UCS Blog - Clean Energy (text only)

Key Messages on US Offshore Wind, in 5 New Quotes

Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried/UCS

The annual offshore wind conference of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) last week felt even more energized (and energizing) than usual, now that we have offshore wind turbines actually spinning in US waters. Here are five takeaways in quotes from conference speakers that capture where we find ourselves at this moment in clean energy history.

1.      “Our energy challenges are economic development opportunities.”

This quote, from Kevin Law, the president and CEO of the Long Island Association (a chamber of commerce), really struck me as a beautiful when-life-gives-you-lemons-make-lemonade kind of approach to offshore wind.

As Mr. Law pointed out, Long Island, being an island, is surrounded by water. (No, really.) Their particular position on the Eastern seaboard means that frequent storms are an issue. Combine those with an aging power plant fleet and myriad impacts on power infrastructure from climate change, and you’ve got good reason for doing things differently.

Credit: J. Rogers

Offshore wind is totally up for that. For Mr. Law, this new-fangled approach to making electricity reliably and nearby suggests a real opportunity. Not just for what offshore wind could mean in terms of jobs and related economic development, but also for what it could contribute to keeping the lights on when more storms come.

2.     “It all comes back to signposting and visibility.”

If Mr. Law’s quote was a taste of what offshore wind can do for states and regions, the quote from Jonathan Cole of wind developer Iberdrola Renewables was a hint about how—how the offshore wind industry will most effectively get costs down and get projects online.

It comes down, in part, to letting developers and manufacturers know what we expect of them and where we want to head together: signposts, and visibility. As a 2016 study on offshore wind costs put it,

The key… is making a firm commitment to scale so the market can do its work. By providing market visibility—the State’s commitment to a pipeline of projects over a set period—the offshore wind industry in the U.S. can deliver energy costs on the kind of downward trajectory seen in Europe.

This was the argument we and many others made in pushing for strong offshore wind commitments in Massachusetts last year.

All up and down the East Coast (and beyond), we want industry players to see their way clear to investing in those states, in this country, in ways that help bring down the costs—by setting up shop here, in one form or another, and by relying less over time on materials brought in from other, established offshore wind markets, for example.

3.     “We’ve got a great message.”

This quote, from AWEA President Tom Kiernan, is right on—and, like the two previous ones, also about economic development. And more.

In so many ways, this is a technology that practically sells itself. Or would, if people had all the facts about it—the jobs potential, the manufacturing options, the energy potential, the proximity to where so many of us need the power, the compatibility with fishing and other uses of our country’s Outer Continental Shelf—and if costs keep dropping so impressively. It is a great message.

AWEA Offshore Wind 2017

4.     “We think this is a race we can win.”

The conference was held in New York City, and the keynote speaker was NY Lt. Governor Karen Hochul. And the lt. governor threw down the gauntlet, in no uncertain terms.

The race she was talking about wasn’t the contest between us and the increasing effects of climate change. It was about the race to become the center of America’s offshore wind activity, or even the world’s.

Lt. Gov. Hochul laid out three reasons why New York will serve as the “preeminent global hub” for offshore wind in this country. According to her: wind is not a political issue in New York (it enjoys bipartisan support), the Empire State embraces innovation, and the state is laying down the building blocks (“smoothing the road for you”), with the forthcoming New York Offshore Wind Master Plan that they previewed at the conference.

Credit: J. Rogers

Good arguments, all. But Massachusetts isn’t yielding. At the same conference the Bay State unveiled a new study of ports and infrastructure—in particular, waterfront properties “that could be acquired and potentially improved through private investment to become suitable facilities for a number of offshore wind activities.” And don’t think they’re thinking about those facilities serving only Massachusetts markets…

Maryland isn’t ceding ground, either, or Rhode Island—first-to-offshore-wind Rhode Island—or New Jersey (once they have a new governor), or…

While some cooperation will be useful to make sure that activities in different states complement each other to the extent possible, that competition can be a powerful motivator.

5.     “There is a transition… ongoing and we all should be part of it.”

This quote is from Michael Olsen of Statoil Wind US, the company developing the newly named “Empire Wind” farm off NYC and Long Island, and it sums it up. Offshore wind is happening, with more than 14,000 megawatts of offshore wind outside the US, in 13 countries and two continents. The 30 megawatts installed last year off Rhode Island was part of an 18% increase in wind farm capacity globally in 2016. And there’s lots more on the way.

For American jobs, for American energy, for American security, for our environment… we should indeed be part of it.

Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried/UCS

Memo to EPA Chief Pruitt: End Subsidies for Fossil Fuels, Not Renewables

Economically and environmentally, it would be far better for the future of the planet to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and provide more incentives for clean energy. Photo: Union of Concerned Scientists

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt recently proposed eliminating federal tax credits for wind and solar power, arguing that they should “stand on their own and compete against coal and natural gas and other sources” as opposed to “being propped up by tax incentives and other types of credits….”

Stand on their own? Pruitt surely must be aware that fossil fuels have been feasting at the government trough for at least 100 years. Renewables, by comparison, have received support only since the mid-1990s and, until recently, have had to subsist on scraps.

Perhaps a review of the facts can set administrator Pruitt straight. There’s a strong case to be made that Congress should terminate subsidies for fossil fuels and extend them for renewables, not the other way around.

A century (or two) of subsidies

To promote domestic energy production, the federal government has been serving the oil and gas industry a smorgasbord of subsidies since the early days of the 20th century. Companies can deduct the cost of drilling wells, for example, as well as the cost of exploring for and developing oil shale deposits. They even get a domestic manufacturing deduction, which is intended to keep US industries from moving abroad, even though—by the very nature of their business—they can’t move overseas.

All told, from 1918 through 2009, the industry’s tax breaks and other subsidies amounted to an average of $4.86 billion annually (in 2010 dollars), according to a 2011 study by DBL Investors, a venture capital firm. Accounting for inflation, that would be $5.53 billion a year today.

The DBL study didn’t include coal due to the lack of data for subsidies going back to the early 1800s, but the federal government has lavished considerably more on the coal industry than on renewables. In 2008 alone, coal received between $3.2 billion and $5.4 billion in subsidies, according to a 2011 Harvard Medical School study in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Meanwhile, wind and other renewable energy technologies, DBL found, averaged only $370 million a year in subsidies between 1994 and 2009, the equivalent of $421 million a year today. The 2009 economic stimulus package did provide $21 billion for renewables, but that support barely began to level the playing field that has tilted in favor of oil and gas for 100 years and coal for more than 200.

A 2009 study by the Environmental Law Institute looked at US energy subsidies since the turn of this century. It found that between 2002 and 2008, the federal government gave fossil fuels six times more than what it gave solar, wind, and other renewables. Coal, natural gas, and oil benefited from $72.5 billion in subsidies (in 2007 dollars) over that seven-year period, while “traditional” renewable energy sources—mainly wind and solar—received only $12.2 billion. A pie chart from the report shows that 71 percent of federal subsidies went to coal, natural gas and oil, 17 percent—$16.8 billion—went to corn ethanol, and the remaining 12 percent went to traditional renewables.

A new study by Oil Change International brings us up-to-date. Published earlier this month, it found that federal subsidies in 2015 and 2016 averaged $10.9 billion a year for the oil and gas industry and $3.8 billion for the coal industry. By contrast, the wind industry’s so-called production tax credit, renewed by Congress in December 2015, amounted to $3.3 billion last year, according to a Congress Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) estimate.

Unlike the fossil fuel industry’s permanent subsidies, Congress has allowed the wind tax credit to expire six times in the last 20 years, and it is now set to decline incrementally until ending in 2020. Similarly, Congress fixed the solar industry’s investment tax credit at 30 percent of a project’s cost through 2019, but reduced it to 10 percent for commercial projects and zeroed it out for residences by the end of 2021. The JCT estimates that the solar credit amounted to a $2.4-billion tax break last year. Totaling it up, fossil fuels—at $14.7 billion—still received two-and-a-half times more in federal support than solar and wind in 2016.

The costs of pollution

Subsidy numbers tell only part of the story. Besides a century or two of support, the federal government has allowed fossil fuel companies and electric utilities to “externalize” their costs of production and foist them on the public.

Although coal now only generates 30 percent of US electricity, down from 50 percent in 2008, it is still responsible for two-thirds of the electric utility sector’s carbon emissions and is a leading source of toxic pollutants linked to cancer; cardiovascular, respiratory, and neurological diseases; and premature death. The 2011 Harvard Medical School study cited above estimated coal’s “life cycle” cost to the country—including its impact on miners, public health, the environment and the climate—at $345 billion a year.

In July 2016, the federal government finally began regulating the more than 1,400 coal ash ponds across the country containing billions of gallons of heavy metals and other byproducts from burning coal. Coal ash, which has been leaching and spilling into local groundwater, wetlands, creeks, and rivers, can cause cancer, heart, and lung disease, birth defects and neurological damage in humans, and can devastate bird, fish, and frog populations.

But that was last year. Since taking office, the Trump administration has been working overtime to bolster coal, which can no longer compete economically with natural gas or renewables. Earlier this year, it rescinded a rule that would have protected waterways from mining waste, and a few months ago it filed a repeal of another Obama-era measure that would have increased mineral royalties on federal lands. More recently, Energy Secretary Rick Perry asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to ensure that coal plants can recover all of their costs, whether those plants are needed or not.

Natural gas burns more cleanly than coal, but its drilling sites, processing plants, and pipelines leak methane, and its production technique—hydraulic fracturing—can contaminate water supplies and trigger earthquakes. Currently the fuel is responsible for nearly a third of the electric utility sector’s carbon emissions. Meanwhile, the US transportation sector—whose oil-powered engine exhaust exacerbates asthma and likely causes other respiratory problems and heart disease—is now the nation’s largest carbon polluter, edging out the electric utility sector last year for the first time since the late 1970s.

