Go Faster and Go Further

As we approach the 100th day of the Trump administration this Saturday, it’s clear that the new president has determined to maintain the fossil fuel regime. In response, hundreds of marches will be held around the country (including in Ithaca — see above), with the main event in Washington, DC. As Bill McKibben notes, “since Trump obviously takes his 100th day seriously, it will be a particularly good day to be around his house reminding him how badly he’s doing.”

The rollback of the Obama administration’s energy and climate policies, which had their own limitations, means that the U.S. will send up to 900 more megatons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year. According to a recent report, that will increase the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by almost 2 percent at a time when we need to be making dramatic cuts in these emissions.

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Trump’s advisors are divided about whether the U.S. should abandon the Paris Agreement, but even the strongest advocates for not doing so want to renegotiate the terms of the accord. In any event, it certainly appears as if we’re handing over leadership on this critical issue to China and Europe. In terms that Trump might understand, such a failure of leadership will do permanent damage to our nation’s brand. But much more than a marketing blunder is at stake;  the fate of human civilization rests on not going down this road.

The one bright light is that the transition to a clean energy economy seems to have reached a tipping point that will carry it forward regardless of any policy shifts. In particular, despite President Trump’s rhetoric, It’s too late to bring back coal or the associated mining jobs, not just because natural gas has become too cheap for coal to be competitive. The costs of wind and solar have dropped so significantly in the last several years that they, too, have become cheaper than goal. This new reality is apparent in the recent decision of the Kentucky Coal Museum to install solar on its roof as a cost-saving measure. Yes, that’s right: the Kentucky Coal Museum is going solar.

The numbers tell an even more impressive story. As the chart above indicates, renewable energy capacity grew 9.3 percent in 2015, the fifth year in a row that the rate has been above 8 percent. In the first quarter of 2016, renewables made up 99 percent of the new electricity production capacity in the U.S., and from Q1 2015 to Q1 2016 they increased from 14 percent of electricity to 17 percent. In contrast, coal dropped during that same period from 36 percent to 29 percent.

The global growth in solar has been especially explosive. For the first time since 2013, solar outpaced wind in 2016. The primary driver has been the astonishing reduction in the cost of utility-scale solar: it fell 62 percent from 2009 to 2015 and is projected to drop another 57 percent by 2025.

At the same time, renewables have become a key source of new employment around the world. Renewable energy jobs rose by 5 percent in 2015 to 8.1 million and there were an additional 1.3 million jobs in large-scale hydropower. In another sign of the historic transition taking place, the American solar industry now employs more workers than coal: 209,000 compared to about 150,000 jobs.

So we’re moving in the right direction; that’s the good news. The not-so-good news, however, is that we need to move a lot faster and go a lot further. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), we need to double the share of renewables in the world’s energy mix by 2030 to keep global warming below 2°C. Overall, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.6 percent per year on average to meet the Paris target.

Accomplishing this task is not impossible, but it’s going to take a lot of work. And, clearly, we can’t count on the federal government to make it happen; it’s up to us. All the more reason we need to take to the streets on Saturday and make our voices heard.

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Uniting the Labor Movement Behind Clean Energy

There’s plenty going on in the Trump campaign to keep voters’ attention on the growing split in the Republican party. But there are also signs of serious divisions in the Democratic party, and I’m not just referring to the tensions between the Sanders and Clinton camps, although these certainly could dampen voter turnout in November.

Even as the Democrats struggle to find a way to bring progressives and centrists together, a fault line has emerged in the labor movement between the building trade unions and the AFL-CIO. As the Washington Post reported last month, the building trade unions attacked a new labor partnership led by the AFL-CIO with billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, whose opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline upset unions that viewed the project as an important source of new construction jobs.

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The primary source of the conflict is a new super PAC called For Our Future that Steyer, a former hedge fund manager, is establishing in conjunction with the AFL-CIO; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); the American Federation of Teachers (AFT); and the National Education Association (NEA).

The PAC, according to a spokesperson for Steyer, will provide an important vehicle to “help elect progressive leaders who are committed to a just transition to a clean energy economy.”

