This Time Albany Sets the Pace; Can Ithaca Catch Up?

More often than not Ithaca is ahead of the curve, providing cutting-edge leadership on progressive issues such as the ban on fracking and new approaches to drug policy. But, as the recent letter from the City of Ithaca Planning and Development Board and Gov. Cuomo’s announcement of his Green New Deal reveal, the city finds itself lagging significantly behind when it comes to climate action and clean energy.

Students strike for climate action. Photo by Stop Adani licensed under CC BY-2.0 .

The call from Albany for New York’s power to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2040 — at the heart of the state’s Green New Deal — poses a direct challenge to a city hall that has shown little inclination to discourage developers from relying on natural gas for new projects downtown or elsewhere. The governor’s mandate underscores the need for immediate action by the city to demonstrate its commitment to this new statewide target.

Kudos, then, to the City Planning Board for recognizing in its letter that there need to be “more tangible and stringent energy code requirements.” And further kudos for acknowledging that climate change requires a broader approach than simply adopting a new green building code, although this would certainly be a major step in the right direction. The planning board rightly asserts “it is imperative that we take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now.” In particular, the city needs to put in place “new fossil fuel reduction standards that are able to be upheld by various bodies, are easy to understand for the public and members of board and committees from various backgrounds, and will live in perpetuity within City Code.”

Where is the leadership for moving the community as a whole, not just city operations, off of fossil fuels and establishing a policy for achieving 100% renewable power by 2040? Will the mayor and Common Council respond to this challenge? Across the U.S., according to the Sierra Club, over 90 cities have already adopted ambitious 100% clean energy goals, sometimes even including heat and transportation, not just electricity. Why isn’t Ithaca on the Sierra Club list?

The usual suspects such as Boulder, Burlington, Cambridge, Madison, and Palo Alto can be found on this list, but the appearance of other cities such as Augusta, GA, Norman, OK, and West Chester, PA make it clear that Ithaca’s absence is an embarrassment. What will it take for the city’s leaders to rectify this situation?

One thing is certain: young people across the globe are getting fed up with the complacency of the older generation in charge. Inspired by the example of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, thousands of students in the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, Uganda, Thailand, Colombia, Poland, and more are taking to the streets to demand change. On March 15, American students will have their chance to join others from around the world. It would not be surprising if Ithaca students join this global movement. If they do, will the city listen to them and be ready to demonstrate its commitment to climate action and clean energy?

This post originally appeared as an opinion piece in the Ithaca Voice on March 18, 2019.

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Renewable Energy on the March

The news so far this year has been dismal: mass shootings, Russian meddling in our elections, rabid political partisanship on Capitol Hill, scandals erupting in the White House, and an opioid epidemic out of control. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

There’s a bit of light, however, glimmering on the renewable energy front. When President Trump first took office, it looked like renewable energy would be entering an unremittingly bleak era. His administration has mounted a militantly pro-fossil fuel campaign, advocating policies that are clearly aimed at undercutting the transition to renewable energy. The recent decision to impose a 30 percent tax on solar panels imported from China, in particular, looked as if it would deal a substantial blow to the solar industry.

Surprisingly, though, it doesn’t seem like the expansion of renewable energy can be stopped. As the New Republic points out, ” From solar to wind to geothermal energy, the renewables industry is  withstanding Trump — and in some cases, it’s doing better than ever.” It turns out that the long march towards a clean energy economy can be hindered but not stopped. Trump simply does not have the power to alter the direction of technological innovation and market forces.

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Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance

A new report, the 2018 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, underscores this point. Even in the uncertain climate accompanying the ascension of Trump to the White House in 2017, 18 percent of all electricity in the U.S. was produced by renewable sources, including wind, solar, and hydropower, up from 15 percent in 2016. That, as one energy analyst noted, puts renewables “within striking distance” of the nuclear power sector, which has hovered at 19-20 percent since 2008. Just as impressive, the share of electricity produced by renewables in the U.S. has doubled since 2008, while coal’s share plummeted from 48% to 30%.

The continued drop in the cost of renewables (and natural gas) spells bad news for coal going forward. Solar and wind projects made up about 62% of new power construction in 2017 and 2.9 gigawatts of new renewable energy projects were undertaken last year. In contrast, 12.5 gigawatts of coal plants are slated to shut down in 2018.

“Imagine,” observes the New Republic, “how well solar, wind, and battery technology would fare if Trump had the same enthusiasm for promoting it as he does for promoting coal and oil and gas.” But then Trump wouldn’t be Trump — that’s the unfortunate reality. In the meantime, however, the renewables march forges ahead.