Like the coal industry, the oil and gas industry has friends in high places. Thanks to friendly lawmakers and administrations, natural gas developers are exempt from key provisions of seven major environmental laws that protect air and water from toxic chemicals. Permitting them to flout these critical safeguards forces taxpayers to shoulder the cost of monitoring, remediation, and cleanup—if they happen at all.

The benefits of clean energy

Unlike fossil fuels, wind and solar energy do not emit toxic pollutants or greenhouse gases. They also are not subject to price volatility: wind gusts and solar rays are free, so more renewables would help stabilize energy prices. And they are becoming less expensive, more productive, and more reliable every year. According to a recent Department of Energy (DOE) report, power from new wind farms last year cost a third of wind’s price in 2010 and was cheaper than electricity from natural gas plants.

Perhaps the biggest bonus of transitioning to a clean energy system, however, is the fact that the benefits of improved air quality and climate change mitigation far outweigh the cost of implementation, according to a January 2016 DOE study. Conducted by researchers at the DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the study assessed the impact of standards in 29 states and the District of Columbia that require utilities to increase their use of renewables by a certain percentage by a specific year. Called renewable electricity (or portfolio) standards, they range from California and New York’s ambitious goals of 50 percent by 2030 to Wisconsin’s modest target of 10 percent by 2015.

It turns out that it cost utilities nationwide approximately $1 billion a year between 2010 and 2013—generally the equivalent of less than 2 percent of average statewide retail electricity rates—to comply with the state standards. On the benefit side of the equation, however, standards-spawned renewable technologies in 2013 alone generated $7.4 billion in public health and other societal benefits by reducing carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter emissions. They also saved consumers as much as $1.2 billion by lowering wholesale electricity prices and as much as $3.7 billion by reducing natural gas prices, because more renewable energy on the grid cuts demand—and lowers the price—of natural gas and other power sources that have higher operating costs.

Take fossil fuels off the dole

If the initial rationale for subsidizing fossil fuels was to encourage their growth, that time has long since passed. The Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank, published a fact sheet in May 2016 identifying nine unnecessary oil and gas tax breaks that should be terminated. Repealing the subsidies, according to CAP, would save the US Treasury a minimum of $37.7 billion over the next 10 years.

An August 2016 report for the Council on Foreign Relations by Gilbert Metcalf, an economics professor at Tufts University, concluded that eliminating the three major federal tax incentives for oil and gas production would have a relatively small impact on production and consumption. The three provisions—deductions for “intangible” drilling costs, deductions for oil and gas deposit depletion, and deductions for domestic manufacturing—account for 90 percent of the cost of the subsidies. Ending these tax breaks, Metcalf says, would save the Treasury roughly $4 billion a year and would not appreciably raise oil and gas prices.

At the same time, the relatively new, burgeoning clean energy sector deserves federal support as it gains a foothold in the marketplace. Steve Clemmer, energy research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, made the case in testimony before a House subcommittee last March that Congress should preserve wind and solar tax incentives beyond 2020.

“Until we can transition to national policies that provide more stable, long-term support for clean, low-carbon energy,” he said, “Congress should extend federal tax credits by at least five more years to maintain the sustained orderly growth of the industry and provide more parity and predictability for renewables in the tax code.” Clemmer also recommended new tax credits for investments in low- and zero-carbon technologies and energy storage technologies.

Despite the steady barrage of through-the-looking-glass statements by Trump administration officials, scientific and economic facts still matter. Administrator Pruitt would do well to examine them. Congress should, too, when it considers its tax overhaul bill, which is now being drafted behind closed doors. If they did, perhaps they would recognize that—economically and environmentally—it would be far better for the future of the planet to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and provide more incentives for clean energy.

Up Close with America’s New Renewable Energy: Experiencing the Now-ness of Offshore Wind

Block Island Wind Farm. Photo: E. Spanger-Siegfried

On a recent clear day, colleagues and I hopped on a boat for a look at our nation’s energy future. From right up close, offshore wind turbines make quite an impression. The biggest impression, though? That the future of energy… is actually right now.

Seeing is believing

The boat tour gave us a chance to be out on the water in the vicinity of the turbines of Rhode Island’s Block Island Wind Farm, the first offshore wind facility in the Americas. And what first stood out in that trip was… well, the wind turbines.

Block Island Wind Farm: Seeing is believing. Photo: J. Rogers.

Sight. Yes, these things are no shrinking violets. The mechanical engineer in me is drawn inexorably to the stats that define that heft, facts about the size of each the five 6-megawatt turbines that make up the wind farm. About the lengths/heights—of the towers (360 feet up from the ocean’s surface), the foundation (90 feet down to the seabed, then 200 feet beyond), the blades (240 feet from hub to tip). About the weight—1500 tons for the foundation, 800 more for the tower, the nacelle (the box up top), and the blades.

The poet in me, if there were one, would wax lyrical (and poetical) about the visuals of the trip. I can at least say this: I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this beholder was quite taken with the towering figures just feet away as we motored by, and, as far as I could tell, my fellow travelers/beholders shared that sentiment.

The turbines don’t just look solid and mechanical and useful. They look like art—graceful, kinetic sculptures rising from the briny depths.

Beyond seeing, and seeing beyond

This tour wasn’t just about seeing, though. With a trip this exciting, you want to bring multiple senses to bear, and so we did.

Offshore wind power – Big, bold, beautiful, and ready for its close-up. Photo: E. Spanger-Siegfried.

Sound. Surprisingly, given the size of each installation, sound was not really a piece of the turbine-gazing experience. That is, I could maybe hear the blades turning, but only barely, over the noise of the ship’s engine and, particularly, over the sound from the very wind that was exciting those blade rotations.

Scent. The scent on the water was of the sea air, which I don’t normally get and which I’d welcome any day. When you get close enough to see the bolts and welds on the foundations and towers, though, these wind turbines smell like jobs.

The workmanship that went into these marvels is clear. Looking at each, you can easily imagine the workers, local, abroad, and in-between, that made this possible.

While many of the major components for this first-in-the-nation wind farm came from factories in established offshore wind farm markets, it was welders in Louisiana who gave birth to the foundation, using manufacturing skills wisely transferred from the offshore oil/gas industry. And the pieces all came together courtesy of ironworkers, electricians, and more in Rhode Island—some 300 local workers, says project developer Deepwater Wind.

Offshore wind admirers. Photo: J. Rogers.

Touch. Much as I would have enjoyed getting right on the turbines (and maybe even on top?), our passage by understandably left us a few tens of feet short of that. (Next time.)

But my fellow travelers and I were clearly touched by the experience of seeing such power right up close, could easily feel the transformative energy of each turbine.

Taste. That leaves one more sense. This trip wasn’t just about the taste of the salty air. It communicated the sense that what we got on the water on that recent fall day was just a taste of what’s to come. Maybe, then, we can couple that with a sixth sense: a sense of optimism.

Because it’s hard to stand there on the rising-falling deck, with the sun, the wind, and the sea spray, with those powerful sculptures so close by, and not get a sense that you’re witnessing a special something. A something that goes beyond five turbines, big as they are, and beyond 30 megawatts and the 17,000 homes that they can power. A sense that’s there much more beyond.

One of the local leaders from the electricians union (IBEW) captured this beyond idea well in talking about the project from the point of view of jobs, and the economic development potential of this technology:

Offshore wind: The future is present. Photo: J. Rogers.

“The real prize was not the five turbines… The real prize is what’s going to come.”

When it comes to offshore wind turbines, the what’s-to-come seems as big and powerful as each turbine multiplied many-fold. We seem poised for so much more, not just abroad, but right here at home.

A video of the Block Island project from proud project financier Citi can get you close to this particular project, and this cool 360 version of the turbines courtesy of the New York Times can get you even closer (just hold on tight!).

But for readers in this country, the fact that we’re poised for much more means that a chance to visit a wind farm in waters near you could be coming soon.

And if you do get there, use as many senses as you can. Offshore wind power is an experience worth getting close to, and opening up to.

The print version of Citi’s Block Island promotion includes the tagline “On a clear day you can see the future”. But getting up close to offshore wind turbines makes it clear that this particular energy technology is here and now. That it’s so ready for the big time. That yesterday’s energy future is today’s energy present.

So go ahead, on clear days, or cloudy, rain or shine: See, hear, smell, touch, and taste that energy-future-in-the-present. And celebrate.

In New Mexico, Facing the Question of What Comes After Coal

Photo: WildEarth Guardians/Creative Commons (Flickr)

Change is coming to New Mexico.

As recently as 2011, coal accounted for more than 70 percent of in-state electricity generation; now it’s under 60 percent, and falling fast. Coal simply cannot compete in the face of cleaner, cheaper resources coming online.

But with this change comes opportunity. New Mexico has a chance now, before its coal plants and coal mining operations have closed, and before jobs have been lost, to chart an intentional path toward a clean energy future that is considerate of both the benefits and challenges that such a transition will bring. By committing to an energy plan dominated by renewables, policymakers in the state can secure good jobs, significant capital investment, and a brighter, cleaner, and healthier world for all New Mexicans.

And as highlighted in our new analysis, Committing to Renewables in New Mexico: Boosting the State’s Economy, Generating Dividends for All, this can all be achieved while keeping costs for consumers affordable, and electricity service reliable.

Recognizing the imminent transition ahead

In New Mexico, it is no longer a question of whether the state’s coal plants will retire, but when. This past summer, the state’s largest utility, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), concluded that its most cost-effective portfolio of resources was the one that was entirely coal free. From a company that had been just a year prior staunchly defending its need to keep coal plants running, this announcement marked a stunning turn.

