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.
Under current utility pricing schemes, a poor family of four in California's AC-dependent Central Valley can end up paying rates far above the national average—while a Google-employed bachelor millionaire gets a bargain.
Power companies' beef with solar boils down to a clever payment system that was largely responsible for bringing about the solar boom in the first place—a practice known as net metering. Most solar homes aren't actually "off the grid": They stay connected to transmission lines, using regular power when their panels aren't operating (like at night). But they also feed electricity into the grid when they produce more than they can use.
Sounds great, right? Not really, say the power companies. They pay solar homeowners for their excess kilowatts—but argue homeowners aren't paying their fair share for grid maintenance. That has utilities in revolt, and the fight has reached a fever pitch in Northern California, where the state's largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, serves more residential solar homes than any other.
Like many utilities, PG&E charges customers on a multitiered price scheme—the more electricity you use, the more you pay per unit. That can incentivize power hogs to conserve, but it can also mean that a poor family of four in California's AC-dependent Central Valley can end up paying rates far above the national average (and what it actually costs PG&E to serve them), while a Google-employed bachelor millionaire gets a bargain. If that tech dude decides to install solar panels, he pays even less—even though he still uses the grid.
To be fair, customers who generate their own electricity also save the utilities money, causing less wear and tear on transmission lines and less power lost along the way. But a study commissioned by California's Legislature found that in the Golden State at least, these benefits do not fill the hole left by lost revenue. Net metering cost the state's privately owned utilities $254 million in 2012, a price tag estimated to jump to $1.1 billion per year by 2020 as an estimated 500,000 more homes go solar.
The solar industry shot back with a study of its own, arguing that those costs are minor compared with the roughly $32 billion that California'smajorutilities earned in 2013 and that, for PG&E, the problem is not really caused by solar but by the huge gap—about threefold—between the company's lowest and highest rate tiers. Since solar is attractive to high-tier customers, who stand to save the most money, each one who saves by installing a system is a big blow to the utility's bottom line. Smooth out the rate tiers, the study suggests, and the problem disappears.
In the future, utilities will have to act more like grid managers, connecting power from a host of sources—like data flowing into a server from many places.
In 2013, California lawmakers told the state's utilities to do just that. PG&E's proposed solution, set to be voted on by state regulators in the spring, would reduce the number of price tiers and add a fixed monthly grid maintenance surcharge. The problem is that the fixed charge will erode the cost advantages of going solar, since you can't avoid it just by using less power from the grid. Sanjay Ranchod, a policy analyst for the solar installer SolarCity, sees the change as a sneaky way for the utilities to kneecap the competition. Imposing a fixed monthly charge, he says, is "one way you can inhibit the growth of distributed solar."
Similar battles are playing out from Utah to Wisconsin, as utilities fight to roll back net metering, restructure their rate systems, or impose special fees for solar users—and it's easy to see why power companies are sweating. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the gap between the cost of maintaining the US grid and the available funds will grow by $11 billion per year through 2020, since the revenue streams utilities have traditionally relied on to pay for those costs—investments in big power plants they can recover through increased sales—are drying up.
John Farrell, a program director at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, argues that to succeed down the line, utilities will have to act more like grid managers, connecting power from a host of sources (much like data flowing into a server from many places) and investing in technology that helps consumers use power more efficiently. "There's no outcome 10 or 20 years from now that looks anything like what utilities have been before," Farrell says. "It's going to happen anyway, and you just have to choose whether you're gonna like it or not."
After 20 years at the helm of one of the United Kingdom's most influential newspapers, Alan Rusbridger is about to step down as editor of the Guardian. He's not going quietly: In an op-ed a couple weeks ago, Rusbridger pledged to use his waning weeks to launch a full-out war on climate change:
So, in the time left to me as editor, I thought I would try to harness the Guardian's best resources to describe what is happening…For the purposes of our coming coverage, we will assume that the scientific consensus about man-made climate change and its likely effects is overwhelming. We will leave the sceptics and deniers to waste their time challenging the science. The mainstream argument has moved on to the politics and economics…
We will look at who is getting the subsidies and who is doing the lobbying. We will name the worst polluters and find out who still funds them. We will urge enlightened trusts, investment specialists, universities, pension funds and businesses to take their money away from the companies posing the biggest risk to us. And, because people are rightly bound to ask, we will report on how the Guardian Media Group itself is getting to grips with the issues.
The series kicked off with a pair of excerpts from journalist Naomi Klein's recent book on the tension between capitalism and the climate crisis.* Over the next few months it will include investigative features, daily news stories, videos and podcasts, and even original artwork and poetry. The pieces will appear not just on the paper's environment pages, but across all sections, from business and tech to lifestyle and the arts. The overarching idea is that from now until Rusbridger's departure in June, any climate story that any reporter has had kicking around but has never had time to tackle will get priority treatment.
