Climate and Energy News Roundup 2/26/2021

Politics and Policy

The Senate confirmed Tom Vilsack, President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Agriculture Department, by a 92-7 vote.  Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm won Senate confirmation to be energy secretary, by a vote of 64-35.  New Mexico Representative Deb Haaland, Biden’s pick to head the Department of the Interior, appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in a contentious confirmation hearing that reflected deep divisions over some of Biden’s climate-focused executive orders.  The Guardian reported that hostile questioning of her was led by senators who have taken large amounts of campaign cash from the oil and gas industry, with some being personally invested in fossil fuels.  If she is confirmed, what will be the major items on her agenda for the Department?

The Economist reviewed techniques whereby policy makers could determine which strategies would lower CO2 emissions for the lowest unit cost.  Robinson Meyer provided a rundown of what is happening on a Biden climate bill.  Energy Innovation maintained that a strong clean energy standard is among the most vital policy steps needed to push the US toward an entirely decarbonized economy.  Ed Dolan of the Niskanen Center reviewed four papers by writers who are committed to forceful climate action but who have little enthusiasm for carbon pricing as a policy tool.  The administration dramatically altered the way the US government calculates the social cost of carbon.  A new analysis by the Brookings Institution showed that regions with a high share of fossil fuel jobs have a lot of potential to benefit from wind and solar development.  Cities and towns across the country are rewriting local building codes so that new homes and offices would be blocked from using natural gas, but the American Gas Association and its members are campaigning in statehouses to prohibit such ordinances.  Twenty-five House Republicans held a summit to discuss how to position themselves to address climate change in the new Congress.  Ivy Main compiled a descriptive list of the energy bills that are still alive in the Virginia General Assembly.

FERC said on Monday that it will examine threats that climate change and extreme weather events pose to the country’s electric reliability in the wake of last week’s deadly Texas freeze.  The Texas energy emergency provided ammunition for proponents of a single national power grid.  Wade Schauer of Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables examined the question of fuel diversity for the decarbonized grid.  The cost of federal flood insurance will need to increase significantly in much of the country to meet the growing risks of climate change.  The Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it will update its guidelines on how publicly traded companies should disclose climate change-related risks to investors.  In the wake of the Texas disaster, four scientists argued that the Biden administration should convene a group to draft a plan for an advanced Earth observation system with the goal of expanding our ability to forecast extreme weather events.

By the time COP26 rolls around, new national targets for long- and short-term emissions cuts will have been tallied by the UN, so unless the organizers come up with a vision for something specific they can agree on, the meeting could end up accomplishing little.  Unfortunately, the combined impact of the new and updated targets submitted by the deadline was “far short of what is required” to achieve the goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement.  Biden said on Tuesday that he and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed to work toward achieving net zero emissions by 2050.  The European Commission released a new adaptation strategy designed to ensure the bloc not only ramps up efforts to drastically cut emissions by 2050 but also survives forest fires, heatwaves, droughts, and storms.  Xie Zhenhua, who served as China’s chief negotiator during key climate meetings in Copenhagen and Paris, has been appointed the country’s new special climate envoy.  Speaking before a session of the UN Security Council, US climate envoy John Kerry warned that climate change was making the world a more dangerous place and posed risks to peace and security around the world, but Russia, India, and China argued that it should not be an issue for the Council.  In anticipation of that meeting, Reuters high-lighted five regions of the world where climate change poses significant risks.

Climate and Climate Science

Data from 11 types of proxy evidence have confirmed that the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, a system of currents that includes the Gulf Stream, is now “in its weakest state in over a millennium,” with implications for everything from the climate of Europe to the rates of sea-level rise along the US East Coast.  As the planet experiences increased CO2 concentrations in its atmosphere, its oceans experience three different phenomena: warming, acidification, and deoxygenation.  A recent paper examined how these interact around the world to threaten ocean productivity.

Carbon Brief has updated its map of climate attribution studies, showing that 70% of the 405 extreme weather events included were made more likely or more severe by human-caused climate change.  Many more homes in Appalachian communities in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia are at risk of flooding than the federal government’s emergency managers have indicated.

During the first week of February, avalanches killed 14 people across the US, and halfway through the avalanche season, 31 people have died across the country.  It appears that avalanche patterns are changing on our warming planet, but a linkage cannot yet be proven.  Polar bears and narwhals are using up to four times as much energy to survive because of major ice loss in the Arctic.  Alaska may need to brace for more thunderstorms — along with the landslides, floods, and wildfires they can bring — if current climate trends continue.

Scientists have just taken a detailed look at the 14 glaciers flowing into the ocean along a 600 mile stretch of the Antarctic coastline known as the Getz region and found that all of them have sped up.

Rising temperatures are shortening the lives of trees in tropical forests and reducing their capacity to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, with major implications for our ability to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.  California’s iconic redwoods, sequoias and Joshua trees are increasingly threatened by bigger and more frequent wildfires as the planet warms.

Energy

Texas officials’ repeated failures to act on expert advice for averting grid catastrophes paralleled their long ignoring experts’ warnings about dangers of climate change, leading to last week’s unnatural disaster.  Dual hearings in the Texas House and Senate highlighted shortcomings by grid planners, electric utilities, natural gas suppliers, renewable energy, and transmission operators that led to the grid disaster.  Ezra Klein had an insightful reflection on the Texas crisis in his column at the New York Times.  At Earther, staff writer Dharna Noor argued that the US needs a supergrid.  Dan Gearino provided four lessons he had learned from the debacle, the first of which is particularly important as we move to an electrified economy.

Thanks in large part to reductions in flying and driving associated with COVID-19, Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped 4.4% in the 12 months to September last year, falling to the lowest levels since 1995.  Up to five of Australia’s remaining 16 coal-fired power plants could be financially unviable by 2025 due to a flood of cheap solar and wind energy entering the electricity grid.  Fossil fuel companies risk derailing the UK’s climate targets by planning to build a string of 17 new gas-fired power plants with a combined generation capacity of 14 GW.  As of January 2021, global institutional investors, such as pension funds, asset managers, and insurance companies, held investments worth more than $1 trillion in coal, with US investors collectively holding 58% of them.  According to 2020 figures released this week, US renewable energy sources for the first time generated more electricity than coal, although natural gas was far ahead of all other energy sources.

A new “green steel” venture in Sweden has been launched with plans to start production as early as 2024 using green hydrogen to process iron into steel.  Also, a Memorandum of Understanding has been signed for the assessment of the building and operation of a hydrogen powered steel mill in France.  Meanwhile, Enegix Energy from Australia is behind the construction of a green hydrogen hub in Brazil, which will not only support the economic activities of Brazil, but also export hydrogen to Europe and other continents.

Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools awarded a contract to Highland Electric Transportation which will supply it with the country’s largest electric school bus fleet by taking on its financing and management in exchange for a fixed annual leasing fee.  The US Postal Service said on Tuesday it had awarded a $482 million contact to Oshkosh Defense to finalize production plans for the next-generation of postal vehicles, but that only 10% will be electric.  Carbon emissions from passenger cars across Britain have fallen by just 1% since 2011, despite a steep rise in the sale of electric and hybrid vehicles, due to the popularity of SUVs and an increase in road traffic.

Tesla could be shifting more EVs to lithium iron phosphate battery cells over concerns about the long-term availability of nickel, which is required for lithium ion batteries.  Redwood Materials has reached an agreement to recycle scrap and defective battery cells for Envision AESC, which manufactures batteries for the Nissan Leaf in Smyrna, Tennessee.  One use for EV batteries once they are no longer suitable for their original use is for storage of solar energy in houses.  National Geographic explored the role that such batteries could play in averting disasters like that in Texas.

Potpourri

Peter Sinclair’s latest video focused on the question of whether capitalism and free-market forces could supplant political expediency as a major factor in advancing bipartisan support for renewable energy.  Determining how hard companies are trying to meet climate pledges can be very difficult when there are no regulatory standards that require uniform disclosures of important information like emissions.  Corporations were also the focus of Bill McKibben’s column this week.  More than a third of all food grown for human consumption in the US never makes it to someone’s stomach, and the carbon footprint of that waste is greater than that of the airline industry.  Being a person who spent many years loving road trips (and for way too long being oblivious to the climate impacts), I couldn’t resist including this column by Amy Brady, even though it didn’t come out this week.