The question that follows, though, is what gets built to fill the gaps?

New Mexico has a nearly unparalleled array of renewable resource potential available to it, from strong and steady winds, to countless days of uninterrupted sun, to ready access to geothermal. These incredible resources mean that for the state, developing clean energy is particularly cost-competitive. And project developers have been flocking to New Mexico in response—right now, more than 1,800 MW of wind are under construction or in advanced stages of development.

The trouble is, a number of these clean energy projects and the ones that have preceded them have been built to serve out-of-state customers, not New Mexicans. Slowly the state’s utilities have been awakening to the cost-saving potential of investing in these resources themselves. But that interest is threatened to be overshadowed by some utility calls for a much larger buildout of natural gas.

Critically, our analysis shows that a growing dependence on natural gas would be short-sighted, and not in the best interest of consumers.

Studying the horizon, and finding all signs point to renewables

We set out to understand the different electricity pathways the state could take as coal plants retire and new resources are brought online to replace them. We found that no matter how you slice it, the least-cost future is one characterized by a high level of renewables. Indeed, with or without a strengthened renewable policy in place, our research found that renewables—and not natural gas—provided the best deal for consumers and the New Mexican economy.

So why the need for a policy, when the market suggests either way leads to green?

Because these market-based findings run counter to some utility plans in the state, which propose to keep building out natural gas over time. A policy commitment to a high-renewables future, on the other hand, makes sure that these clean energy opportunities are diligently considered and pursued.

And what incredible opportunities they are.

When we modeled steadily strengthening the state’s existing renewable portfolio standard (RPS) from its current target of 20 percent by 2020 to 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040, we found that the policy could ensure the achievement of widespread benefits for New Mexicans, including:

  • Photo: Ozturk/iStock.

    Significant capital investment, on the order of $6 billion between 2016 and 2030 and $7.2 billion between 2017 and 2040, funding the development of 2,200 megawatts (MW) of wind and 870 MW of solar by 2030, and total on-the-ground capacity reaching 3,650 MW of wind and 3,900 MW of solar in 2040.

  • Investments in wind and solar driving the creation of nearly 2,400 new direct, indirect, and induced jobs in construction, operations, maintenance and other related fields by 2030, as well as the annual potential for $9.5 million in land-lease payments by that time.
  • The affordability of electricity costs for consumers, with typical monthly electric bills for households in most years lower than they were in 2016.
  • Cleaner air leading to improved health—savings from the reduction in SO2 and NOx health effects alone could total approximately $305 million by 2030—and reduced water consumption on the order of 90 percent from coal plant retirements.

It’s clear that when the state commits to a clean energy future, the benefits and opportunities are significant, and long-lasting.

Good policy is needed to point the way

In New Mexico, when it comes to strengthening the state’s existing RPS, the goal is not to pick winners—it’s to ensure that winners will be picked. It’s also about defending against the alternative, where a growing dependence on natural gas risks saddling ratepayers long into the future with the costs of stranded assets, or infrastructure that would be abandoned before it had been paid off due to the country’s inevitable shift away from fossil fuels.

Last legislative session, SB 312 was introduced to strengthen the RPS, as modeled in this analysis. The effort ultimately stalled, but it’s expected to be revisited in future sessions. Policymakers would do well to take the time between to strongly consider how such a policy can leverage the investment benefits of regulatory certainty, and how that can help keep utilities pushing forward with clean energy progress.

Photo: Mr.TinDC/Creative Commons (Flickr).

At the same time, achieving a clean energy future in New Mexico requires more than any single policy can deliver. For example, the simultaneous strengthening of the state’s energy efficiency resource standard would bring down costs across the board.

An increased focus on demand-side solutions, such as broader implementation of time-varying electricity rates and targeted guidance to shift loads like through the electrification of hot water heaters, can similarly ease the integration of high levels of renewables.

So too can energy storage, as well as a proactive planning process to ensure that necessary transmission expansions are supported. Participation in broader energy markets can help balance loads, and save customers money. Finally, focused attention must be devoted to worker retraining, and developing viable and vibrant economic futures for communities currently dependent on coal.

Opportunity awaits. Policymakers have the chance to be proactive and actualize that positive potential now, and they should—not just for the benefit of New Mexicans today, but also for decades to come.

Pruitt Puts Coal Before Children

Photo: Rushlan Dashinsky/iStockphoto

In announcing his abandonment of the Clean Power Plan, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt boasted, “The war on coal is over.”

That means the war on children has begun.

The irony is particularly cruel because a draft copy of Pruitt’s repeal order says with a straight face that it complies with President Clinton’s 1994 environmental justice executive order protecting vulnerable populations.  The order says it is “unlikely to have disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority populations, low-income populations and/or indigenous peoples.” For further insult, the home page of EPA’s website has a banner at the bottom declaring that October is Children’s Health Month. “Children are often more likely at risk from environmental hazards,’ the banner read. “Find ways you can protect children from environmental risks.”

Pruitt is increasing the risks and making a mockery of the agency’s name in throwing out the CPP proposed by former President Obama to curb carbon emissions that harm both climate and health. Using Voodoo Economics 2.0, Pruitt claims repeal will save Americans $33 billion in needless industrial compliance.

The reality is that even without the CPP, which Pruitt helped hold up in the courts when he was attorney general of Oklahoma, renewable energy is a powerhouse that already dwarfs the supposed savings of CPP repeal. Its growth is being felt in red states, blue states, and purple states alike. Nationwide, the trade association Advanced Energy Economy estimates that the sectors of energy efficiency, solar and wind power add up to a $108 billion industry.

The $33 billion in total industrial savings boasted by Pruitt are obliterated by the annual benefits of up to $34 billion a year in better health from the cleaner air delivered by the CPP. The EPA projected 3,600 less premature deaths a year, along with 1,700 less heart attacks, 90,000 less asthma attacks and 300,000 less missed workdays and school days. An independent analysis two years ago by eight researchers, including scientists from Harvard, Syracuse and Boston universities published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found there would be about 3,500 fewer premature deaths with the cleaner air proposed by Obama. Their study concluded:

“Carbon standards to curb global climate change can also provide immediate local and regional health co-benefits.” The researchers found that in the scenario closest to the Clean Power Plan, most of the states with the highest health benefits are also those that burn the most coal to generate electricity. Some of those same researchers last year published a study on the financial benefits in the online science journal PLOS One. They found that the CPP would result in $38 billion in annual net health and social benefits. The study said, “The health co-benefits gained from air quality improvements associated with climate mitigation policies can be large, widespread, and occur nearly immediately once emissions reductions are realized.”

The health implications are so widespread it indeed constitutes an environmental justice issue. The Department of Health and Human Services says Latino children are 40 percent more likely to die from asthma attacks than white children. And among all racial groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African American children have the highest rate of asthma, one in six, and had the highest rise in asthma from 2001 to 2009, 50 percent.

The benefits are also economic for the parents of these children. For instance, Latino workers are particularly vulnerable to the hotter temperatures of climate change as, according to the Department of Labor, they constitute 42 percent of construction laborers up to 75 percent of farm field workers.

But make no mistake, Pruitt’s repeal has the potential to hurt everyone. In response to Pruitt’s repeal of the CPP, an editorial Tuesday in the Portland Press Herald, a leading newspaper in the very white state of Maine, said, “Maine children have some of the highest rates of asthma in the nation, partly as a result of our position downwind from the power plants in the Midwest and Great Lakes states, putting young lungs at the end of the nation’s tailpipe.”

Unfortunately, this is hardly the first decision Pruitt has made in his first half year running the EPA that puts children in harm’s way. He has reversed the ban on chlorpyrifos, a pesticide known to be associated with reduced brain function in children. He is reviewing or pledging to reverse other Obama-era rules designed to curb water pollution and toxic chemical spills.

In his press release Tuesday, Pruitt claimed he was “reinstating transparency into how we protect our environment.” All he actually did was clarify his role as a puppet of fossil fuel, at the utter expense of the health of the nation’s children. When the Obama administration proposed the Clean Power Plan, the health benefits to children were at its center.

The word “children” is not uttered once in Pruitt’s official announcement of repeal.

What’s the Real Story on the Future of Coal?

With everything going on in the world, and our current political environment here in the United States, doesn’t it feel like we’re all talking past each other these days? It feels particularly poignant to me as the brother, son, and grandson of West Virginia coal miners—and as a scientist working on clean energy policy, and I’m not alone. If you’ve been following news around energy and climate change, or last year’s presidential election, you’ve probably heard a lot about coal and coal miners. Here I’ll try to cut through some of the rhetoric and offer some clear fact-based insights, drawing on a new analysis (and podcast) that the Union of Concerned Scientists just released called, A Dwindling Role for Coal: Tracking the Electricity Sector Transition and What It Means for the Nation. It’s a national analysis of the economic viability of coal-fired power plants in the United States, along with a series of four community snapshots to illustrate a few aspects of how that complex transition (which simultaneously benefits people through improved public health and potentially threatens people’s livelihoods) has played out or may play out on the ground.

It’s all about economics

The analysis tracks the changes in the nation’s fleet of 1,256 coal-fired electric generating units from 2008 to 2016, and, building on previous UCS work, identifies which of the 706 currently operating units are more expensive to run than cleaner alternatives. We conclude that 57 GW of coal capacity are uneconomic compared to existing natural gas, on top of another 51 GW of coal capacity that are already slated for retirement or conversion to another fuel (mostly natural gas). All told, that amount of capacity (108 GW) represents 38 percent of the nation’s coal generating capacity that was operating at the end of 2016.

Read that again: more than one-third of the nation’s coal-fired electricity is either already slated to go offline or is more expensive to operate than existing natural gas plants.

