to contribute. Energy storage is growing (and getting cheaper) more quickly than just about anybody imagined. Energy efficiency keeps making things better, smarter, cheaper. And we could talk about electric vehicle progress for hours (or you could just look here).

States are figuring out, too, how to modernize electricity grids and policies—and upgrade transmission lines—to help us get off large old centralized power plants and take advantage of renewable energy in all its forms. All worth monitoring, and helping move along.

And we need to keep an eye on fossil fuels, too, to make sure bad decisions don’t get made to try to prop up failing coal plants via federal policy (even if they fail), or at the state level. To make sure our EPA works for us in cutting pollution from power plants, not for polluters.

And we need to make sure we don’t hamstring our economies with an overcommitment to natural gas.

But for energy progress in 2018—for our economy, for jobs, for our environment, for our kids—clean energy is what I’ll be watching.


Trump Administration Rescinds Fracking Rule for Public Lands: A Blow to Public Protection

Photo: Tim Evanson/Wikimedia Commons

At the end of last month, we saw yet another casualty in the Trump administration’s war on science-based policy. The administration announced it would rescind a 2015 rule at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to address risks associated with unconventional oil and gas development on public land. Though not unexpected, this move was disheartening. The 2015 BLM fracking rule was an important step in protecting people from many unchecked risks associated with hydraulic fracturing. To understand what we lost, let me quickly review the national setting back in 2015 when the rule was issued.

The BLM fracking rule, rescinded by the Trump Administration, was the only major federal rule governing risks associated with unconventional oil and gas development. Photo: Shutterstock.com/krivenko

A Wild West of oil and gas drilling

Around 2008, the oil and gas industry refined methods of hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling that made the process of shale oil and gas drilling more economically viable. This led to a rapid expansion of oil and gas development across the country. Many of the new places seeing oil and gas development had never experienced drilling in close proximity before, and now it was happening around them—in some cases, literally in their backyards. The nation was caught off guard. Notably, the scientific community had to play catch-up to assess risks to air and water and from occupational chemical exposure. Reports began to surface from communities complaining of drinking water contamination or poor air quality causing health concerns. But scientific studies on these subjects were limited.

One major barrier to understanding the risks associated with the new boom in fracking was a lack of transparency from industry. Researchers studying air quality around facilities were only able to take measurements from facility fencelines without closer access to emission sources on site. Researchers studying water quality were forced to analyze samples without any baseline measurements of what water quality was like before drilling started. And physicians were forced to make medical decisions about patients without knowledge of the chemicals they were exposed to because companies refused to disclose chemicals used in fracking fluid.

As a result, the public was left in the dark. The federal government failed to take a large role in regulating this Wild West of oil and gas drilling, leaving regulation largely up to states—many of which were ill-equipped to manage a new and complex industry now ever-present in their state. In some ways the federal government was limited in what it could do. The infamous “Halliburton Loophole” in the Safe Drinking Water Act prevents the EPA from protecting people from fracking risks to drinking water using the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The BLM fracking rule: the federal government steps up

But one way the federal government could take action (or at least so they thought) was by creating a rule dictating how unconventional oil and gas drilling could happen on public lands. Thus, the BLM fracking rule was developed. While modest in scope, the BLM rule was an important step toward greater regulation and disclosure of an industry unaccustomed to playing under such constraints. The rule set standards for well construction, wastewater management, and chemical disclosure. The greater chemical disclosure requirement was huge. It meant companies couldn’t continue to hide behind trade secret claims and the public, scientists, landowners, medical personnel, workers, and first responders would now have greater access to information about chemicals involved and risks to health.

The rule’s requirements about well construction and wastewater management could also have gone a long way toward minimizing risks of groundwater contamination—perhaps the issue of greatest concern for communities based on several high-profile cases of large-scale drinking water contamination. This is an area where we also saw a high degree of industry misconduct. There were cases of dumping wastewater and many accidental spills and leaks. In other cases, water was contaminated by faulty well-casings or natural and manmade fissures in bedrock that allowed fracking chemicals or naturally occurring hazardous chemicals to reach water sources. All the while, industry often hid behind their narrow definition of fracking, despite a public understanding and concern about water contamination throughout the process—from initial drilling, to oil and gas production, to transportation from the site. Setting standards, even if only for public lands, could have encouraged companies to adopt such protocols industry-wide, guarding against future water contamination.

The rule also restricted where drilling could happen. It required companies to avoid endangered species habitats. This was important for species like the sage grouse which live in prime areas for development and need quiet spaces for mating. (Side note: This is actually one of three hits on the sage grouse by the Trump Administration. Earlier this year it reopened state management plans that were designed to ensure the species could stay off of the endangered species list. And last week, the administration rescinded an order for the BLM to prioritize oil and gas permit granting outside of sensitive sage grouse territory.)

Back to square one: leaving us in the dark

Though the rule was stayed by a court in 2016 and thus wasn’t in effect when the Trump Administration made this move, the rule did sent a signal to industry that they would soon have to accept a more transparent and safety-focused business model. Without such a rule on the books, we are now back to square one when it comes to federal protection of people against the risks of fracking. And that leaves us all in the dark.

A Year of Resistance—and Why I’m Hopeful for 2018

Photo: UCS/Audrey Eyring

What a year it’s been. The destructive antics of the Trump administration and Congress and a political discourse increasingly polluted by ‘alternative facts’ have frequently made many of us angry, sad, and sometimes just plain crazy.

Through it all, it’s been inspiring to see a resistance movement gather strength and show its muscle. I’ve been awed by the work of racial justice activists, scientists, grassroots groups, immigrant rights groups, youth groups and many many others. Here’s a snapshot of what a year in the resistance looked like for me.


The Women’s March (one of the largest protest marches ever, coordinated across the nation and globally), held a day after President’s Trump’s inauguration (with its less-than-record attendance), showed where the true power of the people lies.

Like many of you, I joined the march with my family. Watching my kids (in their pink hats, of course) experience the crowds, point out their favorite signs, raise their voices in call-and-response chants—all of it gave me a thrill to think that a new generation was beginning to understand the power of peaceful protest in a democracy.

And we called out a dangerous new form of climate denial taking hold in the administration, especially with the nomination of Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator.


In courts across the nation, including in Hawaii, Washington, Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Maryland, there were immediate challenges filed to President Trump’s terrible ‘Muslim Ban’ executive order issued at the end of January.

As an immigrant myself, it was especially moving to join a large and diverse crowd of people marching in protest in Boston, and to see similar protests nationwide. At many major airports teams of lawyers also flocked in to offer pro bono assistance to travelers affected by the ban. (The Supreme Court has since allowed a modified version of the ban to go ahead but this is by no means the last word since it is still being litigated.)


We called out Scott Pruitt’s lies on climate change, held the administration accountable on its rollback of protective health standards including an all-out attack on climate policies, and we urged Congress to resist harmful cuts to the EPA budget (and succeeded in fending off some of the most damaging cuts).


The March for Science March and the Peoples Climate March were the highlights of April. It was magnificent to join the throngs of people marching for climate, jobs and justice on that sweltering hot day in Washington DC. More importantly, we are building a movement that is about more than just that one day.


President Trump’s destructive first budget proposal was shown up to be all bark and no bite since Congress actually controls the purse strings. We campaigned against the many awful elements of the Trump budget proposal, including cuts that would harm our nation’s ability to prepare for climate and extreme weather disasters and cuts that would gut the EPA. (Harmful budget cuts are an ongoing threat. It’s critical for constituents to continue to urge their policymakers to resist deep cuts to agency budgets that jeopardize the health and well-being of Americans.)


We are still in!’ declared states, cities, counties, tribes, businesses, investors, faith groups, colleges and universities, in prompt response to President Trump’s shameful announcement that he intended to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement.

Unfortunately, June also brought terrible heatwaves and wildfires, further evidence that the impacts of climate change are here and now, despite the climate denialism rampant in this administration.


One of the most satisfying ways to resist the madness wrought by this administration is to just carry on doing good science. In July, my colleagues and I released a new report, When Rising Seas Hit Home: Hard Choices Ahead for Hundreds of US Coastal Communities. The report highlights the threat of chronic coastal inundation exacerbated by sea level rise, and is accompanied by a fantastic online mapping tool.

Its findings challenge us to work toward solutions at the national, state and local level. Frontline communities facing these risks need help—and this should not be a partisan issue.


The nightmare hurricane season of 2017 unfolded in August and September, bringing Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Houston, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands suffered particularly devastating impacts. Groups like Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), an Environmental Justice organization in Houston, rallied to call attention to urgent needs.

My colleagues and I wrote about the flood threats in Houston, especially the risks from toxic pollution and the need to keep environmental justice front and center in the recovery process. We also laid out the science of hurricanes and climate change, and called on Congress to take action to help devastated communities.

And, yes, we also pointed out the irony of the Trump administration’s rollback of the federal flood risk management standard just a week before Harvey hit. And the how damaging the administration’s proposed budget cuts to FEMA and HUD, key agencies for our nation’s disaster response, would be.


