Union of Concerned ScientistsEnergy – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org a blog on independent science + practical solutions Fri, 16 Mar 2018 21:44:31 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/cropped-favicon-32x32.png Energy – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org 32 32 Black Lung, Abandoned Mines, Struggling Communities—And No Leadership https://blog.ucsusa.org/jeremy-richardson/reclaim-act-black-lung-disease https://blog.ucsusa.org/jeremy-richardson/reclaim-act-black-lung-disease#respond Fri, 16 Mar 2018 19:19:35 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=57416
A miner waiting for a black lung screening. Photo: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

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

My grandfather died of black lung disease in 1988.

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

What is black lung disease?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Federal support

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

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

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

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

Congressional action?

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

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

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

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

Opposition from the usual suspects

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

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

Where’s the leadership?

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

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

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

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
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3 Takeaways from the Latest Solar Results https://blog.ucsusa.org/john-rogers/3-takeaways-solar-statistics-2017 https://blog.ucsusa.org/john-rogers/3-takeaways-solar-statistics-2017#respond Thu, 15 Mar 2018 21:01:27 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=57394
Photo: publicsource.org

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

1. Annual solar installations took a hit.

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

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

So that part of the drop was not unexpected.

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

2. But solar still soared overall.

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

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

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

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

3. And… we can do better.

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

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

Credit: Aeon Solar via NREL

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

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

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

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

Bright future, now

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

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


Public Source
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Energy Storage Means Energy Security—but Trump’s Budget Gives It the Axe https://blog.ucsusa.org/rob-cowin/energy-storage-energy-security https://blog.ucsusa.org/rob-cowin/energy-storage-energy-security#respond Wed, 14 Mar 2018 18:05:02 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=57340

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

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

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

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

An energy recovery system. Photo: Wikimedia

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

Why energy storage is important

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

How can energy storage make America more secure and prosperous?

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

An energy storage project. Photo: Wikimedia

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

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

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

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


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

Last fall China published a national plan on the development of the storage industry. Chinese companies already control global markets for key battery components, and China is set to be a global superpower in storage technologies in the 2020s. The country that dominates energy storage will own energy security, and I for one, am not interested in ceding that to China.

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

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Las mujeres fortalecen las industrias de energía renovable https://blog.ucsusa.org/paula-garcia/las-mujeres-fortalecen-las-industrias-de-energia-renovable https://blog.ucsusa.org/paula-garcia/las-mujeres-fortalecen-las-industrias-de-energia-renovable#respond Thu, 08 Mar 2018 15:43:03 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=57250

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

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

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

Una fuerza de trabajo diversa se traduce en mejores resultados

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

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

El empoderamiento de la mujer es una tarea de todos

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

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

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

    Presenciando como se construye el futuro

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

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

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


P. Garcia
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Scott Pruitt Ensnares the Clean Power Plan in More Red Tape https://blog.ucsusa.org/julie-mcnamara/scott-pruitt-ensnares-the-clean-power-plan-in-more-red-tape https://blog.ucsusa.org/julie-mcnamara/scott-pruitt-ensnares-the-clean-power-plan-in-more-red-tape#respond Thu, 01 Mar 2018 18:14:06 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=57108
Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons (Flickr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unreasonably narrow, inappropriately weak

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

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

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

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

Why we still fight

And yet, we still submitted comments on Monday.

Alongside 250,000 others.

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

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

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

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3 preguntas y respuestas sobre la energía solar: ¿qué?, ¿por qué?, y ¿cómo? https://blog.ucsusa.org/paula-garcia/3-preguntas-y-respuestas-sobre-la-energia-solar-que-por-que-y-como https://blog.ucsusa.org/paula-garcia/3-preguntas-y-respuestas-sobre-la-energia-solar-que-por-que-y-como#respond Wed, 28 Feb 2018 15:01:50 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56995

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

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

¿Qué es la energía solar?

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

En esta ocasión me enfocaré en la energía solar fotovoltaica.

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

¿Cuáles son los beneficios que brinda esta tecnología?

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

Sonrisas bajo el sol. Foto: Solar Energy Industries Association

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

¿Como podemos acceder a ella?