What’s driving this fundamental shift in the electricity sector since 2008? In a word: economics. Market forces are the main driver—in the form of low natural gas prices, flattening electricity demand, and rapidly declining costs of renewable energy. All those environmental regulations you hear politicians talk about? They’re playing a minor role compared to market trends in the power sector. In fact, our determination of uneconomic coal units didn’t even consider the cost of installing missing pollution control equipment.

Check out the interactive map below that shows the operating coal fleet in 2016 and what might happen to it in the future. The results are summarized in a short fact sheet, and our methodology and assumptions are detailed in a technical appendix.

Wait, how much?

More than a third of the coal fleet sounds like a lot, right? Looking at the slider map above, two things jump out at you: there are a lot of green dots (units that are uneconomic compared to existing natural gas) and many of those green dots are in the Southeast.

The first thing to know is that there’s no danger of the lights going out any time soon. The planned retirements will occur over a number of years, and the people whose job it is to think about this stuff don’t foresee any issues with reliable electricity at least through 2021, even in light of these planned retirements. And secondly, for those units that we find to be uneconomic, decisions about their ultimate fate will be made by states and utilities—hopefully in consultation with affected communities and workers—and any decisions to close down plants would occur over years and be done in such a way as to avoid blackouts. How do we know that? Because 452 coal generating units—totaling almost 60 GW—closed from 2008 to 2016 without any risk to reliability.

So, what are the cleaner, cheaper options to replace coal?

Coal is one of the most polluting ways to generate electricity, so a shift away from coal is a tremendous benefit to public health. What comes online to replace the lost coal generation really matters for our health and our climate.

Given the widespread availability of cheap natural gas, it’s no surprise that we found the highest number of coal units to be uneconomic compared to existing natural gas facilities. But even though it produces much less air pollution and somewhat lower global warming emissions than coal, natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and a complete shift from coal to natural gas would make it nearly impossible to meet our long-term carbon emissions reduction goals to address the very real threat of climate change (to say nothing of the very real impacts happening today with very real implications for people). That’s why at UCS we have frequently raised concerns about a risk of an overreliance on natural gas for electricity.

Our analysis therefore also identifies which coal units are uneconomic compared to new wind and solar facilities (see Figure A3 from the technical appendix). As the cost of these renewable resources continues its dramatic decline, we can expect many more coal units to face increasing competition from renewables. Our colleagues at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy took a look at our numbers and found that there is a compelling case to be made for renewables to replace some uneconomic coal plants in the Southeast.

What about the impacts on people living near and downwind from these coal plants?

As part of our national analysis, we gathered information on the population and demographics of people living within a three-mile radius of each coal-fired generating unit that we identified as operating in 2008.  What we found was striking: this transition away from coal has led to a dramatic reduction in the total number of people living near an operating coal plant. Between 2008 and 2016, the number of people living within three miles of an operating coal plant fell from about 8.5 million to about 3.3 million. That number could fall further to around 1.5 million if all the uneconomic units we identified plus the units that are already slated for retirement or conversion also stop burning coal.

It’s important to emphasize that this transition away from coal dramatically improves public health and well-being. The people living closest to coal plants experience the most harmful effects from pollution—and they are often minority and low-income communities. Our snapshot from Chicago highlights how one community fought back and won—but continues to fight for environmental justice.

We have made available a downloadable spreadsheet containing plant-level data, the results of our economic stress test, and information on the number of low-income and minority residents living nearby each plant. This demographic screening can help guide community engagement and identify analysis needs that can help with transition planning.

The benefits of reducing pollution from coal extend well beyond that three-mile radius. We calculated that the reduction in air pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide from the coal units studied here has already led to $250 billion (yes, with a “b”) in national public health benefits from reduced air pollution and global warming impacts from 2008 to 2016. As a result, millions of Americans are now breathing cleaner air and hundreds of thousands fewer are dying or becoming sick from coal-related ailments.

Finally, the negative impacts of coal often continue even after the plant shuts down—and this legacy must be considered in planning for a plant closure. Our snapshot from North Carolina illustrates one community’s struggle with coal ash—from a plant that’s still operating.

What about the people working at those coal plants?

This analysis did not look at the jobs implications of plant closures, for a simple reason—there’s no national database of the number of people working at individual coal plants. But if you’re one of those utility workers, you certainly don’t see this as good news. And these large facilities are also large sources of local tax revenue, meaning that while a community might be suffering from health impacts due to air pollution, it may simultaneously rely on that plant for jobs and money for schools and services.

My point is, the transition is complex—and collectively we must solve all aspects of it, not just reducing carbon emissions and air pollution, but also finding new jobs and opportunities for affected workers and investing in economic development in struggling communities.

The voices of local leaders from the communities highlighted in our community snapshots illustrate different aspects of what transition means—and offer insights into what can be done to help ensure that the shift away from coal is well-planned and more equitable, taking into account local needs and concerns. One positive story can be found in our snapshot from Lansing, which transformed a former coal plant into a LEED-certified office building.

Finally, although our analysis focuses on coal-fired power plants, the implication of the transition away from coal in the electricity sector is lower coal production, meaning that mining communities are also impacted by the transition. But alternative energy jobs have reached coal country, and our snapshot from West Virginia highlights an innovative solution to creating new jobs.

Where’s the political leadership?

Despite the economic writing on the wall, and the urgent need to limit global warming emissions and other harmful pollutants, the Trump administration continues to roll back as many environmental regulations as it can get its hands on. Its campaign promise to bring back coal jobs rings hollow and is ultimately a cynical strategy to protect the profits of coal companies rather than protect the interests of coal workers. But the economic reality is that, even without modern pollution controls, many coal units are simply more expensive to run than the alternatives, with market forces decidedly driving the electricity sector away from coal.

Yet the assault on those environmental protections continues. Today EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will announce a revised proposal for the Clean Power Plan—our nation’s first-ever limits on global warming emissions—in an effort to roll back progress despite widespread public support nationally.

Coming from a coal mining family, I fear that folks back home are buying into a false promise. If the administration were serious about helping coal mining communities, it would be championing federal programs that invest in those communities, instead of proposing to eliminate them altogether. It would be looking at innovative ways to spur economic development and diversify local economies that are dependent on coal.

Instead, in perhaps the administration’s most egregious idea yet, Energy Secretary Perry proposed new rules to bail out economically struggling coal and nuclear power plants that would leave electricity ratepayers on the hook to subsidize those costs, to the tune of billions dollars annually.

It starts with truth telling

We need to be honest about the complexity of transitioning away from coal and we must demand thoughtful solutions, not cheap political rhetoric. There are no easy answers. We must create policies to ensure a just transition away from coal, both to reduce the heavy toll on the health of those who live downwind from coal-fired power plants and to address the climate crisis. And we must build on the significant economic opportunities of renewable energy and work to ensure these lead to family-sustaining jobs, especially in the places where coal jobs are being lost.

For me, the biggest takeaway of this research is the need for policymakers and utility planners to engage early with affected stakeholders: coal-dependent communities, affected coal plant workers, coal miners, and low-income and minority residents living near coal plants who have long suffered a disproportionate burden of health impacts from pollution. With adequate time and resources, plans can be developed to remediate and redevelop former sites, to address lost tax revenues, and to help diversify local economies and create new well-paying jobs. It won’t be easy, but it’s what’s necessary.

We call on Congress and the administration to grapple with these complex issues and put forth real solutions. Let’s get to work.

New Economic Opportunities in the Heart of Coal Country

Photo: Coalfield Development Corporation

America is awakening to the reality that our country’s energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables—while cutting pollution and creating new jobs in many places—is painful for Appalachian families.

For generations, our communities have depended on coal-mining jobs and the businesses supported by the coal industry. Nationally, coal-mining employment fell from just over 91,000 in 2011 to under 66,000 in 2015, with West Virginia and Kentucky among the largest declines. This transition won’t be a just and fair one until our communities are made whole.

But in this challenging time there is real opportunity, if we have the courage to seize it. This can be the moment when we finally start not just talking about our potential as a region, but actually realizing it.

Our story

I founded Coalfield with much love from West Virginians for West Virginians. I was born and raised in the state. While I was fortunate to have a solid, middle-class upbringing, I was always aware of the pain going on around me. In college, I became a committed member of a Presbyterian Church, which fostered in me a deep commitment to social justice. We learned from and were inspired by people making a way forward in tough places all over the world: migrant workers in apple orchards, communities of color, low-income communities, and native people on reservations. I even had the chance to travel to Botswana and Nepal on behalf of the church.

But everywhere I went, I had the nagging sense that these were amazing places and amazing people, but they weren’t my place. I felt I could have a big impact back home, where the need was great and growing greater. So in 2011, joined by my best friend from high school, I decided to try and do things differently for our state to show that we could be more than just one industry and just one trade.

Since then, I’ve had the honor of seeing a former mine-industry worker go from being homeless, to joining our construction work-crew, to becoming a homeowner. I’ve seen people walk across the stage and become the first in their family to earn a college degree. We’ve installed the first solar systems many of our small towns have seen. We employ former strip miners who now reclaim and rejuvenate the soil through our agriculture work on former mountaintop-removal sites.

At Coalfield Development, we support a family of social enterprises that work in community-based real-estate, green-collar construction, mine-land reclamation, artisan trades, sustainable agriculture, and solar installation. These are real business enterprises that have real economic potential in central Appalachia. These are enterprises that are beginning to diversify the local economy in a tangible way.

Each enterprise has sustainable revenue models, including earned revenue (contracts, sales, service fees, etc.) and, thus, long-term sustainability. They are unified by an innovative model for workforce development and training that we at Coalfield developed.

