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May, 2017 Archives


A new book ranks the top 100 solutions to climate change. The results are surprising.

A chat with Paul Hawken about his ambitious new effort to “map, measure, and model” global warming solutions.

Updated by David May 10, 2017, 9:30am EDT


Family planning. Who knew? (Drawdown)

By now, the looming dangers of climate change are clear to anyone who’s been paying attention, covered extensively in both academic literature and the popular press.

But what about solutions?

For all the hand-wringing on climate change over the years, discussion of solutions remains puzzlingly anemic and fractured. A few high-profile approaches, mainly around renewable energy and electric cars, dominate discussion and modeling. But there’s been no real way for ordinary people to get an understanding of what they can do and what impact it can have. There remains no single, comprehensive, reliable compendium of carbon-reduction solutions across sectors.

At least until now.

It