The fixation of the building trade unions on fossil fuel energy in general and the Keystone XL pipeline in particular overlooks the jobs potential of building the clean energy infrastructure necessary to avoid runaway global warming. Furthermore, there is a pressing need to rebuild our country’s civil infrastructure, including roads, bridges, water systems, and schools, And what about making our cities climate resilient, especially along the coasts? An enormous number of construction jobs would be generated, and none of this even involves what a transition to clean energy would generate in the way of new job opportunities.

In addition, federal borrowing rates are at historic lows (near zero) and the federal deficit has declined dramatically since the early years of the Obama administration, so there’s really no excuse for the country not to be undertaking the kinds of public works projects that were so widespread in the 1930s.

The main difference between now and the 1930s, of course, is that the Republicans are in control of the House and Senate and they are dead set against the federal government borrowing the money necessary to fund these projects. They continually raise the alarm about the federal debt to GDP ratio even though there is no real consensus about what constitutes a “safe zone.” See here for more details. We could take a lesson from the Chinese government, which doesn’t even put infrastructure spending in the deficit total because they consider it to be an asset, not a liability.

At any rate, there are plenty of construction jobs to be had with the right national policies in place, many more than will be lost if we stop building pipelines and fossil fuel power plants. In order for this happen, of course, the different wings of the labor movement have to get on the same page. There’s no getting around that fact; if it doesn’t happen, the political consequences will be dire. It’s clearly another reason why the 2016 elections will mark a critical turning point in the nation’s path to the future.

The Ithaca 2030 District Emerges

As part of the City’s economic development program and effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Seneca Strategic Consulting and the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI), together with Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins County, HOLT Architects, Taitem Engineering, and the Building Performance Contractors Association of New York State, are collaborating to create a 2030 District that will showcase ways to significantly reduce the environmental impacts of building construction and operations, while ensuring Ithaca’s economic viability and profitability for building owners, managers, and developers.

These districts seek to meet the energy, water and vehicle emissions reduction targets for existing buildings and new construction called for by Architecture 2030 in the 2030 Challenge for Planning. So far, 2030 Districts have been established in many cities all over the country, including Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but Ithaca will be the first to create a 2030 District in New York.

The Ithaca 2030 District will build on the work of the TCCPI, an award-winning coalition of community leaders from the education, business, local government, youth, and nonprofit sectors that provides a place to network around climate and energy issues. Leveraging the climate action commitments made by Cornell University, Ithaca College, Tompkins Cortland Community College, Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca, and the Towns of Caroline, Dryden, and Ithaca, TCCPI seeks to foster a more climate resilient community and accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy.

The district will demonstrate how property owners and managers can work together to undertake energy efficiency projects in nonresidential buildings in an economically sound way. This project will create jobs in the energy efficiency sector, encouraging more investment in downtown areas, and helping to foster community revitalization. Building owners and managers will share energy, water, transportation data and case studies that will spur additional efforts to make more effective use of limited resources, improving the sustainability and resiliency of the community.

The Ithaca 2030 District is currently in the planning stage. There is a steering committee that is meeting monthly and beginning outreach to property owners and managers in the City of Ithaca. NYSERDA, through its Cleaner, Greener Communities Program, has awarded the Ithaca 2030 Districts team $90,380 against a match of $108,000 provided by the team members. Contract negotiations have been completed and the agreement with NYSERDA should be executed soon, allowing the project to get fully underway. It is anticipated the launch of the District will take place in the late spring of 2016.

Note: This article appeared originally in the Winter 2015 issue of the Commercial Energy Now newsletter.o

Reforming the Energy Vision in NY

The New York Public Service Commission (PSC), which regulates the state’s electricity industry, is not known for challenging the status quo. So, several months ago, when it rolled out Reforming the Energy Vision (REV), a program aiming to give customers more choice and a greater role in managing and sourcing their electricity, a healthy dose of skepticism was in order.

The PSC has been traveling around the state, presenting the ideas behind REV and holding public hearings to gather feedback on its proposals. Calling for a new business model that would base the electric system on distributed energy resources, REV at first glance appears to position New York as a national leader in tackling grid modernization and promoting integration of renewable energy into the state’s power system.

According to the PSC, REV would turn the state’s utilities into what it calls “distributed system platform providers.” This new approach would enable the state’s utilities to track, trade, and forecast assets like rooftop solar, customer-sited co-generation systems, demand response, energy efficiency, and energy storage.