We recognized that job training programs are insufficient—people need jobs to support themselves and their families. Our model puts people to work while developing new skills.  Under the 33-6-3 model, each of the enterprises hires unemployed people to work the following weekly schedule: 33 hours a week are spent doing paid labor for these enterprises on projects which tangibly improve the community; 6 hours a week are devoted to core community college classes for an Applied Science degree; and 3 hours are committed to life skills coaching, such as parenting, financial management, time management, physical health, teamwork, communication, and goal setting. Some of the 33 hours of manual labor even count as on-the-job credits applied towards the academic degree (according to curriculum agreements in place with the community colleges).

So yes, we are feeling great pain in the face of the coal industry’s decline, but we’re not just dying towns. We are also hard at work ensuring that great things, very creative endeavors, are afoot. We’re persistent problem-solving communities, who love our home and are steadfastly committed to it.

National attention

An exciting policy development in 2015 was the creation of the POWER Initiative (Partnerships and Opportunities in Workforce and Economic Revitalization), a federal initiative to support community efforts to diversify our local economy. This provided the Appalachian Regional Commission with its largest budget since the 1970’s, which led to major support for innovative efforts like ours.

This is an appropriate role for the government to play: funding research and development for early stage, pre-market business concepts that lead to real economic growth in communities that need it.

As we work to adapt, to diversify our economy, and to shape a better future, we need the country to believe in and support us. The country should not blame us for climate change—miners only ever mined coal because there was demand for it. Anyone who has turned on a light switch is just as much to blame for climate change as a coal miner, if not more so.

What’s needed now is local solutions driven by local people. And then we need national and global investments to support our strategies. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is doing just that. Incredibly, he announced $3 million in grant funding to support coal communities in conjunction with the premiere of the National Geographic documentary From the Ashes, which tells our story along with the stories of many other coal-impacted communities. We’re honored to be a grantee, and we hope others around the world will follow suit by investing in our region. One way to do this is by checking out our Crowdrise campaign page to donate.

What you can do

We really do need the donations, and we’ll steward them well. But even better would be if folks from around the country will do business with us. Buy furniture from our Saw’s Edge Woodshop or produce from Refresh Appalachia. Contract with Rewire Appalachia and Solar Holler, LLC to install a solar system on your roof, or with Revitalize Appalachia to renovate your property.

Even better yet: move here, start a company, and put our smart, talented, loyal miners back to work.

Brandon Dennison is the founder and CEO of Coalfield Development Corporation, a family of social enterprises working throughout coal country to help build a new economy in the wake of the coal industry’s rapid decline.

Photo: Coalfield Development Corporation

This Is What It’s Like to Live Near a Coal Plant in North Carolina

Photo: Sanjay Suchak (used with permission)

As one of the community snapshots highlighted in A Dwindling Role for Coal, I’m handing over my blog to my colleague J.C. Kibbey, Midwest outreach and policy advocate, who interviewed Linda Jamison, a local community activist from North Carolina. Linda gives us her own perspective of living near a coal-fired power plant—Duke Energy’s Roxboro Power Plant—and she highlights some of the community’s concerns about the safety of their water supply.

Some quick background information: when coal is burned, it produces ash—just like burning wood for a campfire—except that coal ash contains highly toxic metals and other pollutants. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed standards on the disposal of this industrial waste, known as Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR).

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

J.C. Kibbey: How long have you been in Semora?

Linda Jamison: I’ve been in Semora on and off since 1963.

JCK: The Roxboro Power Plant now has four coal-fired electricity generating units—all of which are identified in our analysis as uneconomic compared to natural gas. The total capacity of the plant is more than 2,400 MW. When did the first units begin operating?

LJ: 1966.

JCK: So you lived there before the coal plant? What changed in Semora after it was built?

LJ: First there was lots of heavy truck traffic and a lot of dust; we had a dirt road at first, and [when the plant was built] they paved it.

The plant let off steam with ash in it that would get all over your house, your garden, your farm. Before, we would eat right out of the garden – we would pick fruit right off the tree. After the plant, we had to start washing everything off.

When it let off steam, it made so much noise it would wake you up when you were asleep and you didn’t know when it was going to happen. It would happen during the day, happen at night, happen early in the morning.

Semora was a majority black community—we had one Caucasian family, before the plant. Everybody farmed, everybody knew each other, everybody gardened. My mom gardened and canned and froze food. All we bought from the store was sugar and salt and pepper and we grew everything else, but that all had to stop when the plant was built.

There was a picnic area near the plant they used to rent out for picnics and parties and family reunions, until suddenly they closed it and never told us why. Not long after that, they put a notice about fishing in the water near the plant and put a limit on how many fish you could eat.

Early on, we didn’t know everything was contaminated. My father used to cut grass at the plant. In 1984 at Thanksgiving, he got a cold and went to the doctor. The doctor told him he had cancer. Forty-five days later he was dead.

When my father got sick, I spoke up because I always felt that the plant had something to do with the people that were getting strange diseases and the kids getting cancer. I thought the plant was a contributing factor. But it was hard to get people interested. People were not educated about the effects these plants could have. Some people didn’t want to make waves. Some people had jobs there.

We were led to believe there wasn’t anything harmful being released from that plant. People would have stopped using the water then, if they had known.

I moved away in 1979 for a job and eventually moved back in 2012.

JCK: What were things like when you came back?

LJ: When I came back, I began noticing changes with the water in my parents’ home. It smelled bad, you couldn’t drink it or anything. I just installed a filtration system in our house because of the smell, but no one said anything about the well water being contaminated.

After the Dan River spill in early 2014, people started asking more questions about coal ash and there was concern about what was happening to drinking water wells.

JCK: You’re referring to the spill of more than 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of ash pond water from Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station in February 2014. According to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, within two weeks the plume of waste had reached 70 miles downstream. The spill led to increased awareness of unlined coal ash sites, particularly the 14 sites in North Carolina owned by Duke Energy, like the one at Roxboro.

LJ: But it wasn’t until more than a year later that the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) made it to Roxboro and started testing a few of our wells and found that they were contaminated. They didn’t even test everyone’s wells. They said not to cook with the water or drink it. But I thought, the skin is the largest organ – what makes them think it won’t go through your skin?

JCK: What has it been like on a day-to-day basis in terms of living with contaminated water?

LJ: They started giving us bottled water to drink and cook with, but I’m so sick of bottled water I could scream. I’m disabled and I have to lift big cases of water just to cook a meal. I can’t even explain what you have to go through just to cook a meal. I’m by myself—I don’t know how families with kids do it. You have to deal with empty bottles—it’s just a mess.

The law [North Carolina House Bill 630, which became law on July 14, 2016] says that Duke Energy has to replace our wells with either public water systems or filtration systems. But I’m still paying for our last filtration system, and now they’re trying to offer me another one—but those systems don’t get rid of hexavalent chromium or some of the other metals they found in our wells. The standards they [NC DEQ] came up with this month for the filtration systems are basically nothing. They would allow a higher dose of hexavalent chromium in the water than what we have now.

JCK: How have you tried to address these problems? What has that process been like?

LJ: Our community, along with the Southern Environmental Law Center, Appalachian Voices, Clean Water for North Carolina, and the Sierra Club have all been working on this coal ash issue. Erin Brockovich has come to North Carolina and talked about this issue—it’s the same chemicals as in her famous case.

It’s not just our community that has been affected. Many communities in North Carolina where they have coal ash have had their wells and water contaminated. We are all fighting Duke Energy to give us public water and give us compensation for the lost value of our homes [because of the contaminated water].

We asked the County Commissioners to support hooking us up to the public water system, but one of the board members works for Duke Energy. The board has five members and voted 3-2 against it, with the Duke employee cast the deciding “no” vote. We have been struggling against Duke’s money and political power. The company also had ties to the previous governor, Pat McCrory. He worked for them for almost 30 years and he met frequently with representatives from Duke.

JCK: Yes, Governor McCrory’s ties to Duke Energy have certainly been a campaign issue.

LJ: Gov. McCrory’s administration pressured toxicologists and health officials to write misleading letters to the community about our water. Health officials sent a letter saying not to drink the water, and then the McCrory Administration tried to get them to send another letter saying that the water was OK to drink—but nothing had changed with the water.

At least one public health official ultimately left over this issue: Megan Davies, an epidemiologist and section chief in the state Division of Public Health resigned; and Kenneth Rudo, a toxicologist who had served nearly 30 years with the Department of Heath and Human Services, retired.

Duke has big money and we don’t, but we’re still fighting and we’re not going to give up. We’ve had press conferences, we’ve had news reports—I’ve personally done several news reports. I feel better about the fact that my whole community has come together and other organizations are fighting with us. I feel better knowing that we are not alone and that there are other communities with water contamination and we are all fighting for the same thing.

Duke is claiming that there were no medical problems [because of the coal ash], even though their own statistics and reports show there is a risk of health issues. They are asking people to sign paperwork saying that they will not sue for medical problems—that if you agree to accept their $5,000 payment for a new water filtration system, that the paperwork stipulates that you will never file a medical lawsuit and no one in your family will either.  No one is taking that deal. If Duke believes their ash hasn’t affected our health, then they shouldn’t need a release of medical claims.

JCK: The plant is still operating. Are there air issues in addition to the water issues from the coal ash?

LJ: You still see ash on your windowsill. They still release the steam, ash and dust—not as much as they used to. They mostly release it at night now. Most people in this community don’t plant gardens or farm anymore. People talk about what’s in the air.

JCK: Has there been any talk about the plant closing? It appears that the North Carolina Utilities Commission has directed Duke to study retrofitting the Roxboro power plant.

LJ: They’re not closing it. They’re trying to change it to burn natural gas.

JCK: What has fighting these battles  been like for you personally?