Market trends, state policies, and federal tax incentives continued to drive a historic transition away from coal to cleaner forms of energy, despite the EPA’s announcement that it would repeal the Clean Power Plan, the nation’s first-ever limits on power plant carbon emissions. We called out Administrator Pruitt’s cynical move to pander to fossil fuel interests while blatantly ignoring the EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment.

Terrible wildfires raged across Northern California, killing 44 people and causing billions of dollars of damage. Sadly, another example of how climate change is exacerbating risks to people and property.


I was in Bonn, Germany for COP23, the annual UN climate talks, where the Trump administration was rendered largely irrelevant and isolated in its stance on the Paris Agreement. Every other nation is steadfastly committed to the agreement, and the ‘We Are Still In’ coalition of US sub-national actors was there in full force to reiterate that the nation’s clean energy and carbon-cutting progress will continue despite the retrograde actions of the Trump administration.


As we close out the year with the passage of a deeply unjust and harmful tax reform bill and a sober reckoning of this year’s record-breaking disastersincluding wildfires and hurricanes, there are lots of reasons to be very concerned.

Yet, there are some bits of good news too. The terribly destructive Thomas Fire in California is finally under control, for one. I also see signs all around that the resistance is alive and well–and gathering steam.

Just a few examples of positive developments:

  • We’ve seen a number of unqualified nominees proposed by the administration forced to withdraw recently because of public pressure;
  • Our nation’s transition away from coal to cleaner power sources continues unabated, lowering power sector carbon emissions;
  • Many states continue to enhance the ambition of their clean energy policies;
  • Many people stood up to defend science (here’s UCS’ list of 2017 Science Defenders, example);
  • Congress roundly rejected many of the extreme budget cuts proposed by the administration;
  • The Alabama election demonstrated the power of African American voters (women especially), a historically disenfranchised segment of the population;
  • The National Defense Authorization Act recently signed by President Trump explicitly acknowledges that climate change is a direct threat to US national security. (Of course we had to then call him out for flip-flopping a week later when the administration released a National Security Strategy that doesn’t even mention climate change!)
Hope for 2018

What gives me hope for 2018 is that Americans from all walks of life are now awake to the threats this administration poses to our democracy, our health, our climate, and basic human rights—and we’re fighting back! Our movement is strongest when we work together, connecting our work to people’s daily lives and concerns, and specifically aiming for solutions that are just.

The wins may not come easily and there’s a lot of work ahead. This administration’s attacks on science and our core values will very likely continue. But they are helping to forge our resistance and build its power. (Not to mention inspiring reams of incredibly biting, funny, incisive political satire–humor is sometimes the only way to handle the farcical extremes we’ve experienced this year!)

I hope you’ll share your moments of resistance in the comments section. A peaceful new year to all.

Don’t Believe the Trump Administration—That Coal In Your Stocking Is Not a Compliment

In this the year of our collective disappointment on federal support for climate, energy, public health—progress—let us relish in one certainty: a surge in year-end searches about holidays and coal. From the warm and cozy outposts of our nation’s leaders’ homes, hiding from the storm of public scorn, one can imagine little queries being soon sent into the night:

  • “is receiving coal a compliment?”
  • “if coal is clean why is stocking dirty?”
  • “does lump of coal mean democratic process is preferred?”

And so on.

But here’s the thing. Earlier this year, the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy released an infographic titled “6 Things You May Not Know About Coal.” Unfortunately, this infographic is a tour-de-force in obfuscating truth through diversions and distractions.

And me? I don’t want those late-night searches leading to any wrong conclusions.

So below, we’re adding context to DOE’s coal trivia to help ensure these lumpy forms of year-end feedback are appropriately received.

1. Menacing piles is right—our nation is being smothered in coal ash. One side effect of using all those coal reserves? Generating even more of the toxic coal ash that gets left behind. It turns out that when we burn coal, it doesn’t all go up in polluting smoke. Indeed, coal ash comprises one of the nation’s largest industrial waste streams, totaling more than 100 million tons last year.

This waste is an awful gift that keeps on giving, from its toxic pollutants leaching into drinking water, to multiple horrors of coal ash ponds bursting forth and decimating unsuspecting communities and waterways below.

But protections against these threats? Keep dreaming. This fall, the Trump administration moved to reconsider a regulation that would demand basic protections against these ticking time bombs.

2. If your state has traditionally been a coal-based economy, prepare for your budget to take a tumble in a front-load washer. There is an undeniable and unrelenting transition taking place in the nation’s power sector. And a transition, by its very nature, means moving away from one thing and toward another. For states that have long provided our nation with the fuel required to power our energy needs, this transition is hard. But the administration’s continued denial about what’s really happening means that these states aren’t planning for the future—they’re desperately clinging to a rapidly disappearing past.

Unfortunately, the end result of all those rosy distractions from the Trump administration is states forgoing actual long-term opportunities that could help them stay afloat.

3. The nation’s coal cart isn’t serenely parked—it’s careening headlong towards a crash. What’s remarkable about coal’s contribution to electricity generation is not that it represents nearly a third of our supply—it’s that as recently as 2006, it made up more than half. Driving this precipitous fall is a confluence of factors, foremost among them an abundance of cheap natural gas, as well as limited load growth, and more recently, sky-rocketing rates of deployment of renewable resources like wind and solar.

4. Potato, potahto; one man’s beneficial byproduct, another man’s toxic waste site. Our nation is awash in the harmful coal mine outflow known as acid mine drainage—estimates suggest that in Pennsylvania and West Virginia alone, 10,000 miles of streams are affected—as well as a seemingly endless supply of coal ash (see above). Researching ways to clean up these environmental and public health catastrophes is good; calling them opportunities—and implying value in creating ever more—is a bad joke.

Let’s clean up what we’ve already spoiled, not set off to make an even bigger mess.

5. Clean coal? Beautiful, clean coal? Close your eyes, click your heels, and repeat after me [loudly, so EPA Administrator Pruitt can hear from his soundproof booth]: “There’s no such thing as clean coal. There’s no such thing as clean coal. There’s no such thing as clean coal.”

Poof! Welcome back to the sweet, sweet land of reality. Facts are hard, and sometimes even inconvenient, but they do have the distinct benefit of being true. So long as we’re still burning coal, yes, let’s do it as cleanly and efficiently as possible—we all benefit from that. But let’s not kid ourselves. Coal can be cleaner, but it’s not clean, and all the while the disproportionate burden of pollution from mining and burning coal too often falls on low-income and minority communities.

6. If we go all-in on “clean coal,” the only thing still going up is our pollution footprint. To forestall the worst of climate impacts, it’ll take a wholesale shift in our economy, including remaking our power sector to reach near-zero carbon. Given the urgent need to cut emissions, let’s get going with renewables today, which can go a long way toward getting the job done right here and right now—from stimulating the economy, to creating new jobs, to improving public health.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology—which aims to capture and store CO2 from burning coal—could eventually play a larger role if we can overcome the significant technological and cost challenges it currently faces. But remember: while CCS can make coal cleaner, it can’t alone take care of all the other lifecycle pollution baggage coal’s got.

And thus take note, all you dirty-stocking coal queriers out there: others can try to spin it all they want, but the hard truth for you is that coal you got? It’s no compliment. So take your lumps, and then let’s look ahead to smoother times next year: one driven by facts, pointing toward truths, and reckoning with the real challenges and real opportunities ahead.

The Next Big Step in Massachusetts Offshore Wind: The Bids are in

Something big to celebrate in the world of US offshore wind as 2017 winds down: We’ve just hit the deadline for proposals to build the first projects in response to Massachusetts’ pioneering 2016 energy diversity law. And the responses from the three holders of offshore wind leases off Massachusetts are in.

What’s on offer

More on the way! (Credit: J. Rogers/UCS)

Offshore wind is brand new in this country. So you could have bet that each new proposal would have a unique flavor. The proposals bear that out.

Deepwater Wind owns the title of First in the Water, with their five-turbine, 30-megawatt offshore wind farm near Block Island, RI, that went online in late 2016 as the first offshore wind farm in the Americas. For this Massachusetts move, they’ve partnered with National Grid Ventures and the Northfield Mountain pumped hydro storage facility in a project they’re calling Revolution Wind.

The partnership with the Northfield Mountain, located in north-central Massachusetts, Deepwater says, would mean that “offshore wind can act like a baseload resource,” supplying energy around the clock.

With National Grid Ventures, an affiliate of National Grid (one of the utilities tasked with buying offshore wind based on the 2016 law), Deepwater is looking to build a transmission backbone, enough capacity to move electricity not just from their own project, “but also future offshore wind farms, even if they’re built by [their] competitors.”

The Deepwater proposals would result in 200-400 megawatts of new offshore wind capacity. The company is aiming to start construction in 2022, for operation in 2023.

Vineyard Wind, a collaboration between a Danish fund management company (Copenhagen Investment Partners) and a subsidiary of a Spanish utility (Avangrid Renewables), is looking to supply half or all of the energy from a planned 800-megawatt project in its lease area. The company, according to Chief Development Officer Erich Stephens, is

…confident that its proposal… is the right approach for local residents and businesses eager to reap the abundant environmental and economic benefits that are associated with large-scale renewable and sustainable wind energy…

Vineyard Wind CEO Lars Thaaning Pedersen says the project “will serve as an accelerator for the local clean energy economy and green tech workforce…”

Both Copenhagen Investment Partners and Avangrid have strong offshore wind experience in Europe, directly or through affiliates, and Avangrid is one of the largest developers of land-based wind in the US.

