Climate and Energy News Roundup 3/13/2020

Politics and Policy

The spread of coronavirus across the world is disrupting climate and biodiversity meetings ahead of two critical UN summits seeking to limit warming and to halt extinctions of plants and wildlife.  At Inside Climate News, Dan Gearino reviewed the climate lessons in the response to the coronavirus.  The Corps of Engineers has been given authority to provide funding to municipalities to buy out houses in flood-prone areas.  The catch is, if the municipality joins the program, it must use its eminent domain powers to force out people who won’t voluntarily sell and move.  The Senate on Thursday voted 52-40 to confirm James Danly as a Republican commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  A panel of economic experts appearing on Capitol Hill during a March 12 hearing convened by the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis delivered a clear warning that continued inaction on climate will result in enormous economic and societal consequences.  Grist compared the comments Sanders and Biden have given about climate change during the debates while Reuters directly compared their plans.  Juliet Eilperin had an interesting piece in The Washington Post under the headline “Bernie Sanders’s climate record in congress: Lots of advocacy, no compromise.”

A Fairfax County church is on track to be the first Virginia property to tap into the PACE (property-assessed clean energy) program to finance upgrades to its aging HVAC system.  Martinsville City Council approved the concept of a new solar energy facility on the former Lynwood Golf Club site.  The city would have a power purchase agreement it.  David Roberts dissected the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) at Vox, while Walton Shepard, the Virginia Policy Director of NRDC’s Climate & Clean Energy Program, had a blog post about the shortcomings of the act as passed by the General Assembly and what Governor Ralph Northam can do to fix it.  A federal judge has sided with the developers of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in their dispute with the Board of Supervisors of Nelson County, VA, over the permitting powers of local governments.

The Senate energy package stalled on Monday in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee over an amendment that would limit the use of hydrofluorocarbons — potent greenhouse gases.  The authors of the amendment also have a bill under consideration by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.  There were two interesting articles this week about deniers of main-stream climate science.  One dealt with their activities to counteract the influence of conservative clean energy groups, led most prominently by ClearPath and Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions.  The other involved a joint investigation by non-profit newsroom Correctiv and current affairs TV show, Frontal21, into the activities of the Heartland Institute to weaken climate policies in Germany.  Speaking of Heartland, it has launched a website of contrarian climate science called “Climate at a Glance”, which includes brief explanations of key climate science and policy issues, many of which are either misleading or inaccurate.  Whether Heartland can keep it up is in question, however, since it laid off more than half of its staff last week amid financial difficulties.

Damian Carrington, The Guardian’s environment editor, had an excellent opinion essay about “deadlines” for saving the world from climate change.  James Slevin, president of the Utility Workers Union of America, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), a climate warrior, have joined forces to argue for a carbon tax, the first time that an energy-sector union has announced support for such a fee.  Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed an executive order to further the state’s emission reduction goals Tuesday after state GOP lawmakers blocked legislation by staging their second walkout in less than a year.  In selecting Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) to serve as his next chief of staff, President Trump is bringing into the White House a Republican lawmaker who has raised concerns about climate change and expressed a desire to do something about it, although it would be a stretch to call him a climate champion.

Climate and Climate Science

The World Meteorological Organization released its annual state of the climate report for 2019, stating that the planet is “way off track” in dealing with climate change.  Greenland and Antarctica are melting six times faster than in the 1990s, according to the most complete analysis to date by the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Intercomparison Exercise.  The melt rate is tracking the worst-case climate warming scenario set out by the IPCC.

A new paper in Environmental Research Letters has warned that if Earth warms by 1.5°C, 500 million people would be subjected to heat and humidity in excess of safe levels each year, increasing to 800 million at 2°C of warming. 

Air pollution, which is caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, kills more people each year in the U.S. than auto accidents and homicides combined and costs the American economy up to $1 trillion per year.  Thus, curbing fossil fuel use will have immediate and significant impacts, as well as mitigate climate change.

