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.
"This is as exciting as the Public Service Commission gets."
Tim McDonnellMar. 6, 2015 7:30 AM
New York wants to get serious about solar power. The state has a goal to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and it's already among the nation's solar leaders. New York ranks ninth overall for total installed solar, and in 2013 alone it added enough to power more than 10,000 homes.
While that's great news for solar companies and environmentalists, it's a bit of a problem for electric utilities. Until recently, the business model of electric companies hadn't changed much since it was created a century ago. (The country's first electric grid was strung up by Thomas Edison in Manhattan's Lower East Side in the 1880s, and some parts of it continued to operate into the 2000s.) Utilities have depended on a steady growth in demand to stay ahead of the massive investments required to build power plants and the electric grid. But now, that tradition is crumbling—thanks to the crazy growth of rooftop solar and other alternative energy sources and some big advances in energy efficiency that have caused the overall demand for electricity to stop growing. Meanwhile, utilities in New York are also required to buy the excess power from solar buildings that produce more than they need—a policy called "net metering".
"This is as exciting as the Public Service Commission gets," NRDC attorney Raya Salter said.
But here's the thing: Even the most ardent climate hawks agree that we can't afford for utilities to go out of business altogether. Someone needs to maintain and manage the grid. Hardly any solar homes are actually "off the grid," since they still depend on power lines to soak up their excess electricity during sunny afternoons and deliver power at night. In fact, net metering is a key factor in making solar economically viable to homeowners.
The question of how to aggressively slash carbon emissions without completely undermining the power sector (and simultaneously raising the risk of blackouts and skyrocketing electric bills) is one of the big existential questions that climate-savvy lawmakers are now trying to figure out. And last week in New York, they took a huge step forward.
Under a new order from the state's Public Service Commission, utility companies will soon be barred from owning "distributed" power systems—that means rooftop solar, small wind turbines, and basically anything else that isn't a big power plant. (There are some rare exceptions built into the order, notably for giant low-income apartment buildings in New York City that small solar companies aren't well-equipped to serve.)
"By restricting utilities from owning local power generation and other energy resources, customers will benefit from a more competitive market, with utilities working and partnering with other companies and service providers," the commission said in a statement.
The move is part of a larger package of energy reforms in the state, aimed at setting up the kind of futuristic power system that experts think will be needed to combat global warming. The first step came in 2007, when the state adopted "decoupling," a market design in which a utility's revenue is based not on how much power it sells, but on how many customers it serves. (Remember that in most states utilities have their income stream heavily regulated by the state in exchange for having a monopoly.) That change removed the incentive for utilities to actively block rooftop solar and energy-saving technology, because lost sales no longer translate to lost income. But because utilities could still make money by recouping the cost of big infrastructure projects through increases to their customers' bills, they had an incentive to build expensive stuff like power plants and big transmission hubs even if demand could be better met with efficiency and renewables.
Now, under New York's most recent reform, a utility's revenue will instead be based on how efficiently and effectively it distributes power, so-called "performance-based rates." This, finally, provides the incentive utilities need to make decisions that jibe with the state's climate goals, because it will be to their advantage to make use of distributed energy systems.
"We want to pay [utilities] for doing things we want, rather than paying for their return on investment for the things they build," said John Farrell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
But there's a catch, one that had clean energy advocates in the state worried. If utilities were allowed to buy their own solar systems, they would be able to leverage their government-granted monopoly to muscle-out smaller companies. This could limit consumer options, drive up prices, and stifle innovation. That, in turn, could put a freeze on consumers' interest in solar and ultimately slow down the rate at which it is adopted. But if small companies are allowed in, then the energy market starts to look more like markets for normal goods, where customer choice drives technological advances and pushes down prices.
"New York's approach to limit utility ownership balances the desire for more solar with the desire to have competitive markets that we expect to continue to bring down the costs of solar," said Anne Reynolds, director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York.
