Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

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.

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We've Barely Begun to Tap the Sun's Mighty Power

| Thu Mar. 24, 2016 4:01 PM EDT

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:

NREL

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."

But hey…we're dreamers of the golden dream, right?

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Photos From Around The World Capture the Outpouring of Support After the Brussels Attack

| Tue Mar. 22, 2016 3:43 PM EDT

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

The pencils in the cartoon below are a reference to the terrorist attacks on the offices of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, last January:

Pakistanis chant slogans during a rally to condemn the Brussels attack, in Multan, Pakistan. Asim Tanveer/AP

Donald Trump Is "Not a Big Believer" in Climate Change

| Tue Mar. 22, 2016 12:08 PM EDT

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

Sad!

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.

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