The big question regarding REV is whether the existing utilities should serve as the vehicle for managing and coordinating distributed energy resources. Think about it: if the utilities are both purchasing energy and managing the system, that’s a direct conflict of interest. It’s not hard to imagine utilities favoring their own assets over those of other parties. As many observers have pointed out, It’s crucial for the entity governing the distribution of energy to be independent.

Unfortunately, it seems as if utilities have gained the upper hand in controlling the process. If they succeed, it will choke off a key source of innovation. Right now utility revenues are based on how much electricity the utility sells; the more it sells, the more revenue it gets. With utilities in charge of the process, what incentive will they have to find other ways to generate revenue?

To its credit, the PSC is also considering allowing municipalities to pool the electric load from residents, businesses, and institutions and collectively purchase electricity, a process known as Community Choice Aggregation (CCA). CCAs are already allowed in several states, including California, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, and Massachusetts. If the PSC allows CCAs in New York, it would provide some check against the power of the utilities.

In any case, the key point is fairly straightforward: as New York turns more from fossil fuels toward alternative energy, it’s important that major utilities not dominate the process. Only if citizens make their views known to the commission, however, will they be stopped. Comments may be submitted to the PSC by clicking here.

Getting from Here to There

2014 turned out to be a momentous year for the climate protection effort, culminating in the historic march on September 21 in New York City that brought more than 400,000 people, including many from Tompkins County, to join in a demand for action from world leaders. The news on November 12 that the U.S. and China, which together account for 45 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, had struck a deal to limit these emissions suggested that perhaps they were listening.

Then, on December 17, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his administration would ban fracking in the state largely because of concerns over risks to the public’s health. The watershed decision came after years of citizen activism insisting that the state should leave its considerable fossil fuel reserves in the ground because of the threats fracking posed to the air, water, and soil of its communities.

The call for leaving carbon in the ground also came from a rapidly growing divestment movement.

Beginning with students at U.S. colleges and universities, the movement soon encompassed, among others, higher education institutions in Scotland and Australia as well as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the World Council of Churches, and Ithaca’s Park Foundation. As a result of this campaign, according to Fossil Free, more than $50 billion in assets have been divested so far. Building on this momentum, 350.org and its partners have begun organizing a Global Divestment Day for February 13-14, 2015. Stay tuned.

At the same time, renewable energy rapidly gained traction throughout the world. As the year wound to a close, reports out of Germany indicated that the country had generated a record 25 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources during 2014, with wind and solar leading the way. On May 11, almost 75 percent of Germany’s overall electricity needs were met by renewable energy.

All of these impressive developments, however, took place against the backdrop of a rapidly worsening outlook for the planet’s climate. According to climate scientists, all indications are that 2014 will be the hottest year on record for the planet, marking 38 years in a row of higher-than-average temperatures.words,

In Rebecca Solnit’s words,”It’s hard to see how we’ll get there from here.” But, she notes, that’s how it felt to lots of ordinary 18th-century Europeans when they contemplated overthrowing the divine right of kings and becoming citizens rather than subjects. It takes sustained, concentrated effort on the part of lots of people working together to create a new reality.

Closer to home, Cornell’s purchase of community-owned wind power, the doubling of residential solar power in Tompkins County, the growing recognition that economic development and greenhouse gas emission reductions are not mutually exclusive, and new initiatives to make our commercial buildings more energy efficient all serve as examples of how to build this new reality. May those examples continue to multiply and grow in 2015.

A Turning Point in the Climate Protection Fight?

The news about accelerating climate change continues to be grim. The most recent National Climate Assessment, issued in early May, underscored the extensive damage that climate change is already inflicting on various regions in the United States. John Holdren, the White House science advisor, called the report “the loudest and clearest alarm bell to date signalling the need to take urgent action to combat the threats to Americans from climate change.”

The news is not all bad, however. Three recent events since the report’s release raise the possibility that this time the alarm might actually be registering. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled on June 2 its long-awaited plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan would, if approved, direct states to develop a range of programs to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 30 percent from 2005 emissions levels by 2030.

The Dave Johnston coal-fired power plant in Wyoming.

The new rules mark the first time any U.S. president has moved to regulate carbon pollution from power plants, the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions. Although arguably establishing goals that are too little and a deadline too late to prevent runaway climate change, the Obama administration sent a clear signal that it was finally willing to expend some significant political capital on the fight for climate protection.