No Moratorium for Climate Change

As the 8th annual Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) report makes clear, there is much to celebrate in our community. Viewed collectively, the report documents an impressive contribution to the fight against climate change. Perhaps most important it demonstrates how collaboration and a sense of common purpose can lead to real progress.

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The Willow Glen Cemetery in Dryden. Photo courtesy of the Town of Dryden.

There is one area, however, of significant concern: the growing opposition in the Finger Lakes region to commercial-scale wind and solar. The debate over solar farms in Dryden, in particular, reflects the sharp divide between those who want to hold on to a nostalgic view of rural life and those who want to address the future challenges that we face as the climate continues to destabilize at a rate that even the most pessimistic computer models have underestimated. “Hillside after hillside, farm land after farm land, field after field they are going to replace our beautiful, beautiful landscape with nothing but industrial solar panels,” declared one opponent in the Dryden controversy, while other opponents decried the disrespect shown to those buried in a nearby cemetery.

The same battle lines have formed in other communities such as Newfield, Enfield, and the Town of Seneca, all of which have recently passed moratoriums on large-scale wind and solar projects in an attempt “to preserve the rural character” of their communities. The irony is that there seems to be little acknowledgement of how climate change is threatening the very foundation of rural life in the Finger Lakes, the biosphere that makes our region so unique.

If we refuse to act with an eye on the future and move rapidly to a clean energy economy, we are faced with the prospect of a new ecosystem making its way north. Projections indicate that, given the current pace of global warming, in as few as 30 to 40 years the climate of upstate New York is likely to resemble that of Georgia. Clearly, such a shift will result in a very different countryside than what our grandparents experienced. Already the average temperature in New York during the winter has climbed 4.4 °F since the 1970s, heavy downpours have increased by 70 percent since the 1950s, and spring begins a week earlier  than it did a few decades ago.

The message is clear: the biggest risk of all is to do nothing. The ecosystem of the Finger Lakes is already experiencing significant stress and only by dramatically reducing our carbon footprint as quickly as possible can we have any chance to avoid exchanging it for a very different ecosystem. Without the development of large-scale wind and solar, there is little to no possibility of avoiding this fate. In short, there is a lot more at stake than spoiling the view.

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), 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.

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.

Hope and Despair as 2015 Draws to a Close

Things can feel pretty bleak on a gray, rainy afternoon in late December as one considers the impact our greenhouse gas emissions will have on the planet for the generations ahead. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that we are making progress.

Although it certainly has its flaws, including the lack of any legally binding commitments, the climate agreement reached in Paris earlier this month by nearly 200 countries is historic, marking the most significant progress yet made in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

After years of obstructionism, the U.S. actually played a positive role in the Paris talks. In the run up to COP 21, President Obama set the tone for the negotiations by exercising his executive authority to reject the Keystone XL pipeline and announcing the Clean Power Plan, a crucial step to reduce carbon pollution from power plants

At the same time, China is moving forward decisively to reduce emissions from coal and renewable energy has become an economically viable alternative to fossil fuels. Government investigations into Exxon’s cover up of its own climate research have clearly put the oil industry on the defensive and the divestment movement gathers increasing momentum.

Closer to home, as the talks in Paris got underway, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a directive that 50 percent of electricity generated in our state come from renewable technologies by 2030. This mandate sends a strong signal that New York needs to accelerate its transition to renewable energy.

In the last 10 years, New York’s renewable energy has increased from about 19 percent to 25 percent of total electricity use. The state’s renewable portfolio standard, which expires today, helped make this possible. Now the challenge is clear: we need double the share of renewable energy to 50 percent in the next 15 years.

The Road to and from Paris

All eyes are on the upcoming climate talks in Paris. Set to begin November 30, the UN Climate Change Conference is widely viewed as the last chance for a substantive international agreement to head off runaway climate destabilization. It seems likely that a deal will be struck, but the real question is whether it will be enough to do the trick.

Over the past several months, about 150 countries — including China, the United States, the European Union, and India — have made voluntary pledges to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions after 2020, when the deal is supposed to take effect. Negotiations in Paris will seek to build upon those commitments and create a structure to monitor and strengthen them.

The major problem facing negotiators is that the commitments made so far are not sufficient to hold the world under 2 degrees C of warming. The general scientific consensus is that anything over 2 degrees C runs the risk of triggering dangerous changes that could cause global havoc.

This news comes as a flurry of new reports remind us that the road we are on currently will lead to disaster and that changes already underway will have terrible consequences, especially for the world’s most vulnerable populations, the poor, young, old, and sick, to say nothing of other nonhuman species, many of which are vital to the health of the world’s ecosystems.