The company is looking to start construction in 2019, and be online by 2021.

Bay State Wind, like Deepwater, is incorporating energy storage, but in the form of a 55 megawatt battery, which it claims will be “the largest battery storage system ever deployed in conjunction with a wind farm,” aimed at “helping to ensure power is available during peak hours when it is needed most.”

Like Vineyard Wind, Bay State Wind is offering 400-800 megawatts, which it says will allow it to “provid[e] energy at the lowest cost to consumers, all while bringing significant environmental and community benefits.”

Bay State Wind is a partnership between Danish power company Ørsted and Eversource Energy. Ørsted (formerly DONG Energy) is the owner of thousands of megawatts of offshore wind, developed the very first offshore wind farm in the world (in 1991), and is working on what will likely be the largest offshore wind project in the world. Eversource Energy is New England’s largest utility (and another of the offtakers for whichever projects win these bids).

What’s next

Three projects, lots of partners, decisions to make.

The state-approved process calls for “projects for negotiation” to be selected by May 22, 2018, for contract negotiations to be done by October 3, and for the utilities to submit their proposed contracts for approval by the department of public utilities by November 1.

Cost will certainly be one factor in the decision making, but far from the only one. The 2016 legislation, in fact, had a boatload of criteria for would-be projects, including:

(i) provide enhanced electricity reliability; (ii) contribute to reducing winter electricity price spikes; (iii) are cost effective to electric ratepayers in the commonwealth over the term of the contract… (vii) allow offshore wind energy generation resources to be paired with energy storage systems; (viii) where possible, mitigate any environmental impacts; and (xi) where feasible, create and foster employment and economic development in the commonwealth. 

It also required that preference be given “to proposals that demonstrate a benefit to low-income ratepayers in the commonwealth, without adding cost to the project.”

The wide variety of issues and opportunities will make sauce out of attempts to do apples-to-apples comparisons. Each proposal will likely offer appreciable advantages over others in one area or another.

The important thing, for now, is that, in our path to the eventual 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind that the law requires, we’ve passed the next big milestone for Massachusetts’s embrace of this incredibly exciting new technology. On to 2018.

¡La Lucha No Se Acaba!: La lucha Continúa por una Transición Justa de la Planta de Carbón de Crawford en La Villita

El 12 de agosto de 2017, nuestra organización, la Organización de Justicia Ambiental de La Villita (LVEJO por sus siglas en ingles, por sus siglas en inglés), celebró un encuentro en el parque La Villita en el vecindario de La Villita para celebrar el quinto aniversario del cierre de las plantas de carbón Crawford y Fisk en Chicago. Con miembros de la comunidad y líderes juveniles en asistencia, fue una oportunidad especial que tuvo LVEJO para recordar a muchos, todos los años de organización comunitaria y de formar coaliciones que tuvieron lugar, y para agradecer a viejos amigos y aliados del vecino vecindario de Pilsen quienes fueron esenciales en esta campaña. Con ritmos de cumbia comimos pastel, distribuimos literatura acerca de la Justicia Ambiental a los asistentes del parque(aprenda sobre los principios de justicia ambiental aquí), y disfrutamos viendo a nuestros niños romper una piñata y correr rápidamente por las golosinas que caían al suelo.

Líder juvenil de La Villita en el 5to aniversario del cierre de la planta de carbón Crawford (Crédito de la foto: Antonio López)

La conmemoración fue un momento agradable, pero también nos recordó que cinco años después La Villita sigue enfrentándose a serios desafíos de justicia ambiental, incluyendo una batalla difícil para reconstruir la planta de carbón de Crawford. De hecho, la comunidad es cada vez más vulnerable al aumento de las emisiones de diésel y muchos están preocupados por la gentrificación y el desplazamiento. A pesar de estas amenazas, los líderes de La Villita continúan luchando por una comunidad más sana y responsabilizar a los que tienen poder para que sigan principios de reconstrucción comunitaria equitativa. Como decimos en LVEJO, ¡la lucha no se acaba!

Una Transición Justa en la Planta de Crawford

Cinco años más tarde, la planta de carbón de Crawford sigue siendo un sitio poco acogedor en La Villita. A diferencia de muchas otras comunidades dependientes del carbón, La Villita no fue devastada económicamente por el cierre de la planta de carbón y la pérdida de puestos de trabajo. De hecho, Crawford contrató a muy pocos trabajadores de La Villita. Sin embargo, sabiendo que Crawford perjudicó la salud de la comunidad durante tanto tiempo y excluyó a la fuerza de trabajo local de empleos bien pagados, LVEJO está comprometida a ver llevar a cabo una transición justa en el lugar.

Una transición justa de la vieja planta de carbón significa para nosotros que los miembros de la comunidad estén profundamente involucrados en el proceso de reconstrucción y que el sitio eventualmente se convierta en un catalizador de mejor salud, acceso a trabajo y otras actividades económicas que beneficien a los residentes de largo tiempo. Situado en 72 acres de terreno creemos que hay una oportunidad significativa para transformar el sitio en un lugar que satisfaga múltiples necesidades identificadas por la comunidad, y sea una fuente de orgullo. Hemos escuchado claramente que nuestra comunidad quiere más espacios verdes, oportunidades de capacitación laboral, agricultura urbana y pequeñas empresas que sean culturalmente relevantes como Los Mangos. Puede parecer un sueño inalcanzable – y ciertamente hay muchos obstáculos – pero con un profundo apoyo de la comunidad realmente creemos que la transición justa de Crawford es posible.

Líderes juveniles de LVEJO continúan resaltando los daños a la salud comunitaria causados por Crawford (Crédito de la foto: LVEJO)

Desafíos para el Desarrollo

Entendemos que la reconstrucción de una vieja planta de carbón toma muchos años y no es fácil. Desafortunadamente, desde el cierre de Crawford, LVEJO ha tenido conocimiento de proyectos recientemente propuestos y planes de uso de terrenos que amenazan con quebrantar los avances en la calidad del aire por los que tanto luchamos.

Como La Villita tiene una ubicación centrada en Chicago y está muy cerca de las principales arterias de transporte, planificadores urbanos han designado a La Villita como un área para nuevos centros de transporte y de logística. Sin considerar el impacto en la salud de las emisiones de diésel en la comunidad alrededor, planificadores urbanos y concejales locales están rezonificando espacios industriales, aprobando proyectos de reurbanización y llevando a cabo planes de uso de terrenos que no toman en cuenta la incorporación de la justicia ambiental. En lugar de aprovechar las fortalezas y el sólido historial de ambientalismo en la comunidad, los responsables de tomar decisiones amenazan con hacer de La Villita una zona de sacrificio una vez más. Un ejemplo importante es el Proyecto de Expansión de Unilever.

Amenazas de Diésel/Unilever

La planta cercana de Unilever ha estado en el vecindario desde 1918, un testimonio del legado industrial heredado en el vecindario. En febrero de 2015, la planta de Unilever que produce la Mayonesa Hellman’s, anunció que aumentará la producción y generará 50 empleos locales adicionales en la fábrica. Pero estos trabajos tienen un costo. Hoy en día, las leyes de zonificación actuales permiten que una fábrica industrial tan grande como Unilever se expanda justo al lado de una escuela primaria de más de 1,000 niños e innumerables familias. Todos los días más de 100 camiones de diésel fluyen dentro y fuera de esta área. Basado en el estudio de tráfico de Unilever, habrá un aumento de hasta 500 camiones diésel que estarán fluyendo dentro y fuera del vecindario diariamente. Los camiones de motores diésel producen una gran cantidad de contaminantes de partículas finas que se han relacionado con el asma, las enfermedades respiratorias, y el daño general a los tejidos pulmonares. Los humos adicionales del diésel crearán peligros para la salud, aumentarán la incidencia de asma y de enfermedades relacionadas con el aire. Los niños son especialmente vulnerables. Debido a estas preocupaciones de salud, LVEJO ha lanzado una campaña de para educar a los miembros de la comunidad sobre los riesgos que el diésel plantea y hacer responsables tanto a las empresas como a quienes toman decisiones.

La Ley de Empleos en Energía del Futuro (Future Energy Jobs Act, o FEJA por us siglas en Inglés)

El fracaso de los planificadores de la ciudad y los funcionarios locales en aprovechar el cierre de la planta de Crawford para volver a desarrollar la comunidad de acuerdo con nuestras necesidades no ha detenido nuestros esfuerzos para organizar y defender una nueva economía libre de combustibles fósiles. LVEJO sigue luchando por la democracia energética y se opone vehementemente a las falsas soluciones al cambio climático.

LVEJO fue vital para la creación de una Ley de Empleos en Energía del Futuro (FEJA, por sus siglas en inglés) en Illinois que tuvo un amplio apoyo de coaliciones y de la comunidad. Críticamente, el liderazgo de LVEJO en la FEJA priorizó oportunidades de salud y justicia económica, incluyendo acceso a capacitación laboral y trabajos en energía limpia en las comunidades de bajos ingresos – una alta prioridad para todos los líderes comunitarios. FEJA incluye $33.25 millones en gastos anuales en programas de eficiencia energética para comunidades de bajos ingresos, el triple de niveles actuales de gasto en dichos programas en el estado de Illinois.

