As the digital media bubble pops, journalism is in "panic" mode. Read our take.
Climate Desk Associate Producer
Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
It seems like every few weeks there's some new measurement of how successful solar power is in the United States. In early March, industry analysts found that solar is poised for its biggest year ever, with total installations growing 119 percent by the end of 2016. This week, federal government analysts reported that in 2015, solar ranked No. 3 (behind wind and natural gas) in megawatts of new electricity-producing capacity brought online. That rank is even more impressive when you consider that each individual solar installation is fewer megawatts than a wind turbine, and far fewer than a natural-gas plant; that means solar panels are popping up like crazy across the country.
Which makes you wonder: Is there a limit to that growth? According to a new report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a federal research outfit, there's good news and bad news. The bad news: Yes, there is a ceiling for solar power in the United States. The good news: We're not even remotely close to reaching it. In other words, solar's potential has barely been tapped.
The bad news: Yes, there is a ceiling for solar power in the United States. The good news: We're not even remotely close to reaching it.
The report is the deepest dive on solar's potential since NREL conducted a similar analysis in 2008. The new report's estimate is much larger than the older report's, mostly because of vast new troves of satellite imagery data of the country's rooftops and computer models that are better able to calculate how much power each panel can produce. The analysis leaves behind policy and cost considerations. Instead, the only question is: How much power could we really get if we slathered every roof in America with solar panels? The answer: about 39 percent of the country's electricity consumption, at current levels.
It's important to note that the report looks only at rooftop panels, as opposed to utility-scale solar farms. Utility-scale solar provides about twice as much power as rooftop panels, so the full potential of solar is likely even higher than what NREL describes in this report. Even 39 percent, though, would be a revolutionary change from where we are now; despite solar's rapid growth in the last several years, it still accounts for less than 1 percent of electricity consumption. Coal, which is still the nation's No. 1 energy source, commands about 32 percent of the market. So the future that NREL is envisioning here would basically flip our energy makeup on its head.
The most potential exists in sunny states, obviously, but also in states that have relatively low electricity needs. The map below shows what percentage of each state's power could be derived from rooftop panels if they were fully utilized:
Again, NREL stresses that the estimates here "provide an upper bound on potential deployment rather than a prediction of actual deployment." It's very unlikely that this exact scenario will come to pass. The most recent study by Stanford energy economist Mark Jacobson, who researches ways the United States could get 100 percent of its power from renewable sources, sees rooftop solar contributing about 7 percent of total electricity by 2050. And that's with, as Vox's David Roberts put it, "enormous, heroic assumptions about social and political change."
Early Tuesday morning, a series of terrorist attacks ripped across Brussels, the Belgian capitol, leaving at least 31 dead. We're following live updates to the story here. Similar to the December massacre in Paris, the attacks were quickly followed by a public outpouring grief, sympathy and solidarity, taking the form of makeshift memorials and specially lit landmarks.
Here is a selection of reactions from Europe and around the world:
People light candles at a memorial set up outside the stock exchange in Brussels. Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP
On Monday the Washington Post editorial board published a full transcript of its meeting with Donald Trump. It's worth reading in full, if only because reading Trump's unedited words, as opposed to hearing them spoken out loud, is an especially mind-blowing tour-de-force of nonsense. In response to the very earnest series of questions posed by WaPo editors, Trump offers little-to-nothing of any substance. In many cases, he just immediately changed the subject rather than respond to the actual questions.
One exception, where he actually did answer to the question asked of him, was the following exchange about climate change. As he has made clear many times before, he is a strident denier of climate science—or, as he puts it, "not a big believer," as though accepting the premise that greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels warms the planet requires some sort of leap of faith. It doesn't.
Naturally, Trump also doesn't view climate change as a national security threat. It is.
HIATT: Last one: You think climate change is a real thing? Is there human-caused climate change?
TRUMP: I think there's a change in weather. I am not a great believer in man-made climate change. I'm not a great believer. There is certainly a change in weather that goes—if you look, they had global cooling in the 1920s and now they have global warming, although now they don't know if they have global warming. They call it all sorts of different things; now they're using "extreme weather" I guess more than any other phrase. I am not—I know it hurts me with this room, and I know it's probably a killer with this room—but I am not a believer. Perhaps there's a minor effect, but I'm not a big believer in man-made climate change.
STROMBERG: Don't good businessmen hedge against risks, not ignore them?
TRUMP: Well I just think we have much bigger risks. I mean I think we have militarily tremendous risks. I think we're in tremendous peril. I think our biggest form of climate change we should worry about is nuclear weapons. The biggest risk to the world, to me—I know President Obama thought it was climate change—to me the biggest risk is nuclear weapons. That's—that is climate change. That is a disaster, and we don't even know where the nuclear weapons are right now. We don't know who has them. We don't know who's trying to get them. The biggest risk for this world and this country is nuclear weapons, the power of nuclear weapons.
This week President Barack Obama nominated DC Circuit Court Chief Judge Merrick Garland to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Garland is a highly respected centrist jurist with decades of high-level experience…and he shares a name with Wizard of Oz starlet Judy Garland! So, how well do you know the man who could become Obama's third appointee to the nation's highest court? Find out in our quiz!
Merrick Garland has spent the last decade in the weeds of some of the most contentious clean-air cases in history—and he's consistently come out on the side of the environment and against big polluters.
Garland, the DC Circuit Court chief judge who is President Barack Obama's pick to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, faces a steep climb to confirmation in the face of fierce opposition from Senate Republicans.