"The media have not done a service to their readers in explaining what's really at stake here."
But the centerpiece is all about the penultimate sentence in the excerpt above: "We will urge…" This week the Guardian kicked off a petition calling on the world's two largest charitable organizations, the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, to divest their financial holdings from the world's 200 top fossil fuel companies. As of Thursday afternoon, the petition had gathered over 94,000 signatures and earned the support of the country's energy minister.
If that sounds a lot like straight-up activism, that's because it is.
Rusbridger proposed the petition a few months ago at a meeting that included a who's-who of the paper's top editors, designers, and website coders, said James Randerson, an assistant national news editor who handles climate reporting.
"There were some voices who questioned whether a campaign was the best use of the Guardian's voice," Randerson said, "because the Guardian is about reporting and uncovering things that people can use in advancing an agenda." But Rusbridger's argument, Randerson said, was: "We've tried to do that for quite a while, and we needed to do something that had a bit more cut-through. We felt that it was time to take that step."
The idea of a newspaper undertaking an openly activist campaign straight from the playbook of Greenpeace or the Sierra Club might seem strange to American audiences, who are accustomed to news outlets at least purporting to adhere to some degree of journalistic objectivity. But in the UK, newspapers taking a step across the line between news and activism is, well, less newsworthy. In 2014 the Guardian waged a similar campaign against female genital mutilation. Prior to the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen, the Guardian convinced 56 newspapers from around the globe to publish a front-page editorial calling for climate action. Randerson also characterized the paper's extensive reporting on Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency as a kind of unofficial campaign against state surveillance. And the Times of London has an ongoing campaign to promote safety for urban cyclists, inspired by an accident that nearly killed one of its reporters.
Randerson said the campaign won't dampen the editorial rigor applied to reporting, editing, and fact-checking news stories.
Is it time for the Washington Post and the New York Times to launch climate petitions of their own? Randerson wouldn't say, but he did argue that especially in the United States, "the media have not done a service to their readers in explaining what's really at stake here."
Now we get a chance to see if a more direct approach does the trick.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Naomi Klein's affiliation.
President Barack Obama will once again use his executive authority to mandate action on climate change, the White House announced this morning. Later today, Obama plans to sign an executive order directing the federal government to reduce its carbon footprint by 40 percent below 2008 levels within a decade. The White House announcement also includes carbon-reduction commitments from a number of large government contractors, including GE and IBM.
All told, the government pollution cuts along with industry contributions will have the effect of keeping 26 million metric tons of greenhouse gases out of the air by 2025, or the equivalent of what about 5.5 million cars would pump out through their tailpipes in an average year, the White House said. Yet it was unclear exactly how either the government or private companies planned to meet those targets.
In other words, it will take until 2025 to for the cuts to reach 26 million metric tons per year. And even that is a pretty small fraction of the nation's total carbon footprint, which was nearly 7 billion metric tons in 2013. But the announcement garnered praise from environmental groups as a sign of Obama's leadership on climate. In a statement, Natural Resources Defense Council president Rhea Suh called the announcement "a powerful reminder of how much progress we can make simply through energy efficiency and greater reliance on clean, renewable sources of energy."
The executive order will be the latest step the president has taken to confront climate change that won't require him to push legislation through a recalcitrant, GOP-controlled Congress. In the last couple years his administration has imposed tight limits on vehicle emissions and has put forward a flagship set of new rules under the Clean Air Act to slash carbon pollution from power plants. Obama also negotiated a bilateral deal with China that featured a suite of new climate promises from both countries. And sometime this spring, the president will announce what kind of commitments his administration will bring to the table for a high-stakes round of UN-led negotiations that are meant to produce a new international climate accord.
According to the White House, today's executive order directs federal agencies to:
Procure a quarter of their total energy from clean sources by 2025;
Cut energy use in federal buildings 2.5 percent per year over the next decade;
Purchase more plug-in hybrid vehicles for federal fleets and reduce per-mile greenhouse gas emissions overall by 30 percent by 2025;
Reduce water use in federal buildings 2 percent per year through 2025.
Last night, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a probable candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, shared his thoughts about climate change with late-night host Seth Meyers (video above). Here's what he said:
CRUZ: I just came back from New Hampshire where there's snow and ice everywhere. And my view actually is simple. Debates on this should follow science and should follow data. And many of the alarmists on global warming, they've got a problem because the science doesn't back them up. And in particular, satellite data demonstrate for the last 17 years there's been zero warming, none whatsoever. It's why, you remember how it used to be called global warming, and then magically the theory changed to climate change?
CRUZ: The reason is it wasn't warming. But the computer models still say it is, except the satellites show it's not.