Esto sumado a millones de dólares comprometidos a aumentos en asistencia para cuentas de energía, ahorrarán dinero a las familias que luchan por pagar estas cuentas. LVEJO participó como arquitecto principal de políticas críticas en la legislación relacionadas con el servicio a comunidades de bajos ingresos, incluyendo la nueva Illinois Solar Para Todos (Illinois Solar for All), un programa de energía solar para comunidades de bajos ingresos con metas enfocadas en acceso para comunidades de justicia ambiental financiado con más de $400 millones.

El programa está emparejado con un canal de capacitación laboral que se centrará en el reclutamiento en estas mismas comunidades, con incentivos adicionales para contratar a 2.000 personas con antecedentes penales y egresados del sistema estatal de cuidado de crianza temporal.

Con la aprobación de la Ley de Empleos en Energía del Futuro, comunidades de bajos ingresos y comunidades racializadas y/o etnias minoritarias, como La Villita, tendrán oportunidades importantes de beneficiarse de los recursos comprometidos para construir una economía de energía limpia en el estado.

Kim Wasserman de LVEJO y Jerry Lucero de PERRO celebran el 5º aniversario del cierre de las plantas Fisk y Crawford en Pilsen y La Villita. Crawford está atrás de ellos. (Crédito de la foto: Antonio López)

¡No al Carbon! ¡Queremos Justicia Ambiental!

Además de asegurar que los programas de FEJA lleguen a comunidades de línea de frente y de bajos ingresos, la transición justa de la planta de carbón de Crawford es un objetivo principal de la Organización de Justicia Ambiental de La Villita. Creemos que el redesarrollo equitativo de la planta de Crawford puede destacarse como un modelo para otras comunidades de Justicia Ambiental que trabajan en iniciativas de transición justas.

De hecho, en todo el Medio Oeste de EE.UU. las comunidades de Justicia Ambiental están liderando la lucha para cerrar plantas de carbón, incineradores y otras fábricas contaminantes. La reconstrucción comunitario de la planta de Crawford no sólo beneficiará profundamente a La Villita, sino que también será un poderoso símbolo de justicia ambiental.

Major Job Losses in Renewable Energy if Current Tax Plan Passes

In March 2017, I testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on how federal tax credits for renewable energy have been a key driver for the recent growth in the US wind and solar industries, creating new jobs, income, and tax revenues for local communities.  They have also helped drive down the cost of wind and solar power by more than two-thirds since 2009, making renewable energy more affordable for consumers.

Originally enacted as part of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, Congress has extended the Production Tax Credit (PTC) seven times and has allowed it to expire on six occasions. This “on-again/off-again” status resulted in a boom-bust cycle of development in the wind industry. In the years following expiration, installations dropped between 76 and 93 percent, with corresponding job losses. Congress has also extended the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar several times.

Finally, after many years of this policy uncertainty, Congress passed a five-year extension and phase-down of the PTC and the ITC for wind and solar in December 2015. The legislation also removed the longstanding US oil export ban, as part of a compromise deal with the oil industry.

Unfortunately, the Senate and House tax bills would renege on this deal and change the rules midstream, resulting in major job losses across the US renewable energy industry. They would also jeopardize tens of billions in investments in renewable energy projects and manufacturing facilities in rural communities across America—many of which are in districts and states held by Republicans and that voted for President Trump.

Senate tax bill undermines renewable energy financing

The renewable energy industry initially praised an earlier version of the Senate tax bill, which honored the 2015 deal and did not make any direct changes to the PTC and ITC. However, the Senate made two last-minute changes to the bill to fill revenue gaps and build support from key Republicans that were concerned about the deficit that would have a significant impact on renewable energy projects.

Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT): One of these last-minute changes was to restore the AMT to fill a $40 billion revenue gap. The proposal in both the Senate and House tax bills to reduce the corporate tax rate to 20 percent would likely move most US corporations from the regular corporate income tax rate to the AMT (which is also set at 20 percent on a broader tax base), according to tax experts.

However, not all tax credits count toward the AMT and depreciation must be calculated at a slower rate. While the ITC for solar projects can count toward the AMT, the PTC for wind projects (and geothermal, biomass, landfill gas and incremental hydro projects) can only count for the first 4 years out of the 10-year window that projects are eligible to receive the tax credits. Not only would this jeopardize investment in new projects, it would have a retroactive impact on existing projects placed in service after 2007 that are still receiving tax credits under the PTC.

Base-Erosion Anti-Abuse Tax (BEAT): The Senate also made a last-minute change to the BEAT provision that could greatly reduce tax equity financing for renewable energy projects. BEAT would impose a tax on large corporations that make cross-border payments by requiring them to add those payments to their taxable income. This amount is then multiplied by 10 percent to determine what they owe to the government (except for banks and security dealers, which the Senate raised to 11 percent). These corporations must also calculate their regular tax liability minus any tax credits they receive, including the PTC and the ITC. If their adjusted tax liability is less than the fraction of their taxable income with the cross-border payments, the company would have to pay the difference to the IRS as a tax.

The more tax credits a company has, the more a company is likely to pay, making banks and other large tax equity investors reluctant to finance renewable energy projects. And like the AMT, the BEAT provision would not only impact financing for new projects but could have a retroactive effect on most existing projects that received tax equity financing.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) claims that the Senate bill could threaten $12 billion in annual tax equity financing in 2017, up from $7.3 billion in 2013 (see Figure). They estimate that tax equity financing accounted for 21 percent of the $58.5 billion in total US renewable energy investment in 2016.

The Senate tax bill would have a big impact on companies like JPMorgan, Bank of America, GE, US Bank, and Citigroup that led tax equity financing in 2016 for both wind and solar projects, as shown in this BNEF chart.

The BEAT provision would also hurt other energy sources that currently receive tax credits such as refined coal facilities placed in service by December 2011. The coal industry is also speaking out against the AMT, which Bob Murray claims will cost his company $50-60 million in increased taxes and eliminate 65,000 jobs.

House bill puts 60,000 wind industry jobs and $50 billion in new investment at risk

While the House bill does not include the AMT or BEAT provisions, it makes several direct changes to the PTC and ITC that would undermine investments in new wind and solar projects and have a retroactive impact on existing projects. These changes include:

  • Eliminating the inflation adjustment for the PTC, reducing its value by 38 percent from 2.4 c/kWh under current law to 1.5 c/kWh.
  • Changing the commence construction provision, dropping safe harbor provision, and requiring projects to have “continuous construction” to be eligible, which would greatly accelerate the PTC phase-down schedule. When combined with the change to the inflation adjustment, AWEA estimates these two provisions could reduce the value of the PTC by more than half.
  • Allowing the permanent 10 percent solar ITC to sunset in 2027.
  • Extending the tax credits to “orphan” technologies like geothermal, biopower, landfill gas, and incremental hydro that were largely left out of the 2015 deal to extend the tax credits for wind and solar for 5 years. This is the only positive change in the House bill.

The House bill would cut new wind development by more than half by 2020, according to both Bloomberg and Goldman Sachs. AWEA estimates that the House bill would put 30,000 MW of new wind projects that are under development in the US worth $50 billion of new private investment at risk, along with 60,000 jobs, as shown in this map.

Source: AWEA, Protecting American wind workers during tax reform.

Making renewable energy a priority in conference committee

The provisions in the House bill that renege on Congress’ 2015 compromise deal with the oil industry and drastically cut the value of the PTC are completely unacceptable and should be dropped. The AMT and BEAT provisions in the Senate bill should either be dropped (they are not included in the House bill) or renewable energy tax credits should be excluded—similar to how R&D tax credits are currently excluded from the BEAT provision.

House and Senate conferees were named last week. They will meet over the next two weeks to resolve key differences, with the goal of delivering a final bill to President Trump by the end of the year.

It is an ominous sign that Senator Grassley (R-IA), a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, was left off the conference committee. As the father of the PTC, who represents a state that ranks second in installed wind capacity, he has been outspoken about honoring the 2015 deal and working to fix the problems in the Senate and House tax bills. “The wind energy production tax credit is already being phased out under a compromise brokered in 2015. It shouldn’t be re-opened,” Grassley said.

Pro-renewables Senators like Grassley and Susan Collins (R-ME) will have a tough vote to make on the Senate floor if these damaging provisions are not addressed in conference. Maine, for example, has over 900 MW of existing wind capacity and nearly 300 MW of new solar and wind under development that is potentially at risk.

But there are conferees who represent states with large renewable energy industries, and they are in unique position to make the changes necessary to keep that clean energy momentum going.