Closing Thought

Jeremy Lent, author of the forthcoming book The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe, addressed the question “What does an ecological civilization look like?” in Yes! magazine.

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.

A Housing Trust Fund for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County

At their February 16, 2021, steering committee meeting, the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley voted to endorse Faith in Action’s efforts to create an Affordable Housing Trust Fund for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.

“Faith in Action is a non-partisan, faith-based organization that speaks in the public arena. We have no common theological, political, or ideological agenda. We work annually on a pragmatic, workable, local issue that is selected by our members. This work does mean that we ask elected officials and other local government personnel to make changes to work toward justice.” – https://www.harrisonburgfaithinaction.org/about-us

The group’s current work focuses on local affordable housing:

“There is a lack of affordable and accessible housing in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. Access to a stable home improves health, education & economic outcomes. It gives our community’s children a good start in life, ensures our seniors have dignity and a place to call home, and creates a Valley community that works for everyone. Faith in Action is working to pass a resolution for the City and County to work together on a Housing Trust Fund for a long-lasting solution.” https://www.harrisonburgfaithinaction.org/housing-campaign

“… Faith in Action [,] has led a year-long effort [to pass a Housing Trust Fund resolution] in close collaboration with agencies on the front lines of housing and homelessness. These include Mercy House, Our Community Place, Habitat for Humanity, and support organizations like the local United Way, and people directly impacted by housing insecurity. ” https://docs.google.com/document/d/1LxmpGevsTnGp65eBp-hwkxoVIA0tMuvOKKTEldwQbKk/edit

“The goal is to create a fund that receives at least $1.5 million annually that will be spent on building and preserving affordable housing in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. The trust fund aims to: maximize public-private participation; secure a dedicated continuous funding source; leverage other resources. A potential list of uses include: new construction, rehabilitation, acquisition, rental assistance, land trusts, cooperative housing, transitional or emergency housing, preservation of assisted housing, weatherization, emergency repairs, housing-related services and more.” https://www.harrisonburgfaithinaction.org/htf

Learn more about the Affordable Housing Trust Fund for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County from Faith in Action HERE.

Climate and Energy News Roundup 2/19/2021

Politics and Policy

President Joe Biden’s next legislative package is expected to center on major infrastructure investments, while also tackling things such as clean energy.  The Economist said “what is about to unfold in Washington will set the course in America for the next decade – and quite possibly beyond.”  Biden has set the stage for a flourishing US offshore wind industry by ordering the federal government to find ways to speed up environmental and other reviews.  Since the EPA will not reactivate the Obama Clean Power Plan, what are the Biden administration’s options?  The administration said it would scrap a Trump-era proposal to weaken environmental protections for millions of acres of California desert.  It also rescinded draft guidance from the Trump administration that would limit the consideration of greenhouse gas emissions in infrastructure decisions.  Biden announced the formation of a climate innovation working group “to advance his commitment to launching an Advanced Research Projects Agency-Climate.”  The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on electric grid reliability and resilience after millions were left without power in Texas and elsewhere amid a winter storm.

Line 3, another tar-sands pipeline from Canada to the US, is being built as a replacement for an existing pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy.  How the Biden administration deals with it will be an early test of its environmental justice policies.  Putting a price on carbon emissions is a policy that has received support outside of government by advocates on both sides of the aisle, but if and when it will be brought forward as legislation are very much in question.  In an opinion piece and a new report, Nicholas Stern and Joseph E. Stiglitz argued that “The Biden administration must put a high enough price on carbon pollution to encourage the scale and urgency of action needed to meet the commitments it has made to Americans and the rest of the world.”  Yahoo!news provided some background.  At the Niskanen Center, Joseph Majkut et al. wrote about “A Carbon Tax in the Context of Budget Reconciliation.”

All companies in which BlackRock invests will be expected to disclose direct emissions from operations and from energy they buy, while fossil fuel extractors should base targets for emissions cuts on the carbon released when their products are burned.  IBM is pledging to achieve carbon neutrality by the end of the decade.  Climate activist and author Bill McKibben presented arguments against starting experimentation on solar geoengineering.  A recent study explored the health opportunities of ambitious climate policies and found that the co-benefits of reducing air pollution, improving diets, and encouraging more active lifestyles would save millions of lives across the world every year.  Environmental and community groups have come together on an action plan for the Biden administration on plastics, which are seen as the nexus of climate change, fracking, air and water pollution, toxic landfills, and the disproportionate burden of pollution on communities of color.

The US has officially returned to the Paris Climate Agreement, raising expectations for a new national commitment setting an emissions target for 2030.  A group of states, cities, and companies launched a new coalition to push the Biden administration toward a more aggressive cut to greenhouse gas emissions.  During a virtual meeting of the Group of Seven (G7) finance ministers and central bankers, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen expressed strong support for G7 efforts to tackle climate change, stating that her colleagues should expect the Treasury Department’s engagement on this issue to change dramatically relative to the last four years.  The outgoing head of the OECD said in an interview that the environment, climate change, and the protection of nature must be the defining tasks of rich and major developing countries now and in the years to come.  In a break with precedent, the UN issued a report Thursday that is prescriptive, using the word “must” 56 times and “should” 37 times to tell world leaders what is needed to solve the interconnected problems of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.

Climate and Climate Science

The extreme cold weather in Texas and the central US was covered extensively in the press this week.  The main cause was the wavy jet stream, which allowed cold Arctic air to penetrate deeply into the mid-latitudes.  Although still an area of active study, many climate scientists think such waviness is due to the warming Arctic resulting from climate change.  (In January 2019 Carbon Brief had a Q&A on this topic.)  At the New York Times, climate reporter John Schwartz answered questions about this week’s weather.

US greenhouse gas emissions fell by 9.2% last year amid the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.  On the other hand, a related drop in tiny aerosol particles from industrial sources boosted regional temperatures.  Greenhouse gas emissions from material production, such as steel and cement, more than doubled from 1995 to 2015.  Some supermarkets have been found to be leaking climate-damaging HFC refrigerants at an even higher rate than regulators have assumed.

Scientists say that improving water quality by reducing sediments, fertilizers, and chemicals running into the Great Barrier Reef’s waters will give it a greater chance of recovering from future bleaching events.  Climate change is shaping the lives of children of color before they take their first breath, and once born, there is a good chance they will live in a neighborhood that is more polluted and will get hotter than nearby, whiter neighborhoods.

The salient issues concerning drilling in Area 1002 of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are what happens to caribou summer movements throughout the area and to the near-surface soil carbon that risks becoming released to the atmosphere as CO2 and methane due to terrestrial permafrost thawing.  On a related subject, the amount of carbon locked in Arctic submarine permafrost is more than humans have released into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, yet little is known about such permafrost and how it will react as oceans warm, sea levels rise, and meltwater alters Arctic Ocean circulation patterns.

Energy

As a result of the winter storm, the Texas power grid failed, leaving millions of people in the dark and cold.  (For an explanation of the Texas power grid, go here.  For insights from a historian of energy, technology, and the environment, read this.)  In fact, the grid was “seconds and minutes” away from a catastrophic failure that could have left Texans in the dark for months.  While fossil fuel proponents were quick to blame the large amount of renewable energy in Texas for the failure, in reality fossil fuel generation was largely to blame.  In the future, such wild and unpredictable weather linked to global warming will very likely push grids beyond their limits.  Using the Texas grid failure as a spring board, Bob Henson addressed the broader problems of the US power grid, closing with a quote from Urooj Raja of the University of Colorado, Boulder: “No infrastructural relic may be as vulnerable as the US electric grid.”

Amid a historic economic contraction, renewable resources grew to account for one-fifth of all electricity produced in the US in 2020.  This was achieved because solar power and wind power accounted for 77.1% of new utility-scale power capacity in the US in 2020.  Hawaiian Electric achieved 34.5% renewable energy production in 2020.  The US Department of Energy announced last week that it will invest $100 million into transformative clean energy research and development, with more to come.

While the production of cement, steel, paper, aluminum, chemicals, and other heavy-duty industrial materials is responsible for roughly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, the biggest firms in these sectors remain underprepared for the net zero transition, having largely failed to roll out credible corporate climate strategies. 

Most of the world’s planned hydrogen projects and related investments this decade are expected to be in Europe, as the EU races to scale up the low-carbon fuel to meet its climate goals.  Model homes in which boilers, stoves, and ovens are fueled exclusively by hydrogen are due to be opened by April in the UK, providing the public with “a glimpse into the potential home of the future.”  As hydrogen gains more emphasis, ammonia is seen by some as the safest and easiest way to capture and transport the energy in hydrogen.