LJ: Sometimes it feels like we’re doing something and other times it feels like it’s not working. You get your hopes up thinking the state will listen or the courts will rule in favor of our community, but then it doesn’t happen.

It’s just been constant let-downs by people in our government who are supposed to be fighting for us, supposed to be looking out for our health and well-being. They go wherever the money is.

Even when Duke was fined for this, the McCrory Administration stepped in. They said that a fine that was supposed to be just for one coal ash site counted for all the coal ash sites in the state. The Southern Environmental Law Center is suing DEQ and Duke over some of these issues.

JCK: Some of the damage has already been done, but going forward, what do you want to see happen? How should we address the problem long-term?

LJ: First, we want to be on a public water system and for Duke to foot the bill for it. Second, we want to protect our right to file medical claims.

Finally, we want Duke to clean up its coal ash. Some plants with coal ash sites are being required to remove it, and at others Duke is trying to “cap in place” [which means placing a cover over an unlined pit]. But we’re seeing now that they are not always using the right materials for that, and that the pools where the coal ash is stored aren’t lined like they are supposed to be.

But even as we are dealing with this, the state is shipping in coal ash from China, India, and Poland to make concrete rather than finding ways to get rid of the coal ash that’s already here. They’ll end up poisoning all of North Carolina.

JCK: Linda, thanks for sharing your story with us.

Photo: Sanjay Suchak (used with permission)

How A Coal Plant in Michigan Became an Insurance HQ

The former Ottawa Street coal-fired power station now serves downtown Lansing, Michigan, as a LEED-certified office building. Photo: JC Kibbey/UCS

For one of the community snapshots highlighted in A Dwindling Role for Coal, I’m handing over my blog to my colleague J.C. Kibbey, Midwest outreach and policy advocate, who interviewed Karl Dorshimer, director of business development with the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP), about his experience on the team leading the redevelopment of the of a decommissioned coal-fired power plant in downtown Lansing.

The Ottawa Street Power Station provided coal-fired electric power and steam to downtown Lansing from 1939 until it was decommissioned in 1992. Karl shares the challenges and successes of the subsequent redevelopment project, which led to a revitalization of downtown Lansing, and retained or created more than 1,000 jobs in the city. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

J.C. Kibbey: Tell me a little about yourself.

Karl Dorshimer: I studied resource and economic development at Michigan State University, and earned a master’s degree in resource economics at the University of Alaska. After graduate school, I moved back to Lansing and worked on economic development and planning for the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission before moving to the Lansing Economic Development Corporation. My career was taking off right around the time brownfield development was taking off, and for 20 years Lansing EDC has done over 50 of these projects, from big projects like the Ottawa Station and work with General Motors to those for small businesses. For the last several years, I have been working for the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP), which in turn contracts with the Lansing Economic Development Corporation—so I’m doing essentially the same job but under a different organizational umbrella.

JCK: The successful redevelopment of the old coal-fired Ottawa Power Station into the sustainably designed headquarters of the Accident Fund (now named the AF Group) created or preserved hundreds of jobs in Lansing and helped remake Lansing’s downtown. The refurbished building achieved the second highest certification by the US Green Building Council, “gold” status for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). You were an integral part of that redevelopment and it’s a success story today, but it was a rocky road to get there. I understand that the city had been working to find a buyer for the site for years and that there were a couple interested parties but the deals fell through. What were the obstacles there?

KD: During the years it was vacant, we occasionally were approached by people who wanted to develop the site, but they were never able to make the finances work. Prospective buyers couldn’t convince investors or lenders to get involved. The city of Lansing and the Board of Water did an analysis at one point to see what could be done with the site, but it never got past that stage.

There were a lot of challenges: liability issues, costs of remediation and infrastructure upgrades, tearing out the existing equipment on the site, and challenges locating public financial incentives.

The incentives that were available were based on job creation—not just any jobs but quality jobs, high-paying jobs with benefits. That’s the measuring stick for a lot of public investment in economic development. A lot of the uses people were proposing for the site just weren’t going to generate a lot of tax revenue or jobs.

For the redevelopment to make sense, you need a tenant who is either willing to pay a lot of money to renovate the property themselves, or pay a high lease rate to someone who renovates the site for them. Otherwise the numbers just don’t work out.

JCK: Given all that, how were you finally able to catalyze the redevelopment?

KD: Lansing Mayor Virg Benero saw the site as a huge, visible symbol of decay and blight, and when he came into office, he wanted to do something about it—either redevelop it or tear it down.

The reason it finally worked is we had an end user that was large enough and committed enough to take on the project. We were soliciting requests for proposals to redevelop the site, and near the end of that process we were approached by representatives of The Accident Fund—an insurance company owned by Blue Cross Blue Shield. We showed them the property and after a long due diligence process, they made a proposal for the site.

JCK: You said the Accident Fund was “committed” to the site—why, and was that important to making this work?

KD: They were. The building itself has some pizazz—it’s a really cool building for a power plant. The architect designed it to look like a flame, with darker colors representing coal on the bottom and lighter colors representing fire as it goes up.

The user wanted an urban location, it’s on the river, and it’s beautiful. It’s really a great symbol of urban renewal, which is good for the community, and for Accident Fund as a tenant.

JCK: But even with that commitment and Accident Fund coming on board, there were still financial challenges to work through. A project this size requires large investments, suggesting the need for a public-private partnership—a contract between a public agency and a private sector entity to deliver a public good. Can you tell me about the incentives that made it work here?

KD: This was a huge, seemingly impossible project and it required public-private partnerships to work.

Our team put together a package of several different incentives that was worth about $59 million in total. That included $12.6 million in property tax abatements, $11 million in historic tax credits, $10 million in Brownfield tax credits, $9 million in Michigan Economic Growth Authority tax credits (for job creation and retention), a $3.2 million investment in a public riverfront near the site, and a $600,000 grant for environmental assessment and clean-up from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

We were able to do all that in large part because the cost-benefit analysis made sense for the city. The total cost of the project was $182 million, and those incentives made it economical for the developer.

JCK: The cost-benefit issue is often problematic for municipalities looking to repurpose coal plants—some of them still running—especially in terms of maintaining the local tax base. Can you tell me about how this project impacted Lansing’s tax base and how the city viewed that?

KD: First, we retained about 600 employees, who pay city income tax, plus another 500 jobs that were to be added later. That’s a future increase in revenue. The site itself was not paying any property taxes before the redevelopment. It won’t generate taxes for a while because of the tax abatements, but a few more years down the road it will. There’s also a significant positive economic impact of having those 1,100 employees downtown.

There are a lot of benefits—from the city’s standpoint, we found these factors together to be a strong argument for investing in this project.

JCK: This building was a former coal plant and now it’s LEED Gold certified. That’s a great story, going from a coal plant to a building that’s recognized for its sustainability. Was that an intentional choice you made when you undertook the project?

KD: A lot of this was driven by sustainability being important to the Accident Fund, and there were challenges: the building was originally designed to dissipate heat. They’ve turned that around and by replacing the windows and some other things, got the building to be efficient for both heating and cooling..

But also, a coal-fired power plant is not conducive to a modern downtown. People are looking at environmental issues and looking to clean power. The Board of Water and Light, which used to operate the Ottawa coal plant, put up a solar array nearby the site—it wasn’t related to this project, just happened to be a good site for solar—which is helping them hit their goals for renewable energy.

JCK: You went through a lengthy process of redeveloping this old coal plant in an urban area and putting it to a productive and sustainable use. What advice would you have for other communities that are looking to do similar projects?

KD: Unless you’re blessed with a great location and a strong local economy where real estate values are high, it will be difficult to get the private sector to redevelop that site and take on all those challenges on their own. You need public participation. That can include incentives, tax breaks, tax refunds, Brownfield programs: somehow you have to reduce the cost for the developer while sharing in the benefits generated.

The user of the site also plays a part in this. They need to be able to create the revenue, the rents, or the sale price to make it work. We found that a lot of less intense uses—like a movie theater, which was one of the ideas someone had for the Ottawa site—just don’t generate enough revenue to make it work.

You will also run into barriers. Fortunately, we had a team that represents all the different stakeholders and found a way to work through the whole series of hurdles. It took years between the time we started the project and when construction started.

JCK: You mentioned that for a redevelopment like this to make financial sense, the site needs to be put to an economically “intense” use. What are other uses that have the necessary intensity?

KD: I think residential is one, apartments and condos. It depends somewhat on the building. I think they did a good job of leaving some of that industrial feel, those exposed beams and so on—that has character and provides value. You want to take advantage of the inherent assets that are already in the building.

Another city-owned facility, the Eckert Power Plant, is planned to be decommissioned in 2021, and we are looking at a renovation there as well. It has three large and tall smokestacks, and we were looking at those and thinking it will cost a ton of money to take them down. But the first developer to look at it seriously said—“leave them up, I like them, I can use them.”

JCK: Karl, thanks for taking the time to discuss your experience with us. Your story offers insights into the challenges of redeveloping coal plant sites and the importance of public-private partnerships in achieving successful outcomes. As the nation continues to move toward cleaner and cheaper sources of electricity, these insights can help inform other communities facing the closure of a coal-fired power plant.

Photo: JC Kibbey/UCS

The Struggle for a Just Transition of the Crawford Coal Plant in Little Village Continues

On August 12, 2017, our organization, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), held a gathering at La Villita Park in the Little Village neighborhood to celebrate the five-year anniversary of the closing of the Crawford and Fisk coal plants in Chicago. With community members and youth leaders in attendance, it was a special opportunity for LVEJO to remind everyone of the many years of community organizing and coalition building that took place, and to thank long-time friends and allies from neighboring Pilsen, who were pivotal to the campaign.