  • Conferees like Senator Thune and Representative Noem from South Dakota, where a wind turbine blade manufacturer from Aberdeen just announced they will be closing and laying off over 400 people, citing the federal tax bills as one of reasons for this decision. “It’s apparent that the new tax bill will cause some economic disruption and this is one of them,” according to Aberdeen Mayor Mike Levsen. “It’s what happens when government policies turn against industries. It discourages investment.” South Dakota also has 960 MW of wind projects currently under development, representing $1.6 billion in new investment, that is at risk.
  • Senator Murkowski (R-AK) has also said that fixing the BEAT and AMT provisions in the Senate bill will be “clear priorities” for lawmakers in conference
  • Senator Portman (R-OH) is from a state with a strong renewable energy supply chain, including 5,831 solar jobs at 189 companies and more than 2,000 jobs and 61 manufacturing facilities in the wind industry. Ohio also has 560 MW of new wind projects under development and $900 million in new investment that is at risk.
  • Other conferees from leading renewable energy states such as Texas, California, Illinois, Washington and Oregon would also experience significant job losses.

The US renewable energy industry has a proven track record of creating new jobs and making new investments in states and rural areas across America. Federal tax reform should encourage rather than discourage US investment in this rapidly growing global industry.

Make sure your members of congress know clean energy is important to you. Tell them to fix the AMT and BEAT provisions, and to leave the renewable energy tax credits alone.

The Future of Solar is in the President’s Hands. It *Should* Be an Easy Call

Installing solar panels in PA Photo: used with permission from publicsource.org

The saga of the would-be solar tariffs that just about nobody wants is continuing, and I can’t help but be struck by the disconnect between some of the possible outcomes and the administration’s purported interest in rational energy development for America. If President Trump believes what he says, deciding not to impose major tariffs shouldn’t be a tough decision.

Here’s the thing: in March 2017, the president issued an executive order about “undue burdens on energy development,” which said (emphasis added) that it was:

Solar’s future: Progress or pain? It’s his call.

…in the national interest to promote clean and safe development of our Nation’s vast energy resources, while at the same time avoiding regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, and prevent job creation.

Encumbering, constraining, preventing. Remember those verbs as we go through some of the key facts of this case.

The players

The trade case, brought by two US solar panel manufacturers that are on the rocks, or whose foreign parents are, involves a little-used (and failure-prone) provision in the US tax code. And it has met with almost universal rejection, from a whole host of industry, political, security, and conservative and really conservative voices (Sean Hannity, anyone?).

Even the US International Trade Commission (USITC) tasked with making recommendations in response to the petition couldn’t agree, with the four commissioners coming up with three different proposals.

As we said at the time, on the one hand it was good that the USITC recommendations weren’t as drastic as what the petitioners had asked for. On the other hand, anything that slows down our solar progress is bad news for America.

The (pre-Trump) progress

Solar has been on an incredible trajectory for years now, producing energy, cutting pollution, increasing energy security, and helping homes and businesses. The first nine months of 2017, for example, saw solar producing 47% more electricity than in the same period of 2016, with the biggest gains among the top 10 states for solar generation being in Georgia, Texas, and Utah.

Solar has also been an incredible job-creating machine. Some 260,000 people worked in the solar industry by the end of 2016, almost 2.5 times 2011’s solar job count. One in every 50 new American jobs last year was created by the solar industry. And those have been in different pieces of the industry—R&D, manufacturing, sales, project development, finance, installation—and all across the country.

The problem and presaging

Credit: J. Rogers

Some of those gains have taken place during the Trump presidency, and maybe he can rationalize taking credit for them by pointing out the fact that he at least didn’t stop those good things from happening.

That benign neglect may be about to change, though, and we’re already seeing the effects of the uncertainty that the president’s rhetoric around issues of solar and trade has created.

The trade case has continued. While not part of the specified process for this type of proceeding, the White House invited the public to submit comments to the US trade representative, and recently held a public hearing.

The next deadline is January 26, the end of the period for President Trump to make up his mind about the USITC recommendations—accepting one of the sets of proposals, doing something else, or rejecting the idea of tariffs and quotas.

In the meantime, the effects are already hitting: Utility-scale solar costs had dropped below $1 per watt for the first time in history earlier this year. Now those costs have climbed back above that mark as developers have scrambled to get their hands on modules ahead of whatever’s coming.

Large-scale solar projects are faltering (as in Texas) because of the inability of developers and customers to absorb the risk of substantially higher solar costs. That’s investment in projects on American soil, on hold.

But those setbacks could be just a taste of what’s to come.

The point: Encumbering, constraining, preventing

That brings us back to the March executive order, which boldly professed an intention to do away with burdens holding back US industry, and was decided anti-interventionist (in the regulatory sense).

And yet here we are, a few short months later, talking about doing that exact thing—messing with the market, and going against our national interests. Encumbering energy production by driving up the costs of the cells and modules that have powered so much growth. Constraining economic growth by making it harder for American homes and businesses and utilities to say yes to solar. Preventing job creation—even causing job losses—by shrinking the market for what our nation’s vibrant solar industry has been offering so successfully.

Credit: J. Rogers

The pain

While provisions in the tax bill being worked out in congress would do no good for renewables, the president’s actions could have much more direct impacts on American pricing and competitiveness. A lot of smart people are pointing out that any bump-up in US solar module manufacturing jobs will be way more than offset by job losses elsewhere in the industry, including elsewhere in solar manufacturing.

If the president chooses to ignore the many voices clamoring for rational policy on this, if he chooses—and remember he alone can fix this—to impose major tariffs or quotas, he’s going to own their impacts.

Every net American job lost because of higher module prices will have his name on it.

Every US solar panel manufacturer that doesn’t magically take off behind his wall of protectionism will be evidence of the misguideness of his approach.

Every small or large US solar project cancelled—jobs, investments, and all—because of the speedbumps, roadblocks, and hairpin turns on his energy vision-to-nowhere will be a Trump-branded monument to his lack of foresight and unwillingness to accept the changing realities of energy, innovation, and ingenuity.

The path

The solar industry, though, has offered President Trump a way out. They’ve proposed an import licensing fee approach that would support expanded US manufacturing while letting solar continue to soar (all else being equal).

That’s fortunate for the president, and for just about all of the rest of us. Because if he’s truly about unencumbering energy production, about removing constraints to economic growth, and stopping the prevention of job creation, killing American solar jobs would be a funny way to show it.

Public Source

New Transmission Projects Will Unleash Midwestern Wind Power—And Save Billions

As we look ahead to our clean energy future, a key piece of the puzzle is building the transmission system that will carry utility-scale renewable energy from where it’s generated to where it’s consumed. A recent study from the Mid-Continent Independent System Operator (MISO) shows that, when done right, transmission projects integrated with renewable energy can pay huge dividends. They decarbonize our electricity supply, improve efficiency, and lower costs to the tune of billions of dollars in benefits to electricity customers.

A long journey to get it right

Transmission projects can cost-effectively accelerate our clean energy transition. But it must be done right with proper planning, stakeholder engagement, and diligent analytics.

Ensuring long-term investments in our transmission system provide benefits to customers is a lengthy process. Beginning in 2003, MISO—which operates the electricity transmission system and wholesale electricity markets across much of the central US—began to explore a regional planning process that would complement the local planning and activities of the utilities, states, and other stakeholders operating in its territory.

After several years of scoping, planning, analysis, and legal wrangling, a set of 17 “multi-value” transmission projects (MVPs) were approved in 2011 based on their projected ability to (1) provide benefits in excess of costs, (2) improve system reliability, and (3) provide access to renewable energy to help meet state renewable energy standards.

Even six-plus years after being approved, most of these projects are currently under construction since transmission projects typically take several years to move through the approval process, permitting, siting, and construction. But even as these projects are being developed, MISO has continued to evaluate them based on the most recent information available—making sure that they are still expected to deliver the benefits originally projected.

The most recent review, fortunately, shows that they are truly living up to their “multi-value” moniker. And like a fine wine, they seem to be getting better with time.

Latest review shows benefits increasing compared to original projections

Overall, the latest review shows a benefit to cost ratio ranging from 2.2 to 3.4—meaning these projects are expected to deliver economic benefits on the order of $2.20 to $3.40 for every dollar in cost. This is an increase over the original projection of a cost benefits ratio of 1.8 to 3.0. The latest cost/benefit analysis equates to total net economic benefits between $12.1 and $52.6 billion over the next 20 to 40 years. The figure below shows how the multiple values projected from these projects add up.

The chart above shows the categories – and projected value – of benefits (columns one through 6) that MISO considers in identifying and approving projects. When stacked up, the total benefits range from $22.1 to $74.8 billion. When total costs are also considered, net benefits (the last column on the right) to the MISO System and customers that rely on it drop to between $12 and $52.6 billion. Source: MISO

As shown in the figure, the bulk of economic benefits flowing from the MVPs are from relieving congestion and saving on fuel costs (shown in column 1). These are typically characterized as increasing “market efficiency” by opening up wholesale electricity markets to more robust competition and spreading the benefits of low-cost generation throughout the region—essentially allowing cheap energy to flow where there’s demand. Because renewable energy has zero fuel cost, enabling more of it onto the grid allows the overall system to operate more cheaply. These savings ultimately flow to ratepayers that are typically on the hook for fuel costs incurred by their utility.

And the amount of wind energy that is being brought onto the system because of these MVPs is significant. This latest review by MISO estimates that the portfolio of projects, once completed, will enable nearly 53 million megawatt-hours of renewable energy to access the system through 2031. To put that in perspective, a typical home uses about 10 megawatt-hours per year. So that’s enough energy to power 100,000 households for more than 50 years!