A study issued just days ago by the National Academy of Sciences, for example, warned that greenhouse gas emissions will cause a dramatic collapse of the ocean’s marine life unless we reverse course. A massive coral bleaching event that is sweeping across oceans from Hawaii to India to the Caribbean is among several developments underscoring the report’s findings.

Another recently published analysis estimates that, given carbon emissions to date, the world has probably committed to at least 1.6 meters of long-term sea-level rise, more than five feet. This level of locked-in increase will submerge most of the homes in over 400 U.S. towns and cities, including New Orleans and Miami. Among cities tbat will experience similar fates if they do not take drastic action soon are New York City, Philadelphia, and Jacksonville.

Even as scientists point out that we have already experienced a global temperature rise of almost 1 degree C since the Industrial Revolution, many of them maintain that the worst effects of global warming can still be avoided. “The climate change problem is one that can be solved,” insists climate expert Professor Chris Field of Stanford University. “We have the technologies, the resources – we just need to make the commitment.”

The rapid drop in the cost of producing wind and solar energy is certainly among the most hopeful developments. As a result, the International Energy Agency earlier this month projected that by 2020, 26 percent of the world’s energy will be generated by renewable sources. That’s definitely good news.

The talks in Paris will make it clear whether we can avoid pushing the temperature up another 1 degree C. If not, the road from Paris will be much more difficult than anything we have had to deal with on the road to Paris. Let’s hope that our leaders recognize this and act accordingly.

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.

“Hope is a Verb With Its Sleeves Rolled Up”

Since its founding six years ago, TCCPI has advanced the notion that the only effective way for communities to fight climate change is by working together. The many challenges we face in dealing with climate mitigation and adaptation can only be met if we break out of our silos and work across sectors.
The achievement of “emerging district” status for Ithaca is a good example of what can be accomplished when we collaborate. Made up of business, local government, and nonprofit leaders who are committed to reducing the carbon footprint of their buildings, the Ithaca 2030 District seeks to foster the establishment of performance benchmarks, the collecting and sharing of data, and the dissemination of best practices in the areas of energy conservation and energy efficiency.

Through the collaboration of diverse stakeholders, leveraging existing and developing new incentives and financing mechanisms, and creating and sharing joint resources, the Ithaca 2030 District will demonstrate the business case for healthy and high performing buildings.


Solar Tompkins is another terrific example of what can happen when we work together toward a common goal. Director Melissa Kemp recently announced that the program has exceeded its target, enrolling nearly 1,300 families in the program. The initiative aims to double the amount of solar-panel electricity generated in the county. The deadline for enrollees to decide if they want to go solar is October 1, and already 120 have done so. In order to stimulate the growth of solar adoption in the County, Solar Tompkins is selling photovoltaic (PV) solar panel arrays at well below market rate. A typical residential 7,000-watt system could cost only $6,216 through the program once all of the tax credits and rebates are taken into account, according to Kemp.

“Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up,” David Orr, professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College, often likes to say. The continuing news about the onset of significant climate disruption could easily lead to despair and paralysis. But by local citizens and institutions coming together on projects such as the Ithaca 2030 District and Solar Tompkins, and rolling up our sleeves for the long haul, we make it possible to build a more sustainable future for Tompkins County.

Not Just Renewable Energy

The day after attending the anti-fracking concert in Binghamton featuring Natalie Merchant and the Horse Flies, I ran across a new report published by the American Meteorological Society concluding that the ice covering Lake Ontario in the winter had decreased by 88 per cent over the last forty years. Eighty-eight percent. That’s a big number.

Natalie Merchant

Yes, smaller cyclical climate patterns like El Nino and El Nina were responsible for some of this decline but so, too, was the broad trend of global warming. Lake Superior was so free of ice this past winter that a local ferry north of Ashland, Wis., operated all season, something that has happened only once before.

One of the speakers at the concert called on the audience to not only oppose Marcellus drilling but also support the development of renewable energy. “Energy efficiency, too,” I thought to myself. Solar, wind, and geothermal by themselves will not be enough to manage the risk of runaway climate change. And climate adaptation and resilience must be tackled, given the amount of change already baked in. And then there are issues of local food security, alternative transportation, and waste, all being addressed in the Get Your GreenBack Tompkins (GYGB) campaign.

So much work to do; it can all seem more than a little overwhelming. But then every generation has work to do. In many ways, we are fortunate that what Thomas Berry calls “the Great Work” of our time is so well defined. We know what we must do to make sure the generations after us have clean water, clean air, healthy food to eat, and families that thrive. As Natalie Merchant sang that wonderful evening in Binghamton, “These are the days you’ll remember.”