Little Village youth leader at 5 year Crawford anniversary. Photo: Antonio Lopez

To cumbia rhythms we ate cake, passed out environmental justice literature to park goers (learn about the principles of environmental justice here), and enjoyed watching our children break open a piñata and swiftly race for the goodies that crashed to the ground.

The commemoration was a sweet time, but it was also a reminder for us that five years later Little Village continues to face serious environmental justice challenges, including an uphill battle to redevelop the Crawford plant. Indeed, the community is vulnerable to increased diesel emissions and many are concerned about gentrification and displacement. Despite these threats, La Villita leaders continue to fight for a healthier community and to hold those with power to principles of equitable community development.

As we say at LVEJO, la lucha no se acaba—the struggle doesn’t end!

A just transition of the Crawford site

Five years later, the Crawford coal plant continues to be an unwelcoming site in Little Village. Unlike many other coal-dependent communities, however, Little Village was not devastated economically by the closure of the coal plant and the loss of jobs. In fact, Crawford hired few workers from Little Village. Still, knowing that Crawford harmed the community’s health for so long and excluded the local workforce from good paying jobs, LVEJO is committed to seeing through a just transition of the site.

A just transition of the former coal plant means for us that community members are deeply involved in the redevelopment process, and that the site eventually becomes a catalyst of improved health, job access, and other economic activities that benefit long-time residents. Sitting on 72 acres of land, we believe there is a significant opportunity to transform the site into a campus that meets multiple needs identified by the community, and is a source of pride.

We have heard loud and clear that our community wants more green space, workforce training opportunities, urban agriculture, and culturally relevant small businesses like Los Mangos. It may seem like an unattainable dream—and there are certainly many obstacles—but with deep community support we truly believe that the just transition of Crawford is possible.

LVEJO youth leaders continue to highlight the harms to community health caused by Crawford. Photo: LVEJO

Challenges to redevelopment

We understand that the redevelopment of an old coal plant takes many years and is not easy. Unfortunately, since the closure of Crawford, LVEJO has learned about newly proposed projects and land-use plans that threaten to undermine the gains in air quality that we fought so hard for.

As Little Village is centrally located in Chicago and is in close proximity to major transportation arteries, city planners have designated Little Village as an area for new transportation and logistics centers. Without considering the health impact of diesel emissions to the surrounding community, city planners and local alderman are re-zoning industrial spaces, approving redevelopment projects, and leading land-use plans that neglect to incorporate environmental justice.

Instead of building upon the strengths and strong track record of environmentalism in the community, decision makers are threatening to make Little Village a sacrifice zone once again. An important example is the Unilever Expansion Project.

Diesel threats/Unilever

The nearby Unilever plant has been in the neighborhood since 1918, a testament to the industrial legacy the neighborhood has inherited. In February 2015, the Unilever plant, which produces Hellman’s Mayonnaise, announced it will increase production and bring on an additional 50 local jobs in the factory.

But these jobs come at a cost. Today, current zoning laws allow a major industrial factory like Unilever to expand right next to an elementary school of over 1,000 children and countless families. Every day, over 100 diesel trucks flow in and out of this area. Based on Unilever’s own traffic study, there will be an increase of up to 500 diesel trucks per day flowing in and out of the neighborhood.

Diesel engine trucks produce a lot of fine-particle pollutants that have been linked to asthma, respiratory disease, and overall damage to lung tissues. The additional diesel fumes will create health hazards, and increase the incidence of asthma and airborne related illnesses. Children are especially vulnerable. Due to these health concerns, LVEJO has launched a campaign to educate community members on the risks diesel poses, and to hold companies and decision makers accountable (see this and this).

Future energy jobs act

The failure of city planners and local officials to leverage the closure of the Crawford plant to redevelop the community in line with our needs has not stopped our efforts to organize and advocate for a new economy free of fossil fuels. Undaunted, LVEJO continues to fight for energy democracy and vehemently opposes false solutions to climate change.

LVEJO was vital to creating the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) in Illinois that passed in December 2016 and had broad coalition and community support. Critically, LVEJO’s leadership on FEJA prioritized health and economic justice opportunities, including access to job training and clean energy jobs in low-income communities—a high priority to all community leaders. FEJA includes $33.25 million in annual spending on low-income energy efficiency programs, triple current spending levels on such programs in the state of Illinois.

This, coupled with millions of dollars committed to increases in bill assistance, will save money for families struggling to pay their energy bills. LVEJO participated as a lead architect of critical policies in the legislation related to serving low-income communities, including the new Illinois Solar for All—a nation-leading, low-income solar program with targeted goals for solar access in environmental justice communities funded at over $400 million.

The program is paired with a job training pipeline that will target recruitment in these same communities, with additional incentives to hire 2,000 individuals with criminal records and alumni of the foster care system.

With the passage of the Future Energy Jobs Act, low-income communities and communities of color, such as Little Village, will have significant opportunities to benefit from the resources committed to building a clean energy economy in the state.

Kim Wasserman of LVEJO and Jerry Lucero of Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) celebrate the 5 year anniversary of the closure of the Fisk and Crawford plants in Pilsen and Little Village. Crawford is in the background. Photo: Antonio Lopez

No al Carbon! Queremos Justicia Ambiental!

In addition to ensuring that FEJA programs reach low-income and frontline communities, the just transition of the Crawford coal plant is a major goal of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. We believe the equitable redevelopment of the Crawford site can stand out as a model for other environmental justice communities working on just transition initiatives.

Indeed, across the Midwest environmental justice communities are leading the fight to close coal plants, incinerators, and other polluting factories. Community-led redevelopment of the Crawford plant would not only profoundly benefit Little Village, but also stand as a powerful symbol of environmental justice.

Dr. Antonio Lopez holds a doctorate in Borderlands History from the University of Texas at El Paso and has written extensively on anti-poverty and anti-racist social movements in Chicago. He currently serves as a senior advisor to the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. This blog was coauthored with Executive Director Kim Wasserman and Policy Director Juiana Pino of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO).

Scott Pruitt’s Cynical Move to Rescind the Clean Power Plan

Tomorrow, the EPA is expected to take a first formal step in repealing the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), a regulation designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by approximately 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. This is a terribly irresponsible decision. Recent ferocious storms, intensified by warming oceans and air, remind us of the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan is a sensible, flexible, cost-effective rule addressing one of one of the biggest sources of US carbon emissions, and one of the least expensive sources to control.

The action comes as no surprise: candidate Trump promised to do this during the campaign, and as President he signed an executive order reiterating that commitment earlier this year. But the manner in which the EPA is gutting CPP is astonishing, marking one of the most tainted and cynical moves to date by the Trump administration.

Notably, it appears from a leaked draft that the EPA does not base its proposed repeal on a change in policy goals, or on any of the usual considerations such as the rule’s costs, feasibility, or impacts.  Rather, the EPA hangs its repeal hat entirely on a legal hook—the EPA now claims that the Clean Power Plan violated the law because it regulates “beyond the fenceline” of individual power plants—a claim that is directly contrary to what the EPA and the Department of Justice argued in court just last fall. With this legal sleight of hand, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt once again forsakes the mission of the agency he heads—to safeguard human health and the environment—to pander to fossil fuel interests.

A Cynical Ploy

Let’s unpack the EPA’s argument a bit. Often, when the EPA limits pollution from a stationary source, it sets a limit based on technology that an individual source can deploy, such as a so-called “scrubber” to trap soot before it leaves the stack. The Obama administration didn’t use this approach when it issued the Clean Power Plan for this compelling reason: while it is possible to cut carbon dioxide emissions using “inside the fenceline” technology, it is far more expensive and technically risky than what the electric industry actually does now to cut carbon pollution—switching electric generation from coal to gas and to renewables, such as wind turbines and solar panels. In this case, EPA was required to base the pollution limit on the “best system of emission reduction;” EPA determined that the best system was switching from dirtier sources of generation (coal) to cleaner sources (gas and renewables), and making improvements in the efficiency of coal plants.

EPA’s interpretation of the phrase “best system of emission reduction” law was challenged in court by a number of states, coal companies and others. In the court case, EPA was represented by a team of elite attorneys in the United States Department of Justice, who specialize in litigating questions of this kind. This team wrote a 175 page legal brief explaining , convincingly, why EPA’s interpretation was lawful.

But now, EPA has scrapped the legal argument of its own lawyers, dismissing the expertise of the Justice Department just as it has dismissed the expertise of government scientists.  And it has substituted the Department of Justice’s legal analysis with—can you guess?—the legal analysis of none other than Scott Pruitt, back when he was the Oklahoma Attorney general actively suing the EPA over this very rule. As a litigant in the case, Scott Pruitt and other attorneys argued that EPA could not go beyond the fenceline.  The EPA decision today is lifted from the brief that Pruitt and his allies in the fossil fuel industry filed. So, in a span of a year and half, Scott Pruitt has participated in this important legal dispute over the Clean Power Plan first as a lawyer on one side, then as judge and jury at the EPA, and now as the plan’s executioner. Do the words “conflict of interest” mean nothing to this administration?

But the cynical nature of this gambit goes even further. As I noted, the issue of whether the EPA could use a “beyond the fenceline” approach is currently before the court of appeals for the District of Columbia. That court has reviewed thousands of pages of legal briefs on this issue, and spent an entire day hearing legal arguments about it. The court seemed poised to decide the case last fall, and then the Trump administration came in. Almost immediately, Scott Pruitt’s EPA implored the court to put the case on hold, claiming that EPA needed time to do its own evaluation of the rule. It is now clear that this ploy was simply a stalling tactic: the Pruitt EPA feared that the court would uphold the legality of the rule and make it harder for EPA to repeal it. So, the EPA bought time for itself, then jumped the gun to declare the rule illegal before the court could rule otherwise.