The upshot is that solar in New York will be allowed to thrive without being squeezed out by incumbent giants like Con Edison and National Grid.
"This is as exciting as the Public Service Commission gets," said Raya Salter, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York who worked with state regulators on the plan. "These are bold, aggressive changes."
The policy puts New York on track for a new way of doing business that many energy wonks now see as inevitable. In the past, the role of electric utilities was to generate power at a few central hubs and bring it to your house; in the near future, their role will be to facilitate the flow of power between countless independent systems.
"We need to plan for a primarily renewable system," said John Farrell, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which advocates for breaking up the old utility model as a key solution to climate change. "We want to pay [utilities] for doing things we want, rather than paying for their return on investment for the things they build."
So far, the response from utilities has been receptive; a spokesperson for Con Ed said the company looks forward to developing details for how the order will move forward.
The change in New York could become a model for other states, Reynolds said. Regulators in Hawaii are already considering a similar policy.
"Everyone is watching to see what's happening here," she said. "It's really a model of what a utility could be in the future."
It's no secret that Republicans leaders hate President Barack Obama's flagship climate initiative, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. So far, the main opposition has been at the state level. The new rules require every state to submit a plan for cleaning up its power sector, and a host of bills have cropped up—primarily in coal-dependent Southern states—to screw with those plans. These bills tend to be backed by GOP state lawmakers, the coal industry, and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.
The thrust of much of this legislation is to effectively stonewall the Environmental Protection Agency and hope that the rules get killed by the Supreme Court. It's a long shot, given the Court's long history of siding with the EPA. And the longer states delay in coming up with their own plan, the more likely they'll be to have one forced on them by the feds.
But in a column for Kentucky's Lexington Herald-Leader yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) threw his weight behind this obstructionist strategy:
This proposed regulation would have a negligible effect on global climate but a profoundly negative impact on countless American families already struggling…
Don't be complicit in the administration's attack on the middle class. Think twice before submitting a state plan—which could lock you in to federal enforcement and expose you to lawsuits—when the administration is standing on shaky legal ground and when, without your support, it won't be able to demonstrate the capacity to carry out such political extremism.
Refusing to go along at this time with such an extreme proposed regulation would give the courts time to figure out if it is even legal, and it would give Congress more time to fight back. We're devising strategies now to do just that.
There's plenty to take issue with in McConnell's analysis. For starters, the EPA rules are unlikely to cause any problems with blackouts or sky-high electric bills, as the senator implies. But I'm sure it'll make good ammunition for state lawmakers and fossil fuel interests as battles over this thing play out this year.
Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2015/03/03/3725288_states-should-reject-obama-mandate.html#storylink=cpy
Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2015/03/03/3725288_states-should-reject-obama-mandate.html#storylink=cpy
Today Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress on Iran's nuclear ambitions, at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). The speech has caused a considerable flap, with Democrats criticizing it as an unprecedented affront to President Barack Obama.
But while the president and Netanyahu might have vastly different visions for how to deal with the threat posed by Iran, they do seem to agree on one thing: the threat posed by climate change. Over the past few months Obama has repeatedly emphasized the dangers associated with global warming. In his State of the Union address in January, he said that "no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations" than climate change. And in a recent national security document, Obama called climate change an "urgent and growing threat." Despite GOP protestations to the contrary, Obama's concerns are legitimate: New research released yesterday, for example, found that man-made climate change was a key factor in the Syrian civil war.
It seems Bibi had the same thought as early as 2010, when his cabinet approved a wide-reaching plan to reduce Israel's carbon footprint. At the time, the prime minister said that "the threat of climate change is no less menacing than the security threats that we face." From the Jerusalem Post:
At the UN Copenhagen Climate Summit in December 2009, Israel pledged to reduce emissions by 20 percent from a "business as usual" scenario by 2020.