We totally agree with his point that debates about climate "should follow science and should follow data." Right on! But according to Kevin Trenberth, a leading climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, everything else in Cruz's quote is "a load of claptrap…absolute bunk."
How the 2016 contenders will deal with climate change
Trenberth wasn't alone in his criticism. Several prominent climate scientists contacted by Climate Desk dismissed Cruz's analysis. "It is disturbing that some of our most prominent elected officials have decided to engage in distortions of and cynical attacks against the science," said Michael Mann of Penn State.
"Lawmakers have a responsibility to understand the science, and not to embrace ignorance with open arms, as Senator Cruz is doing here," added Ben Santer, a researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
So what's wrong with what Cruz said? For starters, the satellite record does, in fact, show warming. Here's a view of temperature anomalies (that is, the deviation from the long-term average) reported by Remote Sensing Systems, a NASA-backed private satellite lab. It shows warming of about 0.2 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1980, the beginning of the satellite record:
Remote Sensing Systems
Even still, there are a couple important caveats with satellite temperature data that Cruz would do well to make note of. One, Santer said, is that it has a "huge" degree of uncertainty (compared to land-based thermometers), so it should be approached with caution. That's because satellites don't make direct measurements of temperature but instead pick up microwaves from oxygen molecules in the atmosphere that vary with temperature. Fluctuations in a satellite's orbit and altitude and calibrations to its microwave-sensing equipment can all drastically affect its temperature readings.
More importantly, satellites measure temperatures in the atmosphere, high above the surface. The chart above shows the lower troposphere, about six miles above the surface. This data is an important piece of the climate and weather system, but it's only one piece. There are plenty of other signs that are far less equivocal, and perhaps even more relevant to those of us who live on the Earth's surface: Land and ocean surface temperatures are increasing, sea ice is declining, glaciers are shrinking, oceans are rising, the list goes on. In other words, the satellites-vs-computers dichotomy described by Cruz ignores most of the full picture.
For example, here's the most recent land and ocean-surface temperature data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, showing how temperatures this winter deviated from the long-term average (dating all the way back to 1880). Much of the globe is warmer than average, some parts are the hottest on record, and the overall global temperature was the warmest on record:
There's also a big underlying flaw with Cruz's cherry-picked timespan of 17 years, which almost any climate scientist would agree is far too short to observe any meaningful trend. 1998, the year Cruz starts with, was itself exceptionally warm thanks to the biggest El Nino event of the 20th century. If that's your starting place, the warming trend does indeed look weak. But look over a longer time period, and it's obvious that very warm years are more common now than before.
And in any case, even the modest "slow-down" in warming that has occurred since 2000 isn't inconsistent with what scientists have always expected man-made climate change will look like. Even the earliest climate models predicted the possibility of occasional leveling-off periods in upward-bound global temperature, like a landing on a staircase.
In fact, one reason why many scientists "magically" (as Cruz put it) have begun to prefer the term "climate change" to "global warming" is because they think the latter can misleadingly imply that every year will be incrementally warmer than the last. In reality, climate change is all about odds: Man-made greenhouse gas emissions substantially increase the chances of an exceptionally warm year, but they don't eliminate the possibility for average or even cold years to happen.
Even accounting for the apparent stability of the last few years, Santer said, "everything tells us that what's going on isn't natural."
As for Cruz's reference to snowy weather in New Hampshire...give us a break.
Wind energy is growing fast. While it still accounts for less than 5 percent of the United States' total electricity mix, wind is by far the biggest source of renewable energy other than hydroelectric dams, and it accounted for 23 percent of new power production capacity built last year. Some experts think wind could provide a fifth of the world's energy by 2030. But wind in the US is always in a perilous position, thanks to its heavy reliance on a federal tax credit that is routinely attacked in Congress; the subsidy was allowed to expire at the end of last year, and its ultimate fate remains unclear.
Fortunately, wind won't be subject to the whims of legislators for much longer, according to a new analysis from the Energy Department. The new report found that within a decade, wind will be cost-competitive with fossil fuels like natural gas, even without a federal tax incentive.
Cost reductions and technology improvements will reduce the price of wind power to below that of fossil-fuel generation, even after a $23-per-megawatt-hour subsidy provided now to wind farm owners ends, according to a report released Thursday.
"Wind offers a power resource that's already the most competitive option in many parts of the nation," Lynn Orr, under secretary for science and energy at the Energy Department, said on a conference call with reporters. "With continued commitment, wind can be the cheapest, cleanest power option in all 50 states by 2050."
That would be a huge win for slowing climate change. The report finds that it could also lead to billions of dollars of benefits to the American public, from lower monthly electric bills to fewer air-pollution-related deaths.