Ford Motor Co. said that its European division would soon begin to phase out vehicles powered by fossil fuels so that by 2026 it will offer only electric and plug-in hybrid models, and by 2030 all passenger cars will run solely on batteries.  Jaguar Land Rover said its luxury brand Jaguar will be fully electric by 2025 and it will release its first all-electric Land Rover in 2024 with five other electric vehicles (EVs) expected by 2025.  GM unveiled a Chevrolet Bolt Electric Utility Vehicle on Sunday.  You can learn more about it here.  At the New York Times, columnist Farhad Manjoo had a very thought-provoking column about the one big problem with EVs.

Demand for batteries for EVs already outstrips supply, causing a global rush to develop the technology and build the factories needed to power millions of electric cars, prompting Jakub Reiter, head of science at InoBat, to say “Twenty years ago, nobody cared much about batteries,” but now, there is intense competition, and “it’s a big fight.”

Potpourri

“Meltdown”, an intimate exploration of art and science, beauty and tragedy, the personal and the global, set amidst the massive and spectacularly beautiful icebergs breaking off of Greenland at an accelerating rate, is available for streaming on several platforms.  Bill McKibben reviewed Bill Gates’ new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, as did former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown who tied it to the upcoming COP 26 in Glasgow.  Emma Brocks had a far-ranging interview with Gates at The Guardian while Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic focused on “the Gates rule.”  Smithsonian Magazine had a feature article about polar bears and the scientists who track them to better understand how the environment is shaping their chances of survival.  Grist writer Adrienne Day decided to try out some of the alt seafood available today for its taste and texture appeal.  Walmart, Costco, and Kroger are selling Brazilian beef products imported from JBS, the world’s largest meat company, which has been linked to Amazonian deforestation.

Closing Thought

Nonprofit American Forests is partnering with Tazo Tea to form the “Tazo Tree Corps,” which will train and hire people to plant and care for trees in targeted neighborhoods in Detroit, Minneapolis, the Bronx, the Bay Area, and Richmond, VA.

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.

Divest MVP: Stop funding for the Mountain Valley Pipeline!

In collaboration with the Sierra Club and other environmental groups across the country, the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley (CAAV) is joining the movement to call for divestment from the Mountain Valley Pipeline (the MVP). 

For those of you that have not heard of the MVP, it is a 303 mile fracked gas pipeline that stretches from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. The project has proved to be a profound disaster for our environment and natural waterways. To date, the pipeline, which is still under construction, has threatened over 1,000 waterways, has been responsible for over 350+ violations of commonsense water protections, and has been fined over two million dollars for environmental damages.

Now is the time to join the fight to end the construction of the MVP. 

As stated previously CAAV has joined other environmental groups across the nation in calling for the Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, and 5 other major banks to divest from this environmentally disastrous project. There is a wide range of actions you can take to help us do this. 

  • The first action you can take is signing the Sierra Club petition calling for divestment. The link to that can be found here.
  • The next thing you can do is participate in the DivestMVP Coalitions’ Virtual Rally on February 25, 6-7 PM EST! The link to register for this is here. This virtual rally, hosted by the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, Oil Change International, and POWHR, will get you up to speed on the latest MVP news, the banks behind MVP, and what you can do to help stop MVP from ever getting completed.
  • You can also write letters to the editor of your local newspaper and post on social media supporting the call for divestment. The full Sierra Club media toolkit, which contains suggested postings for your Facebook and Twitter, as well as sample letters to the editor, can be found here!
  • Finally, you can check out the POWHR Divest MVP webpage that contains great additional information, like how to divest from your bank if they choose to continue funding this awful project.

We have a duty to protect our natural waterways and stop this terrible project from being completed. Together let’s make our voices be heard and put an end to this pipeline! 

Thank you all for your continued support and activism.

-Luciano Benjamin for the CAAV steering committee, February 18, 2021

Climate and Energy News Roundup 2/12/2021

Politics and Policy

The White House convened cabinet secretaries and the acting heads of 21 federal agencies to begin fulfilling President Joe Biden’s promise to mobilize the federal government to confront climate change.  Some think that Biden wants to rethink the country’s economic posture: seeking to promote certain sectors so as not to cede them to Europe and Asia.  Gina McCarthy said in an interview that President Biden is likely to issue more executive orders on climate change.  At the Washington Post, Juliet Eilperin and colleagues updated their report tracking President Biden’s environmental actions and Dino Grandoni looked ahead to coming climate legislation.  Senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee voted 14-6 to advance to the full Senate the nomination of Michael Regan to lead the EPA.  The Biden administration indicated that it would look for its own solution to limit power plant CO2 emissions rather than reuse the Clean Power Plan from the Obama administration.  Frustration among Republicans with Biden’s climate policies has coalesced around Interior Secretary nominee Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM).

Nine years after Michael Mann filed a defamation lawsuit against the Competitive Enterprise Institute and National Review, he wants the court to affirm the truth of his science.  Laura Tenenbaum, who was the senior science editor for NASA’s Global Climate Change website and witnessed firsthand the impact of science suppression during the Trump administration, wrote about her experiences.  Lawyers for the 21 children and young adults in Juliana v. United States announced plans to file a Supreme Court petition after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit refused to revive their claims that the federal government has violated their constitutional right to a stable climate system.  The chairman of FERC said that the panel will create a senior position on environmental justice.  Following a request from the Biden administration, the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., paused litigation on whether California can set its own vehicle emissions standards.

Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee put forward a sweeping green energy bill.  Wyoming is waking up to the possibility that the use of fossil fuels must come to an end, causing consternation about the future funding of local and state government.  Bill McKibben made the case for not building any new fossil fuel infrastructure.  A battle is underway in Arizona about who has authority to establish the types of electricity generation that utilities in the state may use.  On a bipartisan 67-32 vote, the Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill that would allow renewable energy firms to compete with utilities to supply customers with clean power.  Democrats plan to go through the Securities and Exchange Commission to impose financial disclosure rules on climate risk that would force thousands of businesses to divulge information to investors, although pushback is likely.  The Federal Reserve is beginning to incorporate the impacts of climate change into its regulatory writ.

Canada sees hydropower exports as an opportunity in Biden’s push to achieve a carbon-free US electrical grid by 2035.  China will force regional grid firms to buy at least 40% of their power from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030 to meet the country’s climate targets.  Big-emitting Australian businesses that export to Europe could soon face carbon levies of more than $70 a metric ton unless the federal government imposes emissions reduction policies.  A new study came to the unsettling conclusion that many adaptation projects can make people more, rather than less, vulnerable to climate change.  The International Energy Agency has projected that even though India’s CO2 emissions are expected to grow by 50% during the next 20 years, a combination of solar, hydrogen, and carbon capture could get its energy sector to net-zero emissions by the mid-2060s.  The pledges countries made to reduce emissions as part of the Paris Climate Agreement (PCA) are woefully inadequate, and the world must nearly double its greenhouse gas-cutting goals to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

Climate and Climate Science

On Sunday February 7, a sudden flood devastated a Himalayan valley in the Indian province of Uttarakhand.  While news reports said that collapse of a glacier into a glacial lake was the cause, subsequent analysis suggested that a landslide actually was to blame.  As the world warms and glaciers melt, the collapse of debris dams holding back glacial lakes poses a severe risk for those downstream.

Pollution from the burning of fossil fuels causes one in five premature deaths globally, suggesting the health impacts may be far higher than previously thought.  The North American pollen season is now starting 20 days earlier and lasting eight days longer than in 1990; climate change is responsible for roughly half of the change.

Northern California remains stuck in one of the worst two-year rainfall deficits seen since the 1849 Gold Rush, with current precipitation at only 30% to 70% of what the state would expect during a normal year.  Heating of the oceans has led young great white sharks to move 370 miles northwards off the coast of California since 2014, with a dramatic rise in the number of sea otters killed by them.

After being banned in 2010, an unexpected and persistent increase in global atmospheric concentrations of CFC-11 (which is 7,000 times more effective at warming the planet than CO2) was detected in 2018.  An investigation concluded that roughly half of the observed increase resulted from its illegal production in Eastern China, leading the Chinese government to crack down.  Two businessmen argued that the Senate should ratify an amendment to the Montreal Protocol of 1987, which sets targets for the global phase-down of HFCs.