"The recent dry months, including the driest November in the history of the state, are a warning light to us all that the threat of climate change is no less menacing than the security threats that we face. I intend to act determinedly in this field. In a country that suffers from a severe water shortage, this is an existential struggle," Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at the cabinet meeting.
Israel doesn't face the kind of political resistance from climate change deniers that is all too common in the United States, said Gidon Bromberg, Israel director of EcoPeace Middle East. But the country is struggling to meet its carbon emission and renewable energy targets because government spending is so heavily concentrated on defense, he said.
"They've given the issue a great deal of lip service," he said, "but in practice none of these [targets] have been met."
Still, Israel has been at the forefront of developing seawater desalination technology to confront drought. The country has the biggest desal plant in the world, and last year Netanyahu signed a deal with California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to share research and technology for dealing with water scarcity.
New research links climate change to Syria's devastating civil war.
Tim McDonnellMar. 2, 2015 3:59 PM
Rebels prepare a mortar cannon to shell regime forces in Aleppo, Syria.
At last week's Conservative Political Action Conference, GOP chairman Reince Priebus had some strong words about how President Barack Obama prioritizes threats to national security.
"Democrats tell us they understand the world, but then they call climate change, not radical Islamic terrorism, the greatest threat to national security," he said. "Look, I think we all care about our planet, but melting icebergs aren't beheading Christians in the Middle East."
The comment came after the president, in a lengthy interview with Vox, said that the media often overplays the danger of terrorism relative to climate change. It's not the first time Obama has made a point along those lines. In his State of the Union address in January, he said that "no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations" than climate change. A few weeks later, in his 2015 national security strategy, the president referred to global warming as an "urgent and growing threat" to national security.
But while Priebus's jab earned him a hearty round of applause at CPAC, new research indicates that his iceberg comment doesn't hold water.
For the last couple years, Middle East experts have pointed to the ongoing civil war in Syria as a prime example of how climate change can contribute to violent conflict. The country's worst drought on record arrived just as widespread outrage with President Bashar al-Assad's dictatorial regime was reaching critical mass; as crops failed, an estimated 1.5 million people were driven off rural farms and into cities. While grievances with the Assad regime are many, from economic stagnation to violent crackdowns on protesters, the impacts of the drought were likely the final straw.
"Melting icebergs aren’t beheading Christians in the Middle East," Reince Priebus told CPAC.
The narrative in Syria fit perfectly with what many top military leaders, including at the Pentagon, were beginning to project: In parts of the world where tensions are already high, the impacts of natural disasters and competition for resources are increasingly likely to ignite violence. A 2013 study by analysts at Princeton found that in some parts of the world, global warming could lead to a 50 percent increase in conflict by mid-century.
But in Syria, there was some uncertainty about whether that drought in particular was a product of man-made climate change. In other words, is the climate-driven conflict there merely representative of what might happen more often in the future, or is it an actual consequence of burning fossil fuels?
An answer to that question was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Colin Kelley, a geographer at the University of California-Santa Barbara, found that a multiyear drought as severe as the one that hit Syria from 2007 to 2010 was made two to three times more likely because of climate change, compared to natural variability alone.
The study is the first to examine a century's worth of precipitation and temperature data for the Fertile Crescent (the lush region surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that was hit hardest by the drought) for clues about a possible human fingerprint on the recent drought. Sure enough, the data shows that "three of the four most severe multiyear droughts have occurred in the last 25 years, the period during which external anthropogenic forcing has seen its largest increase." Here's the relevant data from the study:
Kelley et al., PNAS 2015
The lines in both charts proceed chronologically, starting at 1900, with a tick mark every 20 years. In the top chart, a regional warming trend is clearly visible, with the red box highlighting the recent period where temperatures were consistently above the long-term average. The bottom chart shows the Palmer Drought Severity Index, a standard metric for measuring drought in agricultural areas that combines temperature, precipitation, and soil moisture data (lower numbers are more severe). The brown boxes show droughts (where the PDSI is below the long-term trend) of at least three years.