A lot more than just electricity

When put together, the combination of well-thought-out transmission investments and renewable energy development in the Midwest also provides a host of additional social benefits, including:

  • Enhancing the diversity of resources supplying electricity to the system
  • Improving the robustness of the transmission system that decreases the likelihood of blackouts
  • Increasing the geographic diversity of wind resources, thereby improving average wind output to the system at any given time
  • Supporting the creation of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in local investment
  • Reducing carbon emission by 13 to 21 million tons annually

Let’s think about this for one second more…

Through proper planning, stakeholder engagement, and diligent analytics, here in the Midwest we are building a portfolio of transmission projects that will significantly lower carbon emissions, enable billions of dollars in investment and thousands of new jobs, make our electricity supply more reliable, and provide billions in economic benefits to ratepayers.

Maybe we should think about it for one more second. Or maybe we should start thinking about what’s next?

Source: MISO

Why You Shouldn’t Feel Bad About Recycling Old Appliances

Let’s face it: Deep down inside you, or maybe much closer to the surface, you’ve been wanting a new refrigerator, dishwasher, washer, or dryer. You’ve had your eye on that sweet little white/black/stainless beauty of a machine, and you’ve seen the holiday sales (pick a holiday, any holiday) come and go, with their “Save $200!… Free delivery!… Act now!” enticements… And yet you’ve stayed on the sidelines.

If what’s been holding you back is concern about what happens to old appliances, landfills and all, I’ve got great news for you: Chances are good that you’re better off if you upgrade, because energy efficiency progress means you can save plenty of money—and that all of us are also better off because that progress means your upgrade also cuts emissions, even when you take the bigger picture into account.

New appliances make financial sense

It should be really clear that new appliances can save you a bunch of money by saving energy (and more). Federal efficiency standards for fridges that came into place in 2014 meant electricity savings of 20-25% for most, and units qualified under the ENERGY STAR program offer at least another 9% savings.

For washing machines, ENERGY STAR-rated ones use 25% less energy and 45% less water than their conventional brethren, which means less money spent on both energy and water. Upgrading from a standard washing machine that’s 10 years old can actually save you more than $200 a year.

New appliances make environmental sense, too

So that’s the financial side of things. And we both know that’s important.

But we also both know that you’re about much more than that. You’re thinking about how that dishwasher doesn’t just magically appear, about how the old one doesn’t just vanish. You’re thinking about the implications from each stage of its life. So what about the carbon emissions, you say.

Thinking about what goes into producing and disposing of something makes a lot of sense, as long as you’re thinking about what goes into operating that same something during that long period between production and disposal (the life of the product).

And it makes even more sense to use data to help that thinking. (You’re a Union of Concerned Scientists type of person, after all; you just can’t help it.)

Fortunately, we’ve got that. Cooler Smarter, UCS’s book on where the carbon emissions come from in our lives—which of our consumer decisions have the most impact on how much CO2 we emit—has just the data you need. (In the appendices; we didn’t want to scare off other people.)

And what Cooler Smarter’s data tables show is that the emissions associated with producing and disposing of a range of appliances add up to less than the emissions associated with their use. A lot less actually: Using them can take 10-25 times as much energy as getting them there and getting rid of ‘em.

Getting Cooler Smarter about where the emissions come from, with data. Turns out that “Use Emissions” are usually the big piece. (Source: Cooler Smarter)

What that means is that if you can upgrade an appliance to one that’s more efficient, and particularly if your existing helper is more than a few years old, it’s probably really worth it not just from a financial perspective, but also in terms of carbon pollution.

That same principle, by the way, holds true for other energy users around your house: think lighting, for instance, where CFLs (compact fluorescent lights) or even newer LEDs (light-emitting diodes) in place of incandescent light bulbs can really quickly save you a bundle and pay back the emissions that went into make them. Or think vehicles, where recent years’ efficiency gains have been really impressive.

As it says in Cooler Smarter:

When there are highly efficient options for appliances, equipment, and vehicles, for instance, it almost always makes sense to junk energy hogs in favor of the most efficient models you can afford.

Four decades of progress in a box: Bigger fridges, more features, a lot less energy. (Source: ACEEE)

Old appliances can be reborn

For the disposal piece of the carbon equation, one key to making the math work for an appliance’s afterlife is to dispose of it the right way. While photos of piles of old appliances might be eye-catching—and disheartening—your old faithful dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, or fridge doesn’t have to suffer that ignominious end.

In fact, it’s a whole lot better if it doesn’t, and there are lots of ways to make it so. ENERGY STAR has a useful set of webpages on recycling old appliancesrefrigerators, clothes washers, other appliances, and more. It suggests, for example, that recycling can be through the store you’re buying the new appliance from, through your local utility, through your city or town, or via a scrap dealer.

How your old fridge gets new life (with the help of a Hammond B3 organ soundtrack) (Source: ENERGY STAR)

As for where the old appliance goes/how the materials find new life: Fridges are a useful, complex array of materials that provide useful insights (and fodder for graphics). ENERGY STAR has a handy video about all the pieces and how they get reborn. (The shredding part about two-thirds of the way through isn’t for the faint of heart, particularly the appliance-loving heart, but just remember that it’s all for the greater good.) And the efficiency program in top-ranked Massachusetts not only gives the lowdown on fridge recycling (and a cool infographic), but offers free removal and $50 to boot.

That new-life-for-old idea can work for other things, too. If it’s lights you’re swapping out, here are a few ideas on what to do with old incandescent light bulbs (sock-darning, for example). For vehicles, check out UCS’s cradle-to-grave analysis.

Don’t you deserve lower costs, more comfort, less pollution, more…?

A new washer and dryer set might not fit under the Christmas tree, but that shouldn’t keep you from upgrading. Neither should concerns about what happens to the old one, or where the new one comes from.

As Cooler Smarter‘s section on “stuff we buy” lays out, there’s a lot to be said for buying less, and buying smart. But efficiency gains change the equation for some things.

If you feel you deserve new appliances, you just might be right. And if you think that upgrading to much higher efficiency ones and recycling the old might be a good move, you’d definitely be right.

Energy efficiency truly is the gift that keeps on giving, for both the wallet and the planet.

So act now—retailers are standing by!

Pruitt’s War on the Planet and the EPA—and What Congress Can Do About It

We have now endured almost a year with Scott Pruitt as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). His tenure is unprecedented—a full frontal assault on the agency he heads, and a retreat from the mission he is charged by law to advance. And thus far, Administrator Pruitt has not had to account for his actions.

But an accountability moment is nearing: for the first time since his nomination, Mr. Pruitt will appear before Congress to offer an update on the status of work at the agency—first before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on December 7, and next before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on January 31. These oversight hearings offer a critical opportunity for leaders on both sides of the aisle to ask tough questions, demand responsive information rather than platitudes, and voice their disapproval about how Administrator Pruitt has run the EPA.

Here are key topics for our elected representatives to focus on:

Mr. Pruitt’s empty “back to basics” promise

During his nomination hearing last January, Administrator Pruitt knew he would be questioned about his commitment to EPA’s mission and his repeated lawsuits against EPA when he served as Oklahoma’s attorney general. He came equipped with a clever counter-narrative. He claimed that he would make EPA a more effective agency by de-emphasizing “electives” such as climate change. He promised to steer the agency “back to basics” by focusing on core responsibilities such as enforcing clean air and water laws and cleaning hazardous waste sites.

Members of Congress should compare that promise to Administrator Pruitt’s actions over the past year. Almost immediately after taking office, he signed off on a budget that would cut EPA by 31 percent, despite the absence of any financial exigency requiring such draconian action. A few weeks later, he approved plans to lay off 25 percent of the agency’s employees and eliminate 56 programs. The proposed budget cuts target not only items Pruitt may think of as electives, but also basic bread-and-butter functions. For example, he proposed to strip $330 million from the $1.1 billion Superfund program and cut funding for the Justice Department to enforce cases.

And, in a clear contradiction of his testimony that he would work more cooperatively and effectively with state environmental protection agencies, he proposed to cut the grants that EPA gives to states for enforcement by 20 percent.

We are already starting to see the results of this effort to hollow EPA out from within. Experienced and talented career staff are leaving the agency in droves. The Chicago EPA office, for example, has already lost 61 employees “who account for more than 1,000 years of experience and represent nearly 6 percent of the EPA’s Region 5 staff, which coordinates the agency’s work in six states around the Great Lakes.” This means, among other things, a smaller number of inspectors and likely an increased number of businesses operating out of compliance with clean air and water laws.

With less staff and fewer experienced staff members, it is no surprise that EPA has seen a roughly 60 percent reduction in the penalties it has collected for environmental violations compared with the Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations at comparable stages in their respective terms. And while the Obama administration cleaned up and de-listed 60 hazardous waste sites and added 142 sites over eight years, so far the EPA, under Mr. Pruitt, is far off that pace, deleting just two sites and adding only seven.