Why did the EPA go this route? It had no good alternatives. If the EPA were to repeal the Clean Power Plan on policy grounds, it would have a hard time defending a decision to do nothing on carbon pollution from power plants. If the EPA were to rescind only parts of the Clean Power Plan and leave other parts in place, or even propose an alternative regulation, it would disappoint its allies in the coal industry who want no federal regulation.

So, the EPA decided to use a legal argument to escape the dilemma–one intended to short-circuit the judicial process, and one that is irrevocably tainted by a conflict of interest. Meanwhile, coal and gas plants continue to enjoy the extraordinary right to emit unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, unregulated by any federal law.

Lest there be any doubt, the EPA’s right and obligation to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act—an act of Congress—stands on firm scientific and legal ground. A 2007 Supreme Court ruling, followed by EPA’s Endangerment finding and Cause or Contribute finding clearly establish that the agency must act to curtail carbon emissions from major sources. The obligation to curtail power plant carbon emissions was further reaffirmed in a 2011 Supreme Court ruling. Administrator Pruitt knows this. Yet, even as the latest climate science indicates increasing urgency to act to limit costly and harmful impacts of climate change, Mr. Pruitt, in a gross dereliction of duty, is using every possible machination to delay action.

What now? The EPA’s announcement is the start, not the end of the process.  We must continue to make the case for lowering carbon pollution from power plants and accelerating the transition to clean energy, and put Pruitt’s EPA through the wringer for abandoning this key tool.  At the same time, we must push for actions by states, cities, businesses, and others to accelerate the transition to clean energy, regardless of what EPA ultimately does. And finally, one hopes that the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, which still has jurisdiction over this case, sees through this gambit and does its job—decide this legal dispute once and for all, the sooner, the better.

Photo: justice.gov

Who Would Lose with New Suniva/SolarWorld Solar Tariffs? Just About Everybody

A recent decision by the US International Trade Commission (USITC) in favor of two solar manufacturers means that new tariffs on solar cells and panels could be coming. As the reactions from companies and organizations across the economy—and across the political spectrum—make clear, that’s bad news for just about everyone, including you and me.

The solar tariff case

Solar means jobs. As long as we don’t mess things up. (Credit: John Rogers)

The case was brought by Suniva and SolarWorld Americas, two foreign-owned US manufacturing operations that had hit rocky patches in recent years. The companies applied to the USITC under Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974, which basically says that “domestic industries seriously injured or threatened with serious injury by increased imports” can ask the USITC for “import relief.”

That might seem like a pretty low bar—competition is never easy, whether it’s domestic or foreign, and some of that competition could indeed be serious—but Section 201 has been used only once in the 21st century (in 2002, in a short-lived attempt to protect the steel industry, but one that would have harmed consumers and destroyed more jobs than it created because of the impact of the higher steel prices).

It’s not lost on anybody, though, that this latest petition comes at a time when we have a president who is no friend of trade, and is hungry for tariffs.

The relief that the two petitioners are asking for—sizeable new tariffs on both solar modules, and the cells that manufacturers (yes, US manufacturers) might assemble into modules—would put a definite dent in solar’s incredible momentum in recent years. More importantly, for a president who professes to be about jobs, it would be very likely, as with the 2002 case, kill more jobs than it saved or created.

Even so, on September 22, the bipartisan USITC voted 4-0 in favor of the petition, determining:

…that increased imports of crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells (whether or not partially or fully assembled into other products) are being imported into the United States in such increased quantities as to be a substantial cause of serious injury to the domestic industry producing an article like or directly competitive with the imported article.

How do I love thee not? Let me count the ways…

The reaction to both the original petition and the recent USITC decision has been notable in the breadth of organizations and people reacting negatively, the near unanimity in condemning these moves. Here’s a sampling of reactors and reactions.

The solar industry – Those opposed to Suniva-SolarWorld include just about the whole rest of the US solar industry. Manufacturing jobs account for only 15% of the industry’s 260,000 jobs. For solar project developers, sales forces, installers, and even other manufacturers, new tariffs means increased costs and, likely, diminished prospects for success. As SEIA (the Solar Energy Industries Association) put it:

The ITC’s decision is disappointing for nearly 9,000 U.S. solar companies and the 260,000 Americans they employ… An improper remedy will devastate the burgeoning American solar economy and ultimately harm America’s manufacturers…

Indeed, SEIA has claimed that, if the petitioners are successful in their appeal to the USITC, “88,000 jobs will be lost nationwide, including 6,300 jobs in Texas, 4,700 in North Carolina and a whopping 7,000 jobs in South Carolina.”

The US solar industry is about manufacturing, and a whole lot more. (Source: National Solar Jobs Census 2016)

Bipartisan voices — Before the recent vote, a bipartisan group of governors of leading solar states—Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, and North Carolina—sounded the alarm in a letter to the commission:

The requested tariff could inflict a devastating blow on our states’ solar industries and lead to unprecedented job loss, at steep cost to our states’ economies. According to a study conducted by GTM Research, if granted, the tariff and price floors would cause module prices to double, leading solar installations—both utility-scale and consumer-installed—to drop by more than 50 percent in 2019. At a time when our citizens are demanding more clean energy, the tariff could cause America to lose out on 47 gigawatts of solar installations, representing billions of dollars of infrastructure investment in our states.

Conservative groups – From the “strange bedfellows” department came the news that opponents also include conservative groups who don’t like the idea of mucking with trade, and particularly not in defense of two relatively minor companies. The Heritage Foundation, for example, spoke against what it said was “a case that could undermine the entire U.S. solar energy industry.”

Solar jobs; red dots indicate “manufacturer/supplier”. It’s about a lot more than modules. (Source: SEIA National Solar Database)

Likewise, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), not usually on the same side of arguments as renewable energy companies or advocates, cited the broader solar industry’s impressive job tally and job progress in recent years, and the risks to even the manufacturing piece of that:

Many of those [260,000] workers are employed by other solar companies that have successfully figured out how to prosper in this growing industry. Over 38,000 solar workers are employed in manufacturing positions at firms domestically making solar components like inverters, racking systems and more…

Those 38,000 manufacturing jobs might disappear if artificially high input costs price the entire industry out of existence.

Source: National Solar Jobs Census 2016

A broad coalition – The Energy Trade Action Coalition formed by SEIA, solar companies, ALEC, Heritage, plus utilities, retailers, and others in response to this Section 201 threat reacted to the recent decision by going after the petitioners themselves:

The ITC decision to find injury is disappointing because the facts presented made it clear that the two companies who brought this trade case were injured by their own history of poor business decisions rather than global competition, and that the petition is an attempt to recover lost funds for their own financial gain at the expense of the rest of the solar industry.

Security experts – For security types, the risks have to do with our military preparedness, resilience, and assurance; more than a dozen former members of the US military, including a lieutenant general and a rear admiral, weighed in with the USITC on the fact that “[t]his dramatic cost increase could potentially jeopardize the financial viability of planned and future solar investments on or near domestic military bases.” This could put at risk bases, missions, and critical services.

And the list goes on.

Not everyone is opposed, of course. Along with the petitioners themselves, a coalition of labor, manufacturing and agricultural interests, the Coalition for a Prosperous America, has spoken out in support of the Suniva-SolarWorld move, saying that the coalition “strongly believes that relief is needed in the face of an Asian import surge to prevent the complete collapse of a critical industry, the manufacture of solar panels”:

Thousands of workers have lost good paying U.S. jobs as a result [of overproduction by international module manufacturers]. That these severe effects occurred during a period of booming U.S. [solar] demand, and despite two successful solar trade cases, is all the more troubling.

But national opinion is overwhelmingly on the other side. Even Suniva’s majority owner, Hong Kong-based Shunfeng International Clean Energy, is purportedly against Suniva’s crusade.

Credit: U.S. Department of the Interior

What’s next

With the September 22 commission decision that the petitioners were indeed seriously hurt by imports, the next step is the “remedy” phase, which starts with various parties weighing in to say what they think the fix should be.

Flush with (and surprised by?) the success of their ITC petitions, Suniva and SolarWorld have backed down a little in their demands… but only a little. Others are pushing for a “cure” much closer to a placebo, in the hopes of minimizing the damage to (other) US companies, US consumers, and American jobs.

The USITC then needs to make a recommendation to President Trump, by mid-November. And then the president needs to decide where this goes.

Meanwhile, SolarWorld has said it’s planning to ramp up production given the recent decision. The president of SolarWorld Americas is quoted as saying:

With relief from surging imports in sight, we believe we can rev up our manufacturing engine and increase our economic impact… [W]e at SolarWorld are prepared to scale up our world-class manufacturing operations to produce leading solar products made by more American workers.

That commitment to leaping right back in is a little hard to believe, given the uncertainties that remain while this plays out. The 2002 Section 201 case around steel tariffs ended in failure the following year, after a purported loss of 200,000 American jobs.

It’s the president’s call

What’s clear, though, is that this is potentially a pivotal moment in solar’s trajectory in this country. The US solar industry is about much more than manufacturing, and even the manufacturing sector is about more than cells and modules.

President Trump could take a tariff sledgehammer to the shining solar piece of our nation’s impressive clean energy momentum, favoring a small piece of the industry regardless of the damage to the rest. That would mean harming a sector that has been arguably the best story of job creation and economic growth over the last 10 years. Destroying US jobs while pretending he’s all about creating them.

Or our president could take minimal or no action, send out a victorious tweet or two, and let the US solar industry—in all its dimensions—continue to do its thing. Creating American jobs, not killing them. Strengthening our energy security, not weakening it. And benefiting millions of US customers with greater affordability and access to solar.

Let’s go with option B.

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