The study also includes data from a model that compared two sets of projected temperatures in the Fertile Crescent, one with greenhouse gas influence and one without. The observed record matches closely with the greenhouse gas model, suggesting that climate change played a critical role in shaping conditions in the region.
"The bottom line is, what we're trying to show is that these trends are due to the climate change signal," Kelley said of the charts above. "There's no natural signal for that."
In other words, Kelley said, there's a clear line of causation from human-caused greenhouse gas emissions to the deaths of 200,000 Syrians in the civil war.
With that said, Kelley added that there are a number of other factors at play here. The impact of the most recent drought was made worse by the fact that it came on the heels of two other severe droughts, so groundwater supplies were already low and farmers already struggling. Moreover, Assad's predecessor and father, Hafez al-Assad, instituted a system of agricultural policies that encouraged farming in water-scarce areas, setting farmers there up to be highly vulnerable to future drought. And it's impossible to know how the drought would have affected the political climate in the absence of Assad's other unpopular practices; it's possible that a more stable government would have been able to better weather the drought.
Still, the study carries important implications for the future of the region, said Francesco Femia, codirector of the Center for Climate and Security. The climate trends highlighted in this study indicate that replacing Assad won't be enough to secure stability in the region.
"If or when the conflict in Syria comes to an end, will its farmers and herders be able to regain their livelihoods?" Femia said. "Given the continued instability and a forecast of increased drying in the region, this issue should be better integrated into the international security agenda."
Back in November, a group of Republican lawmakers fired off a stern letter to the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that oversees electric grids. President Barack Obama's new climate plan, the letter warned, could lead to blackouts across the country.
The Clean Power Plan is the centerpiece of Obama's climate policy. It calls for the nation to reduce its carbon footprint 30 percent by 2030 and requires each state to reduce the "intensity" of its power sector—that is, how much greenhouse gas is produced per unit of energy. States can choose from a wide array of options to meet their individual goals, including closing or renovating coal plants, boosting energy efficiency, and building new renewable energy systems like solar or wind farms.
The GOP letter cited a report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (a nonprofit that helps power companies coordinate between the United States and Canada) that said the gap left by shuttered coal plants "may represent a significant reliability challenge." Yesterday, EPA chief Gina McCarthy defended the plan at a congressional hearing, telling Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) the rules are designed "in a way that ensures we won't threaten reliability and affordability of the energy system," as E&E reported. But NERC's concerns have been gaining traction with power companies and with Republican lawmakers, often coupled with a warning that less reliable power systems will also be more expensive for customers.
Obama's climate plan "will have a significant impact on the reliability and affordability of electricity," argues one power provider.
This month, Virginia legislators passed a bill to freeze rates (the amount customers pay per unit of electricity) at Dominion Virginia Power, a coal-dependent power company that is the state's biggest electric utility. The bill, which Dominion has actively supported, came after the company warned that the Clean Power Plan could send monthly electric bills skyrocketing, citing a letter from the state's Corporation Commission to the EPA that said, "Virginians will likely pay significantly more for their electricity." Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signed it into law on Tuesday.
The same message was repeated yesterday, when representatives from dozens of utility companies met in Denver with officials from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to voice their concerns about the Clean Power Plan. Tri-State Generation, which provides power to customers in Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming, filed a comment with FERC arguing that the impacts of the plan will be "staggering and will have a significant impact on the reliability and affordability of electricity."
John Moore, an energy lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council who attended a similar recent meeting in Washington, DC, said complaints like this are increasingly common. "It's a snowball effect, where one report comes out and then others build on it," he said.
So is Obama's attempt to slow global warming going to leave you with no lights, melting ice cream in the freezer, and a fat electric bill? Probably not, according to several recent analyses that challenge NERC's findings. They all suggest that the flexibility built into the Clean Power Plan provides ample opportunity to keep the lights on, and electric bills in check, while still meeting the EPA's targets. It all depends on how each state's lawmakers approach the plan, said Jürgen Weiss, a senior researcher at the economic consulting firm The Brattle Group.