Perhaps most troubling, civil servants have been deeply demoralized by the combination of proposed cuts and constant statements by the president and Administrator Pruitt denigrating the agency as a job killer, which it is not. As one staffer said in a recent publication entitled EPA under Siege “I think there’s a general consensus among the career people that, at bottom, they’re basically trying to destroy the place.”

Said another: “Quite honestly, the core values of this administration are so divergent from my own, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity [for retirement]….I found it difficult to work for an agency with someone who is so disrespectful of what we do and why we do it.”

Members of Congress should question Mr. Pruitt about his “back to basics” promise. They should ask why he advocated for such deep budget cuts, layoffs, and buyouts, and demand that he explain with specificity how the agency can possibly do better with such drastically reduced resources. Congress should also require Mr. Pruitt to provide clear, apples-to-apples comparisons of the record of environmental enforcement during his tenure with that of his predecessors, as measured by inspections, notices of violation, corrective actions, fines and litigation.

Administrator Pruitt’s “Law and Order” charade

Administrator Pruitt put forth a second narrative during his confirmation hearing. He promised  to restore “law and order” to EPA, claiming that the EPA had strayed beyond its statutory authority during President Obama’s tenure.

The record tells a very different story. In less than a year, Mr. Pruitt’s actions have repeatedly been found by courts to be “unlawful,” “arbitrary,” and “capricious.”

One example is particularly instructive. At the end of the Obama administration, the EPA issued a final rule requiring operators of new oil and gas wells to install controls to capture methane, a highly potent contributor to global warming. The rule was set to go into effect in early 2017. Administrator Pruitt unilaterally put the rule on hold for two years to allow EPA to conduct a sweeping reconsideration. This, the court found, was blatantly illegal, because it attempted to change the compliance date of a rule without going through the necessary rulemaking process.

Unfortunately, this tactic has become a pattern, as Mr. Pruitt has sought to put on hold many other regulations he doesn’t care for, including rules intended to reduce asthma-causing ozone pollutiontoxic mercury contamination in water supplies, and a requirement that state transportation departments monitor greenhouse gas emission levels on national highways and set targets for reducing them. Environmental nonprofit organizations and state attorneys general have had to sue, or threaten to sue, to stop this illegal behavior.

The EPA’s lawlessness is not confined to official acts, but also concerns the administrator personally. In an obvious conflict of interest, Mr. Pruitt played a leading role in the EPA’s proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the nation’s first-ever limit on carbon dioxide pollution from power plants. Yet, just a few months before taking over at the EPA, Mr. Pruitt had led the legal fight against the rule as Oklahoma’s attorney general.

In effect, he played the role of advocate, then judge and jury, and ultimately executioner, all in a matter of a few months.

In addition, Administrator Pruitt is under investigation for misusing taxpayer dollars for $58,000 worth of private chartered flights, and has wasted $25,000 of taxpayer money to build himself a secret phone booth in his office.

Congress needs to ask Mr. Pruitt how he can be said to have restored respect for the law at the EPA, when the EPA (and perhaps Administrator Pruitt personally) have been flouting it. They need to ask him about what role he played in the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, and how he can square his conflicting loyalties to the state of Oklahoma (which he represented as an attorney) and to the American people (who he is supposed to represent as head of the EPA). Congress should also investigate his personal use of taxpayer funds and his penchant for cutting corners on legally mandated processes.

An “Alice in Wonderland” approach to science

The EPA’s five decades of success rest on its longstanding commitment to the best available science, and to its well-trained professional scientists who deploy that science. Administrator Pruitt has taken a wrecking ball to this scientific foundation.

First, he ignores staff scientists when their conclusions do not support his deregulation agenda. On the crucial scientific question of our time—climate change and what is causing it—Mr. Pruitt says he does not believe carbon dioxide is a primary cause. Of course, this statement runs directly counter to the conclusions of EPA scientists (as well as those of the recently issued US Global Change Research Program Climate Science Special Report). And, in one of his first policy decisions, Administrator Pruitt overturned EPA scientists’ recommendation to ban a pesticide (chlorpyrifos) that presents a clear health risk to farmers, children, and rural families.

But Mr. Pruitt is not only ignoring staff scientists, he is also sidelining and suppressing advice from highly credentialed and respected scientists who advise the EPA. Last summer, he sacked most of the members of the Board of Scientific Counselors, a committee of leading scientific experts that advises the EPA about newly emerging environmental threats and the best use of federal research dollars. And he has used this as an excuse to suspend the board’s work indefinitely.

More recently, he issued a new policy which states that a key outside Science Advisory Board will no longer include academic scientists who have received EPA grants in the past, under the purported theory that the grants render them less objective. Yet, Administrator Pruitt will fill these posts with industry scientists who are paid exclusively by industry, and with scientists who work for state governments that receive grants from the EPA. This new policy has enabled Mr. Pruitt to fill these boards with scientists who are clearly aligned with industry, scientists such as Michael Honeycutt, who has railed against EPA limits on soot and even testified before Congress that “some studies even suggest PM [particulate matter] makes you live longer.”

Administrator Pruitt’s attack on science also includes the EPA deleting vital information from agency websites. For example, the EPA has deleted key information about the Clean Power Plan, even though the agency is in the middle of a public comment process on whether to repeal that rule, and what to replace it with. The EPA has also eliminated information on the “social cost of carbon” and the record of its finding that the emission of greenhouse gases endangers public health.

These deletions seem designed to make it more difficult for the scientific community, and members of the public, to access the scientific information that stands in the way of Mr. Pruitt’s agenda.

Congress needs to probe deeply on these multiple ways that Administrator Pruitt has diminished the role of science at EPA. Representatives and senators should make him explain why he thinks he knows more about climate science and the harms of pesticides than his scientists do. They should demand that he explain why it is a conflict of interest for academic scientists who receive EPA grants to advise the EPA, but not for state and tribal scientists who receive these grants, or industry-paid scientists. And Congress must find out why so much valuable information about climate science, the social cost of carbon, and other matters have vanished from EPA websites.

Making the world safe for polluters

In December 2015, more than 190 countries, including the United States, approved an agreement in Paris to finally tackle the greatest challenge of our time—runaway climate change. Donald Trump pledged to pull the United States out of this agreement when he ran for office, but for six months into his term, he did not act on the pledge, and there was an internal debate within his administration.

Mr. Pruitt led the charge for the US withdrawal from that agreement. He has followed up on this by going after almost every single rule the Obama administration had put in place to cut global warming emissions. This includes the proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the “re-opening” of the current fuel economy standards that are now on target to roughly double cars’ fuel efficiency by 2025, the repeal of data gathering on methane emissions from oil and gas facilities, and tampering with how the EPA calculates the costs of carbon pollution, among many other actions.

But Administrator Pruitt’s rollback of safeguards is not limited to climate-related rules; it also includes cutting or undermining provisions that protect us all from more conventional pollutants. He has started the process of rescinding rules that limit power plants from discharging toxic metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead into public waterways; regulate the disposal of coal ash in waste pits near waterways; and improve safety at facilities housing dangerous chemicals.

The breadth and ferocity of these rollbacks is unprecedented. Congress needs to push back hard. For starters, representatives and senators need to demand that Mr. Pruitt explain how it fits within his job duties to lobby the president against one of the most important environmental protection agreements ever reached. Similarly, they need to highlight the impacts on human health and the environment from all of the rollbacks that Administrator Pruitt has initiated, and force him to explain how the EPA can be advancing its mission by lowering environmental standards.

Congressional oversight is needed now more than ever

Many aspects of Mr. Pruitt’s tenure are truly unprecedented. However, he’s not the first EPA administrator to display fundamental disrespect for the agency’s mission. As one legal scholar has noted, during the Reagan administration there were “pervasive” congressional concerns that former Administrator Anne Gorsuch and other political appointees at the agency “were entering into ‘sweetheart deals’ with industry, manipulating programs for partisan political ends, and crippling the agency through requests for budget reductions.”

Congressional oversight back then was potent: among other things, Congress demanded that the EPA hand over documents about the apparently lax enforcement of the Superfund law requiring cleanups of hazardous waste sites. When the EPA head refused to comply with those demands, Congress held Administrator Gorsuch in contempt. Senators, including Republicans such as Robert Stafford and Lincoln Chaffee, publicly voiced their alarm. Eventually, President Reagan decided Ms. Gorsuch was a liability, and he replaced her with William Ruckelshaus, EPA’s first administrator under President Nixon, and a well-respected moderate who stabilized the agency.

These oversight efforts were “the decisive factor in causing Ms. Gorsuch, as well as most of the other political appointees at the agency, to resign.”

It may be too much to expect that the current, polarized Congress will exhibit the same level of tough, bipartisan oversight it did in the Reagan era. Yet, bipartisan support for vigorous environmental protection remains strong today and some Republican leaders have already called upon Administrator Pruitt to step down. It is high time for Congress to do what it can to ensure that Mr. Pruitt’s EPA does not continue to put the interests of a few industries ahead of the clean air, water, and lands that the agency is mandated to protect.

Which States are Most Energy-Efficient? Here are the Latest Results

Adding insulation to your attic is an effective step to improve the efficiency of your home, save money, and cut carbon emissions.

Autumn makes me think of leaves colored orange and amber and red, of the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg wafting from a range of desserts… and of states vying for top honors in the annual state ranking of energy efficiency policies and progress.

