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.
Back in 2006, SolarCity was a small Bay Area solar energy startup with a handful of employees. Before long, according to CEO Lyndon Rive, the company was doubling in size every year to keep up with voracious demand for rooftop solar systems. Today, the company has over 9,000 employees spread across 65 offices nationwide; they're are busy every day designing, selling, and installing solar systems.
Similar stories are playing out at solar companies across the country. The US solar boom is taking off at breathtaking speed—even though solar is still a tiny slice of the American energy pie, it has by far the fastest growth of any energy source, and it's adding jobs apace. As of November 2014, the US solar industry employed 173,807 people, up 21.8 percent from a year before, according to a new survey by the Solar Foundation, a nonprofit research outfit.
That's 10 times faster than job growth in the overall US economy, which was just 2 percent over the same time period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Solar employment is also outpacing job growth in the fossil fuel industry. Solar jobs now outnumber coal mining jobs two-to-one and are quickly catching up to jobs in oil and gas extraction, as well.
What's behind that growth? Aside from the fact that the solar sector is growing rapidly, solar is an industry that simply requires a lot of boots on the ground. A 2012 University of Tennessee study found that solar employs more people per megawatt-hour of electricity than any other energy source. That's largely because of the labor needed to install new rooftop systems every day, SolarCity's Rive said. Installers make up more than half of the jobs counted in today's survey (other categories include sales and manufacturing).
Don't expect this kind of growth to last forever, Rive said. Installation is becoming more efficient, and the industry is expecting a slowdown in growth in 2017 when a major federal tax credit is set to expire. The survey reported that of the 2,000 solar-related businesses surveyed, 73 percent said that tax credit "significantly improved" business. US manufacturing is also continually at risk from cheap imported panels from China, although part of President Barack Obama's recent climate deal with that country is aimed at resolving clean energy trade disputes.
This morning the White House announced a new plan to crack down on the oil and gas industry's emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The move is the last major piece of President Obama's domestic climate agenda, following in the footsteps of tougher standards for vehicle emissions and a sweeping plan to curb carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
Like the power plant plan, the methane standards will rely on the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate pollution under the Clean Air Act. The new rules will regulate the amount of methane that oil and gas producers are allow vent or leak from their wells, pipelines, and other equipment. Ultimately, according to the White House, the rules will slash methane emissions 40 to 45 percent by 2025. The proposal announced today is intended to be finalized before Obama leaves office, but it's certain to take a battering along the way from congressional Republicans and fossil fuel interest groups.
Methane makes up a much smaller slice of America's greenhouse gas footprint than carbon dioxide—the volume of methane released in a year is roughly 10 times smaller than the volume of CO2—so the proposal might seem like small potatoes. But it's actually a pretty huge deal, for a few reasons.
Obama's methane crackdown is "a moment of truth" for the fracking industry.
Locking in climate protection: An underlying assumption of Obama's carbon emissions plan is that many power plants will switch from burning coal to burning natural gas. That's great, if your only concern is carbon dioxide. But methane, the principal emission of natural gas consumption, is 20 times more powerful than CO2 over a 100-year timespan. The problem is less with natural gas-burning power plants themselves, but with the infrastructure (pipes, compressors, etc.) needed to get gas from where it's drilled to where it's burned—and also with venting, the burning of excess gas from wells. So far, those bits and pieces have proven to be exceptionally leaky—some studies have found up to 7.9 percent of the methane from natural gas production simply escapes into the air.
So if we replace our coal with natural gas but let methane go unchecked, we won't be much closer to meaningfully mitigating climate change, said Mark Brownstein of the Environmental Defense Fund. "Leak rates as low as 1 to 3 percent undo much of the benefit of going from coal to gas," he added. (Some climate scientists disagree with this assessment, arguing that CO2 from coal is significantly more damaging over the long run than methane leaks from natural gas operations.) The plan proposed today will focus on plugging leaks and will help ensure that the quest to curb carbon emissions doesn't simply shift our climate impact to another gas.
Saving money and energy: Methane leaks aren't just bad for the climate, they're also bad for business. Every year, according to a recent New York University analysis, between 1 and 3 percent of all US natural gas production is lost to leaks and venting, enough to heat more 6 million homes. A separate study from the World Resources Institute put the price tag for all that lost gas at $1.5 billion per year. Plugging leaks and limiting venting from drilling sites would keep more gas on the market.
The industry doesn't deny that leaks are a problem for its bottom line; the dispute is over whether intervention from the federal government is required and whether the cost to fix the leaks is worth it. Today the president of the American Petroleum Institute called the methane proposal "another layer of burdensome requirements [that] could actually slow down industry progress to reduce methane emissions." While it's true that overall methane emissions have been on a modest decline over the past several years, Brownstein said much more is needed to meet the nation's climate goals. And the oil and gas sector is the single biggest source of methane.