Energy

Renewable sources’ share of the national electricity generation mix is set to double from 21% in 2020 to 42% in 2050.  The integration of wind, solar, and storage into the US grid systems will bring many changes and Jeff St. John provided a glimpse of them in his report on last week’s Energy Storage Association policy forum.  The National Renewable Energy Laboratory launched its “Storage Futures Study” to create a framework for a “dramatic increase in deployment” and “answer the big questions around the role of storage in our future grid.”

Many challenges face auto companies, both old and new, in moving to a world of EVs.  Dan Gearino recounted how Norway became the world leader in EV sales as a percent of new vehicles sold.  Global sales of zero emission and plug-in hybrid vehicles will outstrip those of vehicles with internal combustion engines for the first time in 2047, although global oil demand will fall by just under a quarter by 2050 due to the slow phase-out of fossil fuel vehicles.  Amazon’s new electric delivery vans will hit the road in 15 more cities starting this year.  Toyota will roll out two new battery-electric vehicles and one plug-in gas-electric hybrid in the US this year.  A Spanish company will build a plant in Chattanooga, TN, to make axle components for VW’s electric car production in the same city.

The US has fallen behind Asia and Europe in the race to produce the high-tech batteries that power electric cars and store solar and wind energy.  The U.S. International Trade Commission ruled that SK Innovation (SKI) was making lithium-ion batteries with trade secrets stolen from LG Chem and restricted SKI from importing certain batteries and components for the next 10 years.  Microvast, which builds rapid-charging lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, will renovate and expand a facility in Clarksville, TN.

Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas announced the launch of its new offshore wind turbine, the V236-15.0MW, which displaces GE’s 14MW Haliade-X as the world’s largest offshore wind turbine.  Europe invested $31.9 billion in new offshore wind farms in 2020, providing 7.1 GW of new capacity.  South Korea unveiled a $43.2 billion plan to build the world’s largest offshore wind farm by 2030.  One of Europe’s most abundant bats may be attracted to wind turbines and this could be why so many are found dead around the continent’s wind farms.

Several companies are developing the capability to produce “turquoise” hydrogen, i.e., hydrogen made from natural gas by pyrolysis, which converts the carbon in the gas to solid elemental carbon while freeing the hydrogen as a gas.  Global Energy Ventures (GEV) and Ballard Power Systems have signed a memorandum of understanding in which Ballard will design and develop a hydrogen fuel cell system for GEV’s compressed hydrogen shipping vessel.

The oil and gas industry has been the worst-performing sector on Wall Street for a decade; in 2020 it had the worst performance of any sector going back to before the Great Depression.  Royal Dutch Shell outlined the details of its near-term and long-term plans to transition to cleaner energy, saying its oil production and total carbon emissions have already peaked.  Conversely, the world’s state-owned oil companies are poised to invest about $1.9 trillion during the next decade in projects that would destroy any prospect of meeting the goals of the PCA.

Potpourri

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has found that Americans who think global warming is happening outnumber those who think it is not by a ratio of more than 5 to 1 (72% versus 13%).  Last week I included an interview in Rolling Stone with Elizabeth Kolbert about her new book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future; this week, Ezra Klein interviewed her on his podcast, with a focus on solar geoengineering, while Shannon Osaka at Grist focused on human’s inclination to mess with nature.  Astrophysics professor Adam Franks reviewed the book for NPR.  Amy Brady interviewed Julie Carrick Dalton about her debut novel, Waiting for the Night Song, a mystery in which climate change is almost like a character.  Lisa Colton organized a virtual “Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest” and over 5500 people showed up.  Bill McKibben wrote of Connor DeVane who hiked the Continental Divide Trail and talked with people working on climate action, stating: “The resulting movie is free to stream online, and lovely.”  Yale Climate Connections compiled a list of five climate-related documentaries from the Wild & Scenic Film Festival.

Closing Thought

After 16 years of working for ExxonMobil, Dar-Lon Chang said the company would not address climate change, so he quit the sector for good, and began a new low-carbon life.

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.

Climate and Energy News Roundup 2/5/2021

Politics and Policy

President Joe Biden has created the position of senior climate advisor at NASA to guide its administrator and other top government leaders on issues related to Earth’s climate.  SueEllen Campbell compiled several articles examining what can be done legislatively on climate in a closely divided Congress.  The Biden administration has started discussions with the utility and automobile sectors about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Automakers have abandoned their legal fight for a Trump-era rule blocking California from setting its own emissions standards.  The administration is asking the courts to pause litigation over that rule and one rolling back methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.  The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 13-4 on Wednesday to advance to the full Senate the nomination of former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) to be secretary of Energy.  Michael Regan, Biden’s choice to lead the EPA, told lawmakers during his confirmation hearing that he would “restore” science and transparency at the agency, focus on marginalized communities, and move “with a sense of urgency” to combat climate change.  Lawmakers want to block further drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by designating its coastal plain as wilderness.  Legislation was introduced that would require the president to declare a national emergency on climate change.  The new Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources met to establish a “baseline of global climate facts,” but the only facts they agreed on were that climate change is real and “largely” caused by humans.

This was the week for reports.  Achieving net-zero carbon emissions in the US by 2050 is not only feasible, but would build a more competitive economy, increase high-quality jobs, and help address social injustice in the energy system, says one from the National Academies.  In addition, a report from consulting firm Evolved Energy Research and others said that achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 could be “surprisingly feasible,” with costs running just 0.4% of the US GDP.  Evolved Energy Research also provided the modeling for a report on the impact on each state of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.  Evergreen Action and Data for Progress released a report outlining how Congress could set the US on a path to 100% clean electricity by 2035.  Continuing to ignore the value of the services provided by nature in our global economy threatens humanity itself, according to a report on biodiversity and economics, commissioned by the British government.

Republicans introduced bills in both chambers that would give permission for the Keystone XL pipeline to be constructed and operate across the U.S.-Canada border.  Republicans who object to Biden’s agenda for addressing climate change are focusing on John Kerry and Gina McCarthy.  However, Benji Backer, president and founder of the American Conservation Coalition, called on Republicans “to resist the urge to once again become obstructionists and, instead, continue to come to the table with our own perspective on tackling climate change.”  A federal judge ruled that US officials downplayed climate change impacts from the expansion of a massive coal mine near the Montana-Wyoming border, giving the government until October to do a new analysis.  The Biden administration is delaying a rule finalized during Trump’s last days in office that would have drastically weakened the government’s power to protect most wild birds.

Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, said rich countries must step up with fresh financial commitments to help the developing world tackle the climate crisis while Fatih Birol, head of the IEA, said dependency on coal is preventing a global green recovery from taking off.  Nearly six out of 10 US voters said the Biden administration should work directly with China to address climate change.  China has reinstated Xie Zhenhua, one of its most respected climate experts and a broker of the Paris Agreement, as climate envoy.  Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is giving climate change a prominent role in her talks with her counterparts around the world.  France’s government must do more to combat climate change, a French court said on Wednesday.  One year after Australia’s devastating wildfires, anger is growing at climate change inaction.  However, senior ministers of Australia’s National Party — the junior partner in the ruling coalition — have poured cold water on adopting a concrete commitment to net zero emissions by 2050.  Climate Home News previewed the November COP26 meeting in Glasgow by focusing on the people setting the agenda on seven key issues.  

Climate and Climate Science

Flooding rains and record snow in California last week were the result of an atmospheric river originating over the Pacific Ocean.  They are part of California’s “whiplash” climate future, said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with NCAR.  The start of California’s rainy season has been getting progressively later in recent decades, and now begins a month after it did just 60 years ago, shifting from November to December.  Climate change ravaged the west with heat and drought last year; many fear 2021 will be worse.  The number of heat-related deaths in Arizona soared to a new high last year as people endured the hottest summer on record.

The rise in sea level is likely to be faster and greater than previously thought, according to researchers who say recent predictions are inconsistent with historical data.  If global warming continues unabated, the surface of the Greenland ice sheet may start losing more mass than it gains every year by 2055, although if strong mitigation measures are taken to curb the rise of global temperatures, the ice sheet may not reach this threshold.

The global food system is the biggest driver of destruction of the natural world, and a shift to predominantly plant-based diets is crucial in halting the damage, according to a new report by thinktank Chatham House, financed by the UN Environment Program.