Many seabirds in the UK are struggling in the face of food shortages and storms brought on by climate change, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee has warned.  Climate change is spurring some bear populations across the world to change their hibernation patterns.  A big question regarding the recent locust swarms in East Africa is whether they have been caused or influenced by climate change.  Daisy Dunne had a detailed Q&A about that question at Carbon Brief.  One way that climate change could have influenced the locust swarms is by altering the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD).  Research reported in the journal Nature suggested that IOD events have become more frequent in recent decades.

A new study published Tuesday in Nature Communications examined the mechanics of tipping points in 40 separate ecosystems.  Drawing on pre-existing studies and modeling, the authors suggest that the collapse of large vulnerable ecosystems, such as rainforests and coral reefs, may take only a few decades once triggered.


The biggest energy news this week was the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, pushing oil prices down.  In combination with the coronavirus expansion into Europe and the U.S., this has impacted energy and other markets.  Charlie Bloch and colleagues at the Rocky Mountain Institute wrote about how this affects the global transition to a clean energy economy.  In addition, the International Energy Agency has stated that while the coronavirus health crisis may lead to a slump in global carbon emissions this year, the outbreak poses a threat to long-term climate action by undermining investment in clean energy.

Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, and Southern Company are not making investments consistent with their clean energy goals, according to a report released Monday from Synapse Energy Economics.  A study from Carbon Tracker found that in all major markets it costs less to generate power from installing new wind or solar farms than new coal plants.  Furthermore, it could be cheaper to generate electricity by building new renewable facilities than to run existing coal-fired power stations in all markets by 2030.  About 95% of nearly 21 GW of energy resources currently proposed for the New England region are grid-scale wind, solar, and battery projects, according to the Independent System Operator of New England.

Switzerland-based UBS Bank has ended support for offshore drilling in the Arctic and will also end funding for oil sands and coal projects.  At Yale Environment 360, Fred Pearce wrote: “Coal is declining sharply, as financiers and insurance companies abandon the industry in the face of shrinking demand, pressure from climate campaigners, and competition from cleaner fuels.  After years of its predicted demise, the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel may finally be on the way out.”  Newly released figures from the Energy Information Administration show that coal-fired power plants in the U.S. had a capacity factor of 47.5% in 2019, the first time it’s been below 50% in decades.  Global CO2 emissions from the power sector fell by 2% last year because of reduced coal usage in Europe and the U.S. according to a study by independent climate think tank Ember.

The Australian government, in concert with Global wind and solar energy firms, Engie and Neoen, is starting a project to blend green H2 into the natural gas distribution system.  Current electrolyzers for generating green H2 by splitting water require specialized metals and contain expensive catalysts.  Research is moving forward to reduce costs, but additional development is required before a new generation of electrolyzers can be applied at scale.  A 10MW hydrogen production plant powered from renewable energy has just opened in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.  It is thought to be the world’s largest to date.  A Utah power plant, currently powered by coal, will first be transitioned to natural gas, and by 2025, the turbines “will be commercially guaranteed” to use a mix of 30% H2 and 70% gas.

According to the latest quarterly U.S. Energy Storage Monitor, produced by the national Energy Storage Association and analysis firm Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables, annual storage deployments in the U.S. are predicted to increase from 523 MW recorded in 2019 to 7.3 GW by 2025.  Isle au Haut, an island seven miles off the coast of Maine, is going to a solar-powered microgrid with interesting innovations in energy storage.


At Yale Climate Connections, regular contributor SueEllen Campbell has compiled stories about the Australian bushfires that focus on the emotional and cultural impacts.  In the same vein, Australian science communicator Joe Duggan one again reached out to (mostly Australian) climate scientists, asking them to tell him about how they were feeling about their work and the state of the climate.  Thirty-eight percent of Democratic college students rate climate as their top issue.  Michael Svoboda reported on the increased media coverage for climate change in 2019 and its possible impact on public perception.

These news items have been compiled by Les Grady, member and former chair of the CAAV steering committee. He is a licensed professional engineer (retired) who taught environmental engineering at Purdue and Clemson Universities and engaged in private practice with CH2M Hill, the world’s largest environmental engineering consulting firm. Since his retirement in 2003 he has devoted much of his time to the study of climate science and the question of global warming and makes himself available to speak to groups about this subject. More here.