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

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

La revolución en proceso

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

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

Getty Images/Mint Images/Bill Miles
Photo: Black Rock Solar/CC BY 2.0, Flickr
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How to Fix Trump’s Infrastructure Plan: Focus on the Right Values and Priorities https://blog.ucsusa.org/ken-kimmell/how-to-fix-trumps-infrastructure-plan-focus-on-the-right-values-and-priorities https://blog.ucsusa.org/ken-kimmell/how-to-fix-trumps-infrastructure-plan-focus-on-the-right-values-and-priorities#respond Tue, 27 Feb 2018 21:43:57 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=57016
Photo: US Air Force/Kemberly Groue

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

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

Photo: Des Moines Water Works

Just and equitable infrastructure priorities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infrastructure informed by science and public input

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Photo: Diliff/Wikimedia Commons

Infrastructure with an eye to the future

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

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

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

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

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

Looking forward

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

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4 Happy Thoughts about the Trump Solar Tariffs https://blog.ucsusa.org/john-rogers/4-happy-thoughts-about-the-trump-solar-tariffs https://blog.ucsusa.org/john-rogers/4-happy-thoughts-about-the-trump-solar-tariffs#comments Thu, 22 Feb 2018 18:21:51 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56855
Photo: U.S. Air Force/Jennifer Green-Lanchoney

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

1. Solar will grow

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Solar jobs will grow

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

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

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

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

3. The solar industry is strong

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

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

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

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

Credit: Aeon Solar via NREL

4. We are strong

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

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

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

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

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

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The Facts About Trump’s Solar Tariffs – Who Gets Hurt? Who Gets Helped? https://blog.ucsusa.org/john-rogers/trump-solar-tariff-facts https://blog.ucsusa.org/john-rogers/trump-solar-tariff-facts#comments Wed, 21 Feb 2018 18:52:37 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56850
Credit: Used with permission from publicsource.org

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

What the solar tariffs look like

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

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

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

Who they hurt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who they help(?)

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how Bloomberg analyst Hugh Bromley put it:

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

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

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

Who they hurt, part II

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

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

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

Sure looking like pain without gain.

More please. (Credit: Dennis Schroeder/NREL)

No wall

So, where does that leave us?

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

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

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

So drive on, solar. We’re with you.

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President Dumps Clean Energy in Proposed Budget https://blog.ucsusa.org/jeremy-richardson/president-dumps-clean-energy-in-proposed-budget https://blog.ucsusa.org/jeremy-richardson/president-dumps-clean-energy-in-proposed-budget#respond Tue, 13 Feb 2018 15:24:13 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56759
Photo: US Department of Energy

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

The Budget Process

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

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

The Hit List

  • ARPA-E, funded at $261 million in FY 2017, would receive no funding in FY 2019. According to the White House, the agency “will wind down operations in FY 2018 with the expectation that it will shut down in FY 2019, with remaining monitoring and contract closeout activities transferred elsewhere within DOE.” Given wide bipartisan support, this seems unrealistic.
  • Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) is slated for drastic cuts—from $2.1 billion in FY 2017 down to just $696 million in FY 2019. This represents a two-thirds cut in funding for clean energy R&D, not much better than the 72 percent cut reported earlier.
  • The Office of Electricity Delivery and Reliability (OE) would be split into two offices focusing on grid reliability (Electricity Delivery) and cybersecurity. Together, the two offices would receive $157 million in FY 2019, which is still a 31 percent cut from OE’s enacted FY 2017 level. Worse, energy storage R&D faces a sharp 74 percent cut ($8 million in FY 2019 compared to $31 million enacted in FY 2017).
  • Other important programs within Electricity Delivery are also facing steep cuts: transmission reliability and resiliency ($44 million to $13 million) and resilient distribution systems ($54 million to $10 million). These cuts seem particularly harsh given all the recent impacts on the electricity system due to severe weather.
  • The budget also completely axes the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) block grants managed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Last year, LIHEAP released about $3.03 billion in block grants for states and tribes to help low-income households pay heating and cooling bills. The president’s budget proposes $0—meaning states and tribes would be left to figure out how to make up the shortfall.
  • The president also proposes eliminating the successful Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program. The loans have helped companies commercialize energy technology, and the program has turned a profit for taxpayers, raising more than $1.79 billion in interest payments since its inception in 2005. The program could even be used to support energy infrastructure projects.

Reflecting the Administration’s Ideology

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

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

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

What’s Next

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


Update 2/13/18, 12:11 pm: An additional bullet point was added, mentioning the elimination of the Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program.

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