Weiss is the author of a recent report—commissioned by an energy trade association founded by the billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer—that concluded the climate plan is "unlikely to materially affect reliability." The reason, Weiss explained, is that the NERC analysis focused too narrowly on a hypothetical scenario in which closing coal plants is a state's only recourse. In fact, renewable energy investments and increased reliance on natural gas could allow a state to meet its carbon target while leaving a few key coal plants intact to accommodate rare periods of peak demand (summer afternoons when everyone is running an air-conditioner, for example).
The rules are designed to ensure "we won't threaten reliability and affordability of the energy system," says EPA chief Gina McCarthy.
The most promising solution, Weiss said, is for states to join existing interstate carbon trading markets, like the Northeast's Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or set up their own. That way, states that can afford the switch away from coal can sell carbon credits to states that can't, bringing down the overall carbon footprint without forcing destructive change on any one state. Some lawmakers are already considering this path. A bipartisan group of Illinois legislators introduced a bill last week that would set up a cap-and-trade system for power companies in the state and allow other states to join in, in order to meet their EPA carbon targets.
Another study this month led by Susan Tierney, a former policy chief in the Obama administration Energy Department, echoed Weiss' findings.
Meanwhile, back in Virginia, an analysis by the Southern Environmental Law Center found that although electricity rates are projected to rise 2 percent by 2030, improvements in energy efficiency thanks to the new EPA rules would actually lead to an 8 percent drop in consumers' electric bills. The specter of risk to ratepayers is overblown, SELC Virginia director Cale Jaffe said. Plans to shut a few coal plants that were already in the works before the climate rules were announced would get Virginia nearly 80 percent of the way to its emissions goal, according to the SELC.
The same is true across the country: The abrupt shift away from coal described by NERC is misleading, Weiss said, because coal has been on the decline since long before the EPA's carbon rule was proposed. The same old, inefficient coal plants that could face closure under the Clean Power Plan are already being threatened by competition from cheap natural gas and existing EPA rules targeting mercury pollution. A recent survey of the nation's electric utility companies found that 77 percent already plan to reduce their dependence on coal in the coming years, while a similar proportion plan to increase their dependence on natural gas and renewables. In other words, the new EPA rules don't signal an about-face from existing trends.
According to an SELC study, the new rules could lead to an 8 percent drop in consumers' electric bills.
With all that being said, it's up to state officials, not utility companies, to decide how to meet the EPA rules. How costly, risky, or difficult that process will be depends on what options lawmakers allow utilities to pursue. Already, under pressure from coal companies and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, some states are choosing to tie utilities' hands. Kentucky last year enacted a law that effectively bars state planners from complying with the new EPA regulations, stonewalling in the hope that the rules will get killed in court. And earlier this year, Arizona and Pennsylvania passed laws that require those states' emissions plans to be approved by their legislatures, opening the door to coal industry lobbying. Virginia is currently considering a similar bill. (A Dominion spokesperson said the company has not taken a position on it.)
Ironically, NRDC analyst Aliya Haq said, rather than undermining the EPA, increased pressure by coal companies and ALEC on state power regulators could instead forge strange-bedfellow alliances between environmental organizations (wanting climate action) and utility companies (wanting choices)—two groups that are normally at loggerheads when it comes to climate policy.
Still, this kind of Clean Power Plan fear-mongering in statehouses isn't a huge surprise, NRDC's Moore said. The Clean Air Act, the legal platform for the EPA rules, has been attacked for decades as a threat to consumers, and yet experience has shown it's possible to reduce pollution without undermining the economy.
"Coal interests and others have played the reliability card before to weaken or delay limits on pollution," Moore said. "So I say we press ahead to recognize the flexibility in the proposal."