Providing further hope that the proposed carbon regulations might mark a turning point, the U.S. Supreme Court on June 23 largely upheld the authority of the EPA to implement the proposed regulations, making it much more likely that the agency could fend off challenges from industry and conservative opponents.

The very next day a bipartisan group of senior political and business leaders, including three former secretaries of the Treasury, endorsed putting a price on carbon, warning that enormous deposits of oil and coal will have to be left in the ground to avoid reaching dangerous levels of global warming. In their report, “Risky Business,” the group outlined the economic impact of climate change, highlighting how climate change was becoming a serious financial issue for corporations.

In a New York Times op-ed launching the campaign for a carbon tax, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson contended that “we’re staring down a climate bubble that poses enormous risks to both our environment and economy.” Paulson, who served in the administration of George W. Bush, compared the mounting climate crisis to the financial crisis of 2008 and the collapse of the economy that followed.

Maybe, just maybe, the dam of political stalemate is beginning to break and the U.S. will finally adopt a coherent and effective climate and energy policy. You can be sure, however, that witout systematic and sustained pressure from the grass roots the necessary changes will never take place. That means that it’s up to us. But it’s certainly nice to see some of our political and business leaders finally lining up on our side.

The President’s Call for Action

President Obama, in his speech at Georgetown University yesterday, finally made clear that he was done waiting for Congress to act on the mounting evidence that climate change is already well underway. He announced a series of executive actions, none of them needing the approval of Congress, to crack down on carbon pollution from power plants, accelerate the growth of renewable energy, increase energy efficiency for commercial, industrial, and federal buildings, and prepare the nation for the impacts of climate change.

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As many have already pointed out, these actions do not go far enough and may very well be too little, too late. Obama still hasn’t acknowledged the serious risks posed by fracking and he clearly left himself an out on the Keystone XL pipeline. His decision will depend, to paraphrase one of his White House predecessors, on what the meaning of the word “significantly” is, as in “approval to build the pipeline will only be granted if it does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem.”

Still, although long overdue, the president’s speech was a bracing call for action and has the potential to shift the dynamics of what has been a very frustrating stalemate. Perhaps the most important point made in his remarks came near the end, when he stressed that the climate challenge “is not just a job for politicians”:

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue.

“Make yourself heard”: this is the essence of democracy. With so much at stake, this is no time to sit on the sidelines.

No Easy Answers

With Earth Day weekend fast approaching, the calendar is filling up with all kinds of events to mark the observance: conferences, lectures, summits, fairs, and film screenings. Spring is late in coming to the Finger Lakes this year but, if we’re lucky, the weather forecast might hold up and the warmer temperatures will continue and maybe, just maybe we’ll even get some sunshine in time for the celebrations.

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Cayuga Power Plant

It’s no little irony that at the same time we recommit to becoming better stewards of our life support system otherwise known as “the environment,” we are faced with the dilemma of how to respond to the news that Cayuga Power Plant is seeking to shift from coal to natural gas. While many are touting natural gas as a cleaner burning alternative to coal, recent reports coming out of Cornell and elsewhere suggest that the methane emissions released during the life cycle of natural gas production and distribution, not just combustion, make it as dirty or perhaps even dirtier than coal.

So what to do? Cayuga Power Plant supplies over 300 megawatts of electricity to the grid and is not easily replaced. It also is a key source of property taxes for both the town of Lansing and Tompkins County. Shutting it down would have a major impact on the area’s economy.

There is no easy answer and there will be huge trade offs regardless of what course we take. If nothing else, the Cayuga Power Plant stands as a stark reminder of just how deeply embedded we are in the fossil fuel regime and just how difficult it will be extricate ourselves from it.

The debate over how to move forward has the potential to be a crucial teachable moment in the life of our community, reminding us that there are always consequences to our decisions, whether conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional. Perhaps one of the best ways we can observe this year’s Earth Day is to recognize there are no easy answers, only complexities and challenges that we must confront and work our way through.

Time for an Energy Policy that Makes Sense

We all know that a clear, predictable, and fair national policy encouraging investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy is the key to any real, viable solution to avoiding runaway climate change. If this is the case, then why does the overwhelming bulk of our federal tax dollars go to subsidizing the oil, coal, and gas industries and not clean energy? Why are the tax credits that support the fossil fuel industry permanent and unchallengeable? Why are the tax credits that support renewable energy temporary and constantly up for grabs?