A surprising amount of the water from the planet’s melting mountain glaciers is building up behind unstable piles of rubble left behind by the retreating ice, posing a hazard for everything downstream.

Energy

Big oil companies lost billions in 2020 because of the pandemic.  According to Justin Guay, a finance community committed to net-zero carbon by 2050 is exposing itself to trillions of dollars in stranded oil and gas assets.  ExxonMobil shareholders are trying to force it to address climate change and the weaker oil market in more aggressive ways, but investors have not been impressed with the company’s actions so far.  The US oil industry wants to forge an alliance with the nation’s corn growers and biofuel producers to lobby against the Biden administration’s push for electric vehicles (EVs).  US crude oil production is expected to rebound to a new record in 2023, the EIA said in its annual energy outlook, although it also projected that US gasoline demand has already peaked.

Electrification of the US’s light vehicle fleet by 2030, along with replacement of coal-fired power plants by renewables and gas turbines, could decrease our total primary energy usage by 13%.  At RMI, Britta Gross argued that for the US to reap the benefits of transportation electrification, the Biden administration must communicate a bold vision of what transport will look like in 2030.  The transition to EVs will have sweeping implications for the companies that produce and sell electricity and manage the grid; Brad Plumer discussed four things that need to happen.  The TVA and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation will add about 50 new EV fast charging stations, located every 50 miles along the state’s interstates and major highways, each with up to four chargers.  Ford said it was “doubling down” on EVs and will invest $22 billion in electrification through 2025, nearly twice what it had previously committed.

Central government inspectors have slammed China’s energy authority for failing to apply environmental standards on coal power expansion across the country.  China put 38.4 GW of new coal-fired power capacity into operation in 2020, more than three times the amount built elsewhere around the world.  However, they are expected to add about 140 GW of non-fossil fuel capacity this year, representing around 47.3% of their energy mix.

A new report from Morgan Stanley projects that coal-fired power generation is likely to disappear from the US power grid by 2033, replaced by renewable energy resources.  Speaking last week with analysts, Jim Robo, CEO of NextEra Energy, said “There is not a regulated coal plant in this country that is economic today, full period and stop.”  Last week, NRG Energy, which owns the Petra Nova carbon capture and storage (CCS) project in Texas, announced that it would be shut down indefinitely, leaving the US with no operating CCS projects.

The owner and operator of the Empire State Building and 13 other buildings, announced Wednesday a major purchase of wind power, making it the nation’s biggest real estate user of entirely renewable energy.  The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said it would resume an environmental review of the Vineyard Wind project, stopped by the Trump administration.  Utilities and developers are repowering wind turbines with bigger, better blades years ahead of the end of their original life expectancies as they take advantage of technology improvements and expiring federal tax credits.  Opponents of the Rocky Forge Wind farm in Virginia filed a lawsuit alleging that the Department of Environmental Quality and Apex Clean Energy cut corners in the permitting process.  IdentiFlight’s smart cameras, which spot birds of prey and then halt wind turbines to protect them, can result in a large reduction of bird deaths.

Green hydrogen is set to play a substantive role in the overall energy mix, with its development likely to happen faster than anyone predicts, according to Wood Mackenzie.  A team at the Fraunhofer Institute in Dresden, Germany, has developed a new strategy for storing and transporting hydrogen fuel — a magnesium hydride-based paste.  To meet the goal of zero carbon emissions, industries such as steel production must wean themselves from coal; Maria Gallucci reviewed current efforts at Grist.  Also at Grist, Emily Pontecorvo wrote about the “Mission Possible Partnership,” which is bringing together members of seven carbon-intensive industries to collaborate on how to reduce carbon emissions.

Potpourri

At Rolling Stone, Jeff Goodell interviewed Elizabeth Kolbert about her new book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future.  Genevieve Guenther, the founder of End Climate Silence, has said “… part of the reason that oil and gas propaganda is so effective is that there is always a grain of truth to it.”  She was interviewed on Vox.  Michael Patrick F. Smith, a Kentucky folk singer and playwright, reflected on what his time working on oil rigs in North Dakota taught him about America’s fossil fuel addiction — and how to curb it.  In The Atlantic, science writer Peter Brannen took us on a trip into deep time that warns of possible catastrophic surprises ahead.  David Owen published a long, but totally absorbing, article in The New Yorker about a young woman who is using geographic information systems to help the Catholic Church use its land to better the environment.  The Donors of Color Network launched a new initiative, challenging the nation’s climate philanthropists to shift 30% of their donations toward environmental efforts led by Black, Indigenous, Latino, and other people of color.

Closing Thought

Environmentalists are so good at emphasizing worst-case scenarios that when we look to the future, apocalypse often feels inevitable.  Nevertheless, Emma Marris argues that hope for the future is a reasonable and necessary prerequisite for action.

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.

Climate and Energy News Roundup 1/29/2021

Politics and Policy

Prioritizing environmental justice, President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Wednesday establishing a White House interagency council on environmental justice, created an office of health and climate equity at the Health and Human Services Department, and formed a separate environmental justice office at the Justice Department.  Other actions were also taken, causing immediate pushback from the fossil fuel industry and its allies in Congress.  Among those actions was a commitment to an ambitious conservation goal and a redetermination of the social cost of carbon.  Greentech Media noted that Wednesday’s orders centered on directing federal agencies to shift existing spending because passing new legislation will be difficult.  Biden also said climate change should be regarded as “an essential element of US foreign policy,” while Defense Secretary Llyod Austin announced that climate change “is a national security issue, and we must treat it as such.”

Greentech Media staff writer Julian Spector considered how budget reconciliation could be used to pass a bill requiring electric utilities to produce 100% clean energy by 2035.  A FEMA proposal could free up funds to support infrastructure such as seawalls and relocating homes prone to flooding.  At her Senate confirmation hearing, Biden’s nominee for energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, defended the administration’s push for a clean energy transition.  Meanwhile, opposition against Biden’s Interior Department nominee, Deb Haaland, became more vocal.  A new report from Americans for a Clean Energy Grid called on FERC to launch a new rulemaking effort aimed at boosting an interregional electric transmission buildout, a goal shared by both former and current FERC chairs.  However, S&P Global pointed out that opponents to infrastructure projects for renewables may be able to deploy some of the same legal tactics that upended the pipeline sector.

The Federal Reserve announced the creation of a new committee to deepen the central bank’s understanding of the risks that climate change poses to the financial system.  Biden signed an executive order directing federal agencies to eliminate subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, but it included a key phrase, “as consistent with applicable law.”  Grist unpacked this phrase and its implications for what can be done.  Twitter accounts run by machines are a major source of climate change disinformation that might drain support from policies to address rising temperatures.

The UN Development Program questioned 1.2 million people in 50 countries about climate change and found that two-thirds think it is a “global emergency”.  Climate envoy John Kerry made it clear that the US wasn’t just increasing its own efforts to reduce oil, gas, and coal pollution, but that we intend to push everyone in the world to do more, too.  World leaders met at a virtual summit to discuss the need for rich nations to spend more on helping developing countries adapt to the impacts of the climate crisis.  Global supply chains, remittances, and migration mean global warming risks in one place can hit others — but improving efforts to adapt can bring shared benefits, researchers say.  The leaders of two UK environmental charities have written to Mark Carney, the UN climate envoy, to raise concerns over a blueprint for carbon offsetting that could result in billions of new carbon credits being sold around the world.  Australia will effectively be abandoning the Paris Climate Agreement unless it makes at least a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reaches net zero well before 2050, according to an analysis by policymakers and scientists.

Climate and Climate Science

In a commentary in the journal Nature, climate scientist Richard Betts argued that because scientists have developed techniques to attribute disasters to human-caused climate change, they should be applied routinely to help governments act on their responsibilities and improve resilience to extreme weather.  A new study in the journal Nature Sustainability incorporated the damages that climate change does to healthy ecosystems into standard climate-economics models, leading to the conclusion that the standard models have been underestimating the cost of climate damages to society by a factor of more than five.

Emphasizing that the point of recognizing existential threats is to avoid them, ecologist and MacArthur Fellow Carl Safina discussed the stark “perspective” article by 17 of the world’s leading ecologists in last week’s issue of Frontiers in Conservation ScienceThe New York Times published an interesting infographic that showed the vulnerabilities of countries all over the world to climate disasters.  Nearly a half-million people, mostly from the world’s poorest countries, died over the past two decades from conditions associated with climate disasters, according to this year’s “Global Climate Risk Index” report.  In 2020, Earth was besieged by a record 50 weather disasters costing a billion dollars or more, the most such disasters ever recorded, said insurance broker Aon in its annual report issued Monday.