The leaves are mostly done, and the desserts are in my belly. But the latest ranking from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy is out and available, and ready for sampling. It’s always a beautiful sight and a tasty treat.

Energy efficiency – Why and how?

Energy efficiency is already one of the main tools we use for meeting new energy demand. Why it makes sense as a tool is clear, as the new report says:

[Energy efficiency] creates jobs, not only directly for manufacturers and service providers, but also indirectly in other sectors by saving energy and freeing up funds to support the local economy. Efficiency also reduces pollution, strengthens community and grid resilience, promotes equity, and improves health.

The annual scorecard “ranks states on their efficiency policies and programs, not only assessing performance but also documenting best practices and recognizing leadership.” ACEEE does that by looking at a range of metrics that are shaped by each state’s efforts:

  • Utility and public benefits programs and policies
  • Transportation policies
  • Building energy codes and compliance
  • Combined heat and power (CHP) policies
  • State government–led initiatives around energy efficiency
  • Appliance and equipment standards


ACEEE state energy efficiency scorecard rankings, 2017

Who’s on top?

The highlighted states include some familiar faces plus a few new ones. The top states were the same in 2017 as in 2016, and highlighted the strong focus on efficiency in certain parts of the country:

  • Massachusetts took the top spot for the seventh straight year, and stood alone at the top (after tying with California for 2016 honors). Northeast states also took third (Rhode Island), fourth (Vermont), sixth (Connecticut), and seventh (New York).
  • The West Coast states garnered high marks, too, taking second (California), fifth (Oregon), and seventh (Washington).
  • The Midwest also made a good showing, at ninth (Minnesota) and eleventh (Illinois and Michigan, tied).

ACEEE makes a point of calling out some “most improved” states, too, and this year that brought in states from other parts of the country:

  • Idaho was the most most improved, jumping up seven spots and landing it in the middle of the pack—its best performance, says ACEEE, since 2012—due to investments in “demand-side management”, increased adoption of electric vehicles, and building energy code improvements.
  • Florida gained three spots in part due to its work on energy efficiency for the state’s farmers.
  • Its work to strengthen building energy codes in the state helped Virginia move up four notches.

The savings add up. (Source: ACEEE state energy efficiency scorecard)

How do states take it to the next level?

No state got a perfect score, ACEEE points out, so every state has room for improvement. Fortunately, they offer a few tips on how to make that happen:

  • Establish and adequately fund an energy efficiency resource standard (EERS) or similar energy savings target.
  • Adopt policies to encourage and strengthen utility programs designed for low-income customers, and work with utilities and regulators to recognize the nonenergy benefits of such programs.
  • Adopt updated, more stringent building energy codes, improve code compliance, and involve efficiency program administrators in code support.
  • Adopt California tailpipe emission standards and set quantitative targets for reducing VMT [vehicle miles travelled].
  • Treat cost-effective and efficient CHP [combined heat and power] as an energy efficiency resource equivalent to other forms of energy efficiency.
  • Expand state-led efforts—and make them visible.
  • Explore and promote innovative financing mechanisms to leverage private capital and lower the up-front costs of energy efficiency measures.

But we’re making progress, and leading states are demonstrating what a powerful resource energy efficiency is.

And with a federal administration that seems determined to move backward on clean air and water by propping up coal, and backward on climate action, that state action on clean energy is more important now than ever.

So congrats to the efficiency leaders among our states, and thanks.


I’m About to Testify at the EPA. Here’s What I Have to Say….

Photo credit: Sanjay Suchak.

After a restful and enjoyable time with my family over the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve extended my stay here in Charleston, West Virginia, to testify at the Environmental Protection Agency’s hearing on its proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan. I’ll be speaking tomorrow morning. Below are my prepared remarks.

Testimony of Dr. Jeremy Richardson at EPA’s Public Hearing on Repealing the Clean Power Plan, on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists

Remarks as Prepared

I stand before you today as the brother, son, and grandson of West Virginia coal miners. And at the same time, I am also a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, where I focus on the US power sector and how the clean energy transition already underway can help us address the urgent threat of climate change. As you might imagine, we have interesting discussions at our house over Thanksgiving!

Like so many others here today, my family has helped keep the lights on in this country for generations—and also like many of you, I’m deeply proud of that history. And yet, things are changing—fast. My research confirms something you probably already know: coal has become increasingly uneconomic compared with cheaper, cleaner forms of energy like natural gas and renewable energy—and this market trend is going to continue.

But these days it feels like facts don’t matter—and that’s very disturbing to a scientist like me. So, just for the record, allow me to state some things that are true and obvious, but seem to have been forgotten in the rhetoric around these issues.

First, coal miners and coal communities are suffering. The job losses experienced—especially over the last five to ten years—have been devastating for families and communities. But—the primary driver of the decline of coal is economics. Coal can no longer compete with cleaner and cheaper ways to generate electricity—largely natural gas, with renewables increasingly beating coal in some parts of the country. And coal mining jobs have been declining since the middle of the last century because of mechanization, the shift to cheaper, large-scale surface mining operations out West, and geologic realities that have led to declining productivity in Appalachian coal mines. It is easy to blame the policies of the last president for all of coal’s problems, but it simply isn’t true.

Second, it is the job of the Environmental Protection Agency to protect human health and the environment. It is not the job of the EPA to protect the coal industry. In fact, the EPA is bound by law to address air and water pollutants from producing and using coal. Many of these pollutants are hurting the health of communities right here in Appalachia, where acid mine drainage and coal ash contaminate our waterways, and are also causing harm around the country where people live downwind from coal-fired power plants. The EPA is also legally required by the Clean Air Act to curtail global warming emissions from power plants because science shows that climate change poses risks to our health and the health of future generations.

This brings me to my third point, that climate change is real, period. It is primarily caused by human activities—including the burning of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil. Despite what you may have heard or read, this is not disputed by any expert on the issue. The recently released National Climate Assessment special report confirms what we already knew—we are observing the impacts of climate change now, and left unchecked it will likely get much worse. And importantly, we can still avoid some of the worst consequences—if we act fast.

The Clean Power Plan was an important step toward reducing emissions from one of the largest sources of US carbon emissions. Nationally, it also would have provided significant economic and public health benefits by lowering other pollutants and encouraging growth in the renewable energy industry. That is why I am here today to voice UCS’ opposition to the repeal of the Clean Power Plan.

My dad, who is a retired longwall maintenance foreman believes that climate change is real. He also understands that coal represents good paying jobs for our state. So do I.

When I left behind my previous research in astronomy more than 10 years ago, I did so because I was deeply passionate about addressing the threat of climate change. The truth is, the often-vilified environmental activists are worried about climate change because of its impacts on people. For me, I don’t really care about what happens to the polar bears—but the reality of melting ice is truly a canary in the coal mine, and the potential impacts on humans and human civilization are deeply frightening.

According to the latest scientific assessment, sea levels are expected to continue to rise by at least a few more inches in just the next 15 years, and from 1 to 4 feet or more by 2100. Tidal flooding in communities along the US East and Gulf Coasts has increased in recent decades, and is expected to get much worse in the coming decades. An analysis by Climate Central finds that depending on emissions level, between 147 and 216 million people worldwide are at risk of living on land that is below sea level in 2100. And that may be a conservative estimate, based on current population estimates and data limitations, and the authors suggest the number may be much higher—around 300 to 650 million people.

Heavy rainfall is increasing in both intensity and frequency across the United States, with the largest increases observed in the Northeast region, which includes West Virginia. Changes in extreme precipitation can lead to catastrophic flooding, like the state experienced during the historic floods of June 2016.

Even as I changed careers, I recognized that we must reduce emissions to address climate change—and that means changing how we produce energy. But I have been wrestling with a nagging question—what does a low carbon future mean for a place like West Virginia, a place I still call home?

The challenge before us is that we must figure out how to solve both problems—bringing down carbon emissions so that we protect people all around the world who are facing the impacts of climate change, and simultaneously investing in new economic opportunities in the very places where people depend on coal for their livelihoods.

As a start, we must increase federal spending targeted at economic development and economic diversification in coal country. If the current administration really cared about coal communities, it would be doubling down on those investments, not cutting federal programs, like the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Economic Development Administration, that support communities here and around the region.

I am here to tell you that it’s time we tone down the rhetoric on this issue. It’s not as if there was a “war on the horse and buggy” a hundred years ago. No, something better came along: the automobile.

Today we are seeing solar panels go up on homes and businesses right here in West Virginia, no thanks to state policies, but rather due to some intrepid business leaders who see the future and want our state to be a part of it. We need to collectively support those efforts, not because we’re anti-coal, but because we deserve to be a part of the clean energy economy that is emerging all around us.

This hearing, and this entire process to derail action to address climate change, are distracting us from the real work at hand.

We must not only work to protect the planet’s climate through strong carbon standards, but also ensure that we invest in workers and communities to spur new economic opportunities right here in the heart of Coal Country.

I do not accept that this is an “either-or” proposition.

The Union of Concerned Scientists stands ready to do its part.

Thank you.

Dr. Jeremy Richardson

Senior Energy Analyst, Union of Concerned Scientists