A Shell oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico

According to a 2010 Environmental Law Institute study, the U.S. government provided $72 billion between 2002 and 2008 to the fossil fuel industry. About $54 billion of that total took the form of permanent tax credits for oil, coal, and natural gas producers. During that same period, the renewable energy industry received only $29 billion, most of it also in the form of federal tax credits. The difference is that none of the renewable energy tax credits are permanent.

Of course, as David Roberts writes in Grist, “Comparisons of direct subsidies capture only the tip of a giant iceberg – most of fossil fuels’ big advantages are invisible, beneath the surface, and entirely taken for granted.” Even a quick glance at the indirect subsidies makes clear how uneven the playing field is. External costs such as the public health toll paid for air and water pollution and the national security price of maintaining our addiction to oil amount to trillions of dollars.

Then there are the costs of climate change as superstorms such as Sandy become more frequent and violent. Early estimates of the damage from Sandy range up to $50 billion. And let’s not forget the enormous sunk costs of an infrastructure built on the assumption of cheap fossil energy: highways, suburbs, airports, and the like.

Viewed in this light, as Roberts vividly observes, shifting “from fossil fuels to renewable energy is not like going from Coke to Pepsi; it is to build a new world.” Not even Nate Silver, as good as he is, can tell us how long this new world will take to build and whether we will get far enough along in time to stave off runaway climate change. But one thing we should all be clear about: it’s long past the time to get started, and a national energy policy geared towards this future is an essential first step.

Envisioning a Low-Carbon Future

Listening to the rhetoric of oil, coal, and gas company executives such as the Koch brothers, you would think they were champions of limited government and the free market. In fact, however, the fossil fuel industry is one of the most subsidized businesses in the United States and its burgeoning profits would shrink dramatically without federal support. According to the Environmental Law Institute, the U.S. government provided $72 billion between 2002 and 2008. About $54 billion of that total took the form of permanent tax credits for oil, coal, and natural gas producers. In contrast, during that same period, the renewable energy industry received $29 billion, most of it also in the form of federal tax credits. The difference is that none of these tax credits are permanent.

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President Barack Obama and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu visit a Penn State lab in February 2011.

On top of these enormous subsidies for oil, coal, and gas, there are staggering external costs incurred as a result of our dependence on fossil fuel. These include the expense of defending strategic oil interests in the Middle East and elsewhere, the damage to air quality and our health, and the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the climate. Then there is the looming crisis of peak oil and our growing competitive disadvantage as other countries such as China rush to embrace clean energy technologies. Taking all of these factors into account, it’s hard not to believe that relying solely on fossil fuel energy is foolhardy.

The Pentagon knows this. At a recent White House summit on clean energy, I spoke with several Army officers from Fort Carson in Colorado and it was clear they were hard at work making the transition to renewables and energy efficiency. No one had to remind them of the tremendous sacrifice in lives and dollars sustained in military operations as a result of our dependence on foreign oil. And no one had to convince them that climate change was a rising national security risk; they had their own hard data about the impact of global warming on political and economic stability around the world.

In light of these developments, it makes perfect sense that President Obama is seeking to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars that the government gives to oil and gas companies. As he put it in a speech at Penn State earlier this month, “It’s time to stop subsidizing yesterday’s energy; it’s time to invest in tomorrow’s.” The redirected dollars would go towards the development of wind, solar, and geothermal power, energy efficiency technology, and building upgrades.

In his Penn State remarks, President Obama called on Americans to take up the challenge of energy innovation. The Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) has been doing just that since June 2008. A coalition of community leaders from the business, financial, nonprofit, local government, and education sectors, TCCPI has brought together many of the key organizations and institutions in Tompkins County to explore ways we can build a low carbon future and achieve the County’s target of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

It is efforts like these in countless communities across the U.S. that will make it possible for us to reengage as citizens in a democratic society and take our country in a different direction, one that steps back from the brink of ecological disaster and moves towards a world in which the balance between the natural world and human civilization is restored and a more just and equitable future for our children and grandchildren is made possible. In the end, it will be people, not technology, who make the difference.

Note: A longer version of this post was published in the Tompkins Weekly, February, 29, 2011.