Earth is hotter now than it has been for at least 12,000 years, a period spanning the entire development of human civilization, according to research published in the journal Nature.

The melting of ice across the planet is accelerating and is now in line with the worst-case scenarios of the IPCC, according to a paper published in the journal The Cryosphere.  Furthermore, NASA-led research showed that the undercutting of glaciers by relatively mild ocean waters explains why so many of Greenland’s glaciers have sped-up their movement into the ocean.  Scientists have determined that the blooms of algae on the surface of the ice in Greenland are triggered by wind-blown dust containing phosphorus, a limiting nutrient for the microbes.  Last week, for the first time, three liquified natural gas tankers travelled the Northern Sea Route to Asia without icebreaker escorts.  The decline of sea ice in the Bering Sea is changing almost everything about the region.  Peter Sinclair’s latest “This is not Cool” video is about the ice jams at the entrance to Nares Strait between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, through which the Arctic’s oldest and thickest sea ice flows to the Baffin Bay, the Labrador Sea, and then the Atlantic Ocean. 

An area the size of Israel was deforested in the Amazon biome last year as destruction surged 21% in the region, suggesting that without a reduction in deforestation, the Amazon rainforest will reach a tipping point in 10 to 20 years, after which it will enter a sustained death spiral as it dries out and turns into a savanna.

Energy

Biden signed an executive order to “Buy American”, which he says will include replacing hundreds of thousands of vehicles in the federal government fleet, including the Postal Service, with US-made electric vehicles  (EVs), raising the question of how he will achieve it.  General Motors announced Thursday that it will end the sale of all gasoline- and diesel-powered passenger cars and light sports utility vehicles by 2035.  Nissan Motor Co said all its “new vehicle offerings” in key markets would be electrified by the early 2030s, as part of its efforts to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.  Toyota Motor Corp. is increasing the manufacturing of parts for hydrogen fuel call vehicles, following the December unveiling of its second generation Mirai, a hydrogen-powered sedan.  National Geographic examined the question of whether all of this means that EVs’ moment has arrived.

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink called on all companies “to disclose a plan for how their business model will be compatible with a net-zero economy.”  Over 400 companies across some of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitting industries — from shipping to steelmaking — have agreed to work together on plans to decarbonize by 2050, according to a coalition of climate advocacy groups that set up the partnership.

Rating agency S&P has warned 13 oil and gas companies, including some of the world’s biggest, that it may downgrade them within weeks because of increasing competition from renewable energy.  BP’s oil exploration team has been cut to less than 100 from a peak of more than 700 a few years ago, part of a climate change-driven overhaul triggered last year by CEO Bernard Looney.

According to a new report, EU countries generated more electricity from renewables than from coal and gas for the first time ever in 2020, but the pace of deployment through the 2020s will need to more than double that of the 2010s if the EU is going to hit its target of a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030.  A new report from the Sierra Club found that almost no U.S. utilities, including Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power, are on track to reduce CO2 emissions by 80% by 2030 compared to a 2005 baseline; rather, most utilities’ plans put them on a path to much more modest carbon reductions.  Not surprisingly, the utility sector defended its approach to the decarbonization process.

RMI’s newest report, Seeds of Opportunity, addresses the question of what the growth of the renewable energy industry means for rural America.  Maine Governor Janet Mills (D) called on the state legislature to implement a 10-year moratorium on offshore wind projects in state-managed waters, citing a need to keep the fishing industry engaged in ongoing talks about such development.

Potpourri

In “The Shortlist” at The New York Times, Tatiana Schlossberg presented three books that offer new ways to think about environmental disaster.  At Literary Hub, Amy Brady recommended five inspiring books for 2021.  Maxine Joselow interviewed climate scientist Michael Mann about his new book, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet.  Jeff Masters reviewed it at Yale Climate Connections.  The 36-year-old Canadian musician Tamara Lindeman’s piercing new album, “Ignorance,” explores the emotional impacts of climate change.  Climate scientists are dealing with a strange new feeling now that Biden is president: optimism.  Kate Yoder argued at Grist that the way we talk about science makes it a polarizing topic.  Salla, Finland, has released a video promoting its bid for the 2032 Summer Olympics!  Enjoy.

Closing Thought

For our “Closing Thought” this week, watch and listen to Amanda Gorman’s December 2018 recitation of her poem “Earthrise.”

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.

Climate and Energy News Roundup 1/22/2021

Politics and Policy

During his first moments in the Oval Office on Wednesday, President Joe Biden returned the US to the Paris Climate Agreement (PCA) and ordered federal agencies to review scores of climate and environmental policies enacted during the Trump years and, if possible, quickly reverse them.  (An article without a paywall is here.)  He also revoked the construction permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, prompting indigenous leaders to call for him to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline.  The new administration also reestablished an interagency working group and ordered it to update the social cost of carbon within 30 days.  Inside Climate News presented a compilation of the major actions on Day One, but legal experts warned that it could take two to three years to put many of the old rules back in place.  In addition, Biden is expected to announce a second round of executive orders focused on combating climate change next Wednesday and to convene an international climate summit in April to help accelerate emissions cuts.  The Washington Post has started tracking the Biden administration’s unwinding of Trump’s climate change “legacy.”  For example, Biden elevated Richard Glick, a Democrat, to chair of FERC.

On Tuesday, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia struck down the Trump administration’s Affordable Clean Energy rule, paving the way for the enactment of new and stronger restrictions on power plants.  In a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Treasury secretary nominee Janet Yellen said she planned to start a new Treasury “hub” that would examine financial system risks arising from climate change.  The new administration will likely use the Congressional Review Act to reverse some of the Trump administrations rules, but they must jump through several hoops to do so.  President Biden wants to use an infrastructure bill to simultaneously boost the economy and act on climate, but there will be obstacles to such an effort.  The Interior Department took swift action to block oil and gas drilling on public lands, freezing such leases for the next 60 days.

By interviewing more than 20 officials and advocates around the globe, Politico sought to determine what the world wants from John Kerry on climate.  Meanwhile, Kerry vowed during an appearance at an Italian climate conference that the Biden administration would make up for the past four years of climate inaction.  Environmental advocates want the Biden administration to use US trade agreements to fight climate change by conditioning future agreements on partners’ ability to meet their targets under the PCA.  Coal mining will continue to generate wealth for Australians for decades to come, Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared in a statement fending off calls to phase out fossil fuels and toughen action on climate change.  However, pressure from the US and Australian states could cause him to change his tune.  China’s coal output rose last year to its highest since 2015, despite Beijing’s climate change pledge to reduce coal’s consumption.  The president of the European Investment Bank announced that the bank intends to end all funding for fossil fuels before the end of the year.  Along with promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, under the PCA world leaders also agreed to prepare for the unavoidable and mounting impacts of climate change, but adaptation efforts are lagging.

On its final full day in office, among other things, the Trump administration finalized lease sales to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  The US Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday on whether a lawsuit brought by the city of Baltimore against oil and gas companies belongs in state courts, where the plaintiffs want it, or the federal courts, where the oil companies want it.  Amy Coney Barrett was among the justices who heard the arguments, despite her father’s longstanding ties to Shell Oil Company, one of the defendants in the case.  In a change of position, the US Chamber of Commerce said Congress should pass laws pushing companies to limit greenhouse gas emissions, declaring “We believe that durable climate policy must be made by Congress.”  They also endorsed a market-based approach.  The clean energy sector in the US lost 429,000 jobs last year due to the economic impacts of COVID-19 and 70% have yet to be recovered.