Cleaning up fracking: Behind any conversation about natural gas is always the specter of fracking. Of course, there are many concerns about fracking that have nothing to do with methane emissions: Public health issues related to water contamination, for example, or earthquakes. But stringent methane rules could alleviate some of the climate-related concerns about the fracking boom and could help refocus the debate around local pollution and land rights issues. These rules are also an opportunity, Brownstein said, for the gas industry to show good faith. "If the industry resists basic regulation for a relatively simple issue to solve, what is the public to think about the industry's willingness to solve more complex issues," he said. "This is a moment of truth."
The data combines the results from six different polls conducted over the past three years, and it shows deep divisions within the Republican Party over belief in climate change and support for climate policies. Most interestingly, a majority of Republican voters support the government taking steps to curb carbon dioxide pollution. That's the very policy that GOP leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) have vowed to fight this year.
Despite that call for action, belief that climate change is happening is common only among self-described liberal and moderate Republicans, who together comprise just 30 percent of the party:
So clearly climate advocates still have their work cut out for them in winning more Republicans over to the overwhelming mainstream scientific consensus on climate change. But at the same time, an all-out war on President Obama's climate initiatives won't be a clear-cut win for any but the most right-wing Republican legislators.
At the world's most reviled agriculture company, a big change is taking root that could help farmers—both in the US and around the world—adapt to climate change. As we reported in November, executives at Monsanto are plotting a major move into data and information services within the next decade. The company is working with Bay Area data gurus to provide super-accurate weather updates and farming advice to growers via their smartphones.
These new services can help farmers better predict climate trends that have been shaken up by global warming—in the last couple decades, according to Monsanto, corn production belts in the US have migrated about 200 miles north. And they can help farmers make more efficient use of water and potential pollutants like fuel and fertilizer. But some agriculture experts have raised concerns about whether Big Ag companies will responsibly manage farmers' proprietary data like yield sizes and seed choices; at the same time, as my colleague Tom Philpott noted, Big Data could potentially give an outsized advantage to giant, monoculture farms, to the detriment of small farms and the environment.
Last week I talked with MSNBC's Tony Dokoupil about whether Monsanto's climate adaptation products are a bright spot on the company's dark reputation. As Tony put it, "If my eco-outrage meter is on 10 when I think about Monsanto, how far should we dial it back?"
Oil from Canada's tar sands is extremely dirty and expensive to extract. That's why we shouldn't use most of it, a new study finds.
When scientists and policymakers talk about limiting climate change, what they're mainly talking about keeping more fossil fuels in the ground. The fact is, there's no way to prevent global warming from reaching catastrophic levels if we burn up our remaining reserves of oil, gas, and coal.
Climate negotiators have agreed that warming should be limited to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial level. That means that humans can release about 1.1 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, and we've gone through about half of that already. The remaining emissions are known as our "carbon budget"; if we "spend" emissions beyond our budget, we're much more likely to push the planet to dangerous levels of warming. If we burned through all of our current reserves of fossil fuels, we would overspend the budget by about threefold.
In other words, there are a lot of fossil fuels that are "unburnable" if we're going to stay within the prescribed warming limit. But how much, exactly? And where exactly are those unburnable fuels? That's the question asked in a study released today in the journal Nature by a team of energy analysts at University College London. The answer matters because mapping the geographical spread of unburnable fuels is a key step in understanding the roles specific regions need to play in the fight against climate change.
The model developed by Christophe McGlade and his team takes into account known estimates of fossil fuel reserves in a number of different countries and regions, as well as the global warming potential of those reserves and the market forces that determine which reserves are the most cost-effective to exploit. The results, shown below, are what the model finds to be the most cost-effective distribution that stays within the 3.6-degree limit.
The researchers ran the model twice: Once assuming widespread use of carbon capture and storage (an emerging technology for catching carbon emissions as they escape from power plants that is gaining steam but has yet to be proven on the global stage), and once assuming no CCS at all. The two scenarios ultimately aren't that much different—using CCS won't allow us to burn vastly more coal, oil, and gas. The results shown below are from the "with-CCS" scenario.
A couple interesting things pop out. As you might expect, the vast majority of the world's coal would need to stay buried. The United States is able to use most of its oil and gas in this scenario, because those resources are relatively cost-efficient to extract and bring to market compared to, for example, gas in China and India. In other words, according to this study, the US fracking boom can go forward full steam as long as the gas it produces aggressively replaces our coal consumption. But Canada can't touch most of its oil, because the oil there—the kind that would be carried in the Keystone XL Pipeline—is exceptionally carbon-heavy tar sands crude.
What isn't shown in the graphic above is that the model prohibits developing any of the vast oil and gas reserves in the Arctic. Melting sea ice has made those reserves increasingly attractive to energy companies like Shell.
Of course, the model has to make assumptions about future oil and gas prices that are basically impossible to be certain about. Unexpected changes to the price of oil, for example, could upset the cost equation for drilling in the US and re-shuffle the entire regional breakdown. But even as an estimate, the study really illuminates the vital need for policies all over the world that dramatically cut our dependence on coal.