But if Garland makes it to the Supreme Court, the battle over Obama's flagship climate regulations will likely be one of his first big cases. That policy, known as the Clean Power Plan, aims to slash the nation's carbon footprint by restricting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The Environmental Protection Agency built the plan on a provision of the Clean Air Act that allows it to set emissions standards for existing "stationary" sources (i.e., power plants, rather than, say, cars) and then leave it up to each state to choose how to reach that standard. The rule was immediately challenged by two dozen coal-reliant states, which have argued that it oversteps EPA's legal authority because it applies to the whole electricity system rather than to individual power plants. Shortly before Scalia's death, the Supreme Court voted 5-to-4 to put the plan on hold while Garland's current colleagues in the DC Circuit Court weigh its legality.
"In a close case, with Garland on the bench, the [Clean Power Plan's] chances of winning go way up."
The climate regulations will likely wind up in front of SCOTUS sometime next year. So, Garland's record on cases involving the Clean Air Act—which many legal experts see as the world's single most powerful piece of environmental law—is a helpful guide for how he might rule. Garland once described the Clean Air Act as "this nation's primary means of protecting the safety of the air breathed by hundreds of millions of people."
Garland brings a very different perspective to the bench than Scalia, says Pat Parenteau, a former director of Vermont Law School's Environmental Law Center. Whereas Scalia was famous for his strict, literalist interpretation of the law, Parenteau says Garland tends to focus on the real-world outcome of his cases, an approach that could make him more likely to accept the administration's Clean Power Plan arguments.
"In a close case, with Garland on the bench, the [Clean Power Plan's] chances of winning go way up," he said.
A review of two of Garland's recent Clean Air Act rulings sheds some additional light:
White Stallion Energy Center v. EPA: In 1990, Congress amended the Clean Air Act to require that the Environmental Protection Agency research how to cut down on mercury and other toxic air pollutants spewing out of coal- and oil-fired power plants. After more than a decade of false starts, the EPA finally issued a mercury rule in 2012 and was hit with a suit from industry groups charging that the agency hadn't considered how much mercury controls on power plants would cost. The lead plaintiff, White Stallion, was a proposed coal-fired power plant in Texas that was ultimately canceled but whose name remained on the suit.
Garland joined the majority opinion, in April 2014, upholding the mercury rule. The majority found that, for one thing, the EPA did consider the costs ($9.6 billion per year, by EPA's estimate, in return for $37-90 billion per year in public health benefits). Regardless, the majority found that the cost to industry was never meant to be a deciding factor when EPA writes air pollution regulations:
For EPA to focus its "appropriate and necessary" determination on factors relating to public health hazards, and not industry's objections that emissions controls are costly, properly puts the horse before the cart, and not the other way around as petitioners and our dissenting colleague urge.
As Ann Carlson, an environmental law scholar at UCLA, wrote in a recent blog post, the White Stallion case illustrates that Garland shows "significant deference to EPA both in its interpretation of ambiguous language in the Clean Air Act and in its technical determinations about how to craft regulations." In other words, Garland is inclined to trust that the EPA's experts know what they're doing.
Garland is inclined to trust that the EPA's experts know what they're doing.
Later, Garland stood by the mercury rule a second time. Following the DC Circuit Court decision, the legal battle continued to the Supreme Court, which ultimately sent the rule back to the EPA with instructions to recalibrate the agency's cost calculations. The rule is still stuck at that stage today, but Garland ruled that in the meantime, the rule should stand—essentially the opposite of how SCOTUS treated the Clean Power Plan.
The rule "wasn't jettisoned during the bouncing back and forth," said Pat Gallagher, director the environmental law program at the Sierra Club. "This is the pragmatic sensibility of Garland. He isn't bringing ideology to the table. He's not on the war path to show that [the EPA] is usurping powers."
American Corn Growers Association v. EPA: In this case, Garland was the lone dissenter when the court threw out regulations from the EPA meant to reduce haze in national parks. This case in particular is a useful proxy for the Clean Power Plan because both regulations follow the same model (the EPA sets a standard and lets states decide how to implement it). In both cases, industry groups objected to how the EPA categorized polluters. In the haze case, Garland once again sided with the EPA.
Garland's dissenting opinion also showed that he is more interested in helping the executive branch enforce the laws created by Congress than in searching out hair-splitting details that can be used to tie the administration's hands, Parenteau said: "Garland is going to try to interpret a statute to be consistent with the purposes of the statue." In other words, like in the White Stallion case, he generally trusts that EPA knows the best way to achieve the ends of the Clean Air Act. And he's disinclined to second-guess the agency's methods as long as they seem to accomplish what Congress intended.
"In the Clean Air Act, Congress declared a national goal of restoring natural visibility in the country's largest national parks and wilderness areas," Garland wrote. Overturning the haze regulation "will prevent the achievement of Congress' goal."
Garland has a record of ruling against the EPA when he thinks it hasn't done enough to enforce the law.
That doesn't mean he automatically caves to the EPA; in fact, Garland has a record of ruling against the agency when he thinks it hasn't done enough to enforce the law. In American Farm Bureau Federationv. EPA, he ruled that the agency hadn't gone as far as the Clean Air Act requires to regulate airborne particulate matter. And in Sierra Club v. EPA, he found that the EPA had tried to let states circumvent the agency's own regulations on ozone.
"[Garland] defers to the [agency] scientists as long as the reasoning looks sound," Gallagher said. But, "if they are hiding the ball, he will dig in and ferret that out."
That adds up to good news for the Clean Power Plan.
"It's not a slam dunk, because [EPA] is using a provision that wasn't designed to confront climate change," Parenteau said. But the Clean Power Plan "is the most carefully crafted and supported plan I think EPA has ever produced. Garland might change the very dynamic of the situation."