Climate and Climate Science

A paper in Communications Earth and Environment presented an integrated approach to accounting for uncertainties in estimating the remaining carbon budget associated with a given temperature rise.  For a 1.5°C rise above preindustrial temperatures they estimated the remaining budget to be 230 Gt CO2 for a 66% chance of staying below a 1.5°C rise and 440 Gt CO2 for a 33% chance.  An attribution study published in Nature Climate Change found that greenhouse gas emissions released by humans accounted for the vast majority of global temperature rise observed from pre-industrial times to today, while natural factors had a “negligible” effect.  Methane leaking out of the more than 4 million abandoned oil and gas wells in the US and Canada is a far greater contributor to climate change than government estimates suggest, according to a new paper in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The World Economic Forum published a surprisingly frank essay by Peter Giger, Group Chief Risk Officer of the Zurich Insurance Group, in which he said humans were playing a game of Jenga with Earth’s climate system.  Because of the importance of modeling in charting a course through the climate crisis, a team of climatologists, oceanographers, and computer scientists on the East and West US coasts has launched a bold effort to develop a new generation of climate models.  For those who like to keep up with how well current models are doing in projecting Earth’s temperature in response to increased greenhouse gas concentrations, RealClimate has updated its model-observation comparison page with an additional annual observational point for 2020.

Heat-related illnesses are soaring in Arizona and Florida as the planet warms and poor communities are bearing the brunt of the impact.  A paper in Nature Climate Change found that climate change will dramatically shift the globe’s tropical rain belt, threatening the food security of billions of people.

Research, published in Nature, found that lake heatwaves could become between three and 12 times longer by the end of this century – and between 0.3°C and 1.7°C hotter.  Of the 14 species of salmon and steelhead trout in Washington State that are endangered, ten are lagging recovery goals and five of those are considered “in crisis.”

A new study, published in the journal Nature Communications, found that beneath the surface layer of waters circling Antarctica, the seas are warming much more rapidly than previously known, and this relatively warm water is rising toward the surface at a rate three to 10 times previous estimates, endangering the stability of the Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Energy

In a 9% increase over 2019, the world spent a record $501.3 billion in 2020 on renewable power, electric vehicles (EVs), and other technologies to cut the global energy system’s dependence on fossil fuels.  Global sales of EVs accelerated in 2020, rising by 43% to more than 3 million.  Unfortunately, the reduction in CO2 emissions associated with those EVs was more than cancelled out by the increased sales of SUVs.  A team at MIT calculated both the CO2 emissions and full lifetime cost for nearly every new car model on the market.  They found that EVs were easily more climate friendly than gas-burning ones and were often cheaper, too.  Batteries capable of fully charging in five minutes have been manufactured on a production line in a factory for the first time, marking a significant step toward EVs becoming as fast to charge as filling up gasoline or diesel vehicles.

A venture part-owned by Toyota Motor Corp. and Air Liquide SA, plans to persuade 10,000 Paris taxi drivers to switch to hydrogen fuel cell powered cars by the time the Olympic Games come to town in 2024.  The MIT Startup Exchange showcased five startups developing emerging hydrogen production technologies.  According to a new report by Deloitte, hydrogen will be the key energy source for heavy-duty and long-route medium-duty freight vehicles in Europe, but battery electrification will be the most economic and environmental solution for smaller delivery vehicles.  South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Group has announced its intentions to build its first overseas fuel cell factory in China.  The green hydrogen production division of Thyssenkrupp Uhde Chlorine Engineers will install an 88 MW water electrolysis plant for Hydro-Québec.

A growing number of corporations are pouring money into direct air capture of CO2 to offset emissions they can’t otherwise cut.  Elon Musk has promised a $100 million prize for development of the “best” technology to capture CO2 emissions.

China added 71.67 GW of wind power capacity in 2020, along with 48.2 GW of solar power.  Unfortunately, it also added 56.37 GW of new thermal power capacity.  Meanwhile, Germany increased its offshore wind capacity in the North Sea.  Data from the US Energy Information Agency revealed that natural gas will supply just 16% of new power capacity this year in the US as cheap wind and solar power take over the market.

Energy company Total and solar-plus-storage developer 174 Power Global have formed a joint venture to develop utility-scale solar and storage projects in Texas, Nevada, Oregon, Wyoming, and Virginia with a total capacity of 1.6 GW.  Hawaiian Electric won regulatory approval for a $25 million plan to harness solar and batteries at 6,000 homes across the islands of Hawaii, Maui, and Oahu to form a virtual power plant.  The lion’s share of new funding announced this week by the DOE’s ARPA-E program to help scale-up potentially disruptive technologies will go to battery and smart grid technologies.

Potpourri

Michael Svoboda provided descriptions of twelve new books that explore scientific, economic, and political avenues for climate action.  The Biden administration has the largest team of climate change experts ever assembled in the White House, but there will be pressure from multiple directions by members of the coalition that got Biden elected.  In his regular weekly newsletter at The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer laid out a primer for watching the Biden administration’s first 100 days, while in his weekly New Yorker column, Bill McKibben argued that humans need to stop burning thingsThe Washington Post had a feature article on Friday about regenerative agriculture and the controversy around its ability to sequester carbon in the long term.  Grist examined the latest research on how to lessen public opposition to the placement of wind farms.  Ivy Main summarized all the climate- and energy-related bills that have been filed in the Virginia General Assembly.  At FERC’s meeting on Tuesday, a request from the developers of the Mountain Valley Pipeline to bore under streams in West Virginia failed to get a majority vote, causing the matter to die.

Closing Thought

In response to Biden’s inauguration, Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of Rocky Mountain Institute wrote: “…our nation can now return to the international community where major countries are shifting into high gear on the clean energy transition.”

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.

CAAV’s Chair on the Paris Agreement for “1on1”

1on1: What it means as Biden rejoins climate agreement

Climate Action Alliance of the Valley Chair Jo Anne St. Clair spoke with Bob Corso on January 21, 2021, for WHSV’s 1on1 about the importance of President Biden’s action to have the United States rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. Watch the interview here.

2021 Legislation That Needs Your Support

Dear Climate Friend:

As you know, the Virginia General Assembly is now in session.  

CAAV’s Legislation and Elections committee has identified climate-friendly bills that, if enacted, would make a difference.  Below is a very brief summary of each one.

Please contact your Delegate and Senator, and urge them to support these bills.  And please act quickly.  The GA is moving rapidly through a great many bills.  If you need the name and contact information for your Delegate and/or Senator, click here:

https://whosmy.virginiageneralassembly.gov/

Clean Transportation Bills

HB 1965–the Clean Cars bill.  Allows State Air Pollution Control Board to establish ZEV (zero emissions vehicles) mandate beginning with 2025 vehicles

1) Environmental benefits – 48% of VA’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) come from the transportation sector. More LEV and ZEV vehicles will help reduce this pollution. 

2) More ZEV options – Currently many dealerships in VA do not offer ZEVs because they do not want to or because they cannot get them. This law would be a signal to the manufacturers that VA is serious about ZEVs and they will send more ZEVs to VA to be sold.

3) Support the growing clean energy economy – More ZEVs on the road means VA will need to build more EV charging stations and hire more EV technicians, generating good-paying jobs for Virginians. 

4) Increase demand for clean electricity – as more ZEVs are deployed, consumer awareness of the source of their electricity will grow, and consumers will want the utilities to provide them with cleaner electricity.

5) Long lead time – the 2025 implementation gives dealerships ample time to prepare for this transition.

HB 1979 EV Rebate bill

1) A state rebate of $2500 will reduce the upfront cost of a new or used EV.

2) This rebate will provide an additional $2,000 to low income Virginians, promoting equity.

3) Cash on the hood rebate reduces the final purchase or lease price of the EV.

Utility Reform Bills

Background

Virginians currently pay the sixth highest energy bills in the country, bills that for more than 75% of Virginia households are considered unaffordable by federal standards. Too many Virginians are desperate for economic relief, particularly when it comes to paying monthly bills.  Prioritizing the passage of consumer protection legislation to ensure Virginians are not overcharged by their energy providers should be a major goal of Virginia’s legislators.

With a rate case coming up later in 2021 for Virginia’s largest energy provider, this issue could not be more urgent. If the General Assembly does not act this session to protect consumers and restore oversight authority to regulators, Virginians are poised to lose out on the over $500 million they’ve been overcharged by Dominion Energy since 2017 and, even worse, may continue to be forced to pay bills that are much higher than they should be moving forward. These bills— HB 2160, HB 2200, HB 2049, HB 1984, HB 1914, and HB 1835—will provide much greater balance between utility and customer interests than now exists under Virginia’s “regulated utility mode.”

Why These Bills Matter

  • Virginians pay the 6th highest energy bills in the country, bills unaffordable for 75% of Virginia households based on federal energy burden standards.
  • Dominion Energy has overcharged customers by at least $502 million since 2017. Virginians deserve this money back.
  • Dominion Energy customers have already seen their bills increase by more than 25% in the last decade, and these bills are projected to rise even more as costs for Grid Modernization Act, Clean Economy Act, etc. are added to customers’ bills. Virginians urgently need rate relief.

Bill Specifics

HB 2160 Preventing Utilities from Keeping Customer Overcharges as Unmerited Profit Bonuses

Chief Patron: Delegate Kathy Tran; Chief Co-Patron: Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg

As regulated utility monopolies benefit from no competition, the State Corporation Commission (SCC) is tasked with establishing their fair – but not unlimited – authorized profit margin. However, Virginia is the only state in the country whose legal code mandates that specific utilities – Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power (APCo) – receive profit bonuses tacked onto this authorized profit margin. These bonuses are not tied to performance, but rather are granted to the utilities as a reward for overcharging their customers. This bill removes provisions that allow utilities to keep customer overcharges as bonuses and instead restores SCC authority to fully refund 100% of overcharges back to customers.  The Bill:

1. Eliminates provision that allows utilities to keep a bonus profit of 0.7% above their authorized profit, or return on equity (ROE).

a. Under current law, Dominion and APCo get an automatic profit bonus of 0.7% tacked onto whatever profit margin the SCC sets.

b. Virginia is the only state in the country with a mandatory “earnings band” or “earnings collar” like this written into law.

c. Unless changed, this provision would allow Dominion to keep $136 million of customer overcharges (based on overcharges determined in the 2020 SCC Annual Report).

2. Eliminates provision that allows Dominion to pocket an additional 30% of customer overcharges above the 0.7% earnings collar.

a. Under current law, if a utility’s revenue exceeds the 0.7% profit bonus, they are further allowed to keep 30% of customer overcharges as a bonus.

b. Unless changed, this provision would allow Dominion to keep $110 million of customer overcharges (based on overcharges determined in the 2020 SCC Annual Report).  Eliminating these two provisions will prevent Dominion from pocketing $246 million of the $502.7 million it has overcharged Virginians since 2017.

HB 2200 Restoring SCC Authority to Balance the Interest of Utilities and Ratepayers

Chief Patron: Delegate Jay Jones; Chief Co-Patron: Delegate Lee Ware

This ratepayer protection bill makes minor changes to Virginia’s code aimed at restoring State Corporation Commission (SCC) discretion over certain accounting and ratemaking functions that are currently mandated in law to the utility’s benefit.  The Bill:

1. Changes “shall” to “may” in key sections of Virginia’s code.

a. This bill takes specific sections of the code that dictate that the State Corporation

Commission (SCC) shall follow pro-utility provisions and changes it so that the SCC may follow them, if the SCC decides such action benefits customers.

b. This leaves the majority of Virginia’s utility-friendly code provisions intact but gives the SCC discretion over whether these provisions should be implemented during a rate case.

2. Allows the SCC to balance utility and ratepayer interests.

a. Utilities retain ability to recover all costs and their full authorized profit, but the SCC regains authority to determine the time period over which the utilities recover those costs.

b. SCC will be able to (i) prevent utilities from overcharging ratepayers in the future and (ii) order refunds for past overcharges.

3. Restores full SCC discretionary authority over:

a. The length of the recovery period for certain large-scale utility costs (storm expenses, metering retirements, etc.).

b. The cost recovery mechanism utilities can use for large-scale infrastructure projects.

c. Setting utility rates and authorized profit (ROE) moving forward.

d. Issuing full refunds to customers when they have been overcharged by their utility.

HB 2049 Eliminating Roadblocks for Electricity Rate Cuts

Chief Patron: Delegate Dan Helmer; Chief Co-Patrons: Delegate Sally Hudson, Delegate Suhas Subramanyam

This bill allows the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to set future electricity rates that fairly balance

ratepayer and utility interests by eliminating roadblocks currently preventing the SCC from ordering rate reductions.  The Bill:

1. Eliminates $50 million cap in rate reductions.

a. Under current law, the SCC is prevented from lowering rates by more than $50 million, only for Dominion Energy, regardless of whether analysis justifies a much larger rate cut.

b. In recent years, Dominion has overcharged Virginians by more than $300 million/year.

2. Allows SCC to set forward-going rates based on forward-going costs.

a. The SCC is legally barred from reducing Dominion Energy’s electricity rates in the future unless Dominion has been required to pay refunds for overcharges in the past.

b. In practice, this has allowed Dominion to dodge rate reductions by writing off large past expenses in a single year to eliminate refunds, thus preventing the SCC from lowering rates solely based on non-recurring past expenses.

3. Restores SCC authority to determine the recovery period for large costs.

a. Allows the SCC to consider ratepayer and shareholder interests when establishing appropriate cost recovery periods for large expenses like storm damage and metering retirements.

b. This eliminates a key accounting gimmick utilities can use to unfairly keep future rates higher than they should be.

c. This bill brings the rest of Virginia’s code in line with the General Assembly’s decision last year to restore SCC authority over cost recovery periods for retiring generation facilities.

4. Ensures the SCC can set rates as low as possible while still ensuring the utilities can recover their full cost of service and authorized profit but not so high as to continue overcharging customers.

HB 1984 Electric utilities; triennial review proceeding by SCC, fair rates of return. 

Chief Patron:  Sally Hudson, Dan Helmer (chief co-patron), Suhas Subramanyam (chief co-patron),  Dawn Adams, Lee Carter, Carrie Coyner, Patrick Hope, Jay Jones, Mark Keam, Kaye Kory, Sam Rasoul, Ibraheem Samirah, Shelly Simonds, Lee Ware

The Bill:

1. Enables utilities to build new infrastructure projects and guarantees that the utilities can recover the full cost of those projects – plus a guaranteed profit – through either base rates or rate adjustment clauses (RACs).

2. Rolls back a third, yet-untested cost recovery mechanism, the Customer Credit Reinvestment Offset (CCRO).

a. CCROs are designed to allow utilities to instantaneously recover all of the costs for large infrastructure projects by using customer overcharges to instantly pay themselves back for new investments.

b. This is a departure from normal capital investing, where utilities recover their costs over time.

3. Allows the SCC to issue refunds when customers are overcharged.

a. Removing the CCRO mechanism is crucial to guaranteeing customer refunds because CCROs allow a utility to keep the money it has overcharged customers to pay itself back for capital investments.

b. Without this change, customers could lose the over $500 million they have been overcharged by Dominion Energy since 2017 (2020 SCC Annual Report).

4. Increases the SCC’s ability to lower energy prices moving forward.

a. The SCC is legally only allowed to lower a utility’s future rates if it finds that the utility was overcharging its customers in the past.

b. Because CCROs allow utilities to “disappear” past overcharges, if all of a utility’s overearnings are used up by CCROs, then the SCC cannot lower future rates.

c. This is true even though CCROs are all one-off, non-recurring costs.

HB 1914 Electric Utilities Period Costs

Patrons––Helmer, Cole, J.G., Hudson, Subramanyam, Bourne, Coyner, Davis, Hope and Lopez

The Bill:

Requires the Commission to conduct a review for a Phase II Utility in 2021, utilizing the four successive 12-month test periods beginning January 1, 2017, and ending December 31, 2020, with subsequent reviews on a triennial basis utilizing the three successive 12-month test periods ending December 31 immediately preceding the year in which such review proceeding is conducted.

HB 1835 Electric utilities; rate reductions.  

Chief Patron Suhas Subramanyam; Alfonso Lopez

The Bill:

  • Eliminates provisions that limit any rate reduction ordered by the SCC in the first triennial review of Dominion Energy Virginia after January 1, 2021, to $50 million in annual revenues.
  • Provides that in any triennial review, regardless of whether (1) the Commission has ordered bill credits, (2) the utility earned above its authorized rate of return during the test period under review, or (3) the utility has made a request regarding any customer credit reinvestment offsets, the Commission may order any rate reduction it deems necessary and appropriate unless it finds that the resulting rates will not provide the utility with the opportunity to (i) fully recover its costs of providing its services and (ii) earn not less than a fair combined rate of return on its generation and distribution services.

HB 1994, patron Chris Runion

This bill extends the small agricultural generator benefits to businesses that sell Virginia agricultural products, businesses like wineries, breweries, distilleries, and farm markets.  Originally, only farmers growing crops and raising farm animals were eligible for small agricultural generator benefits.

This post is being updated as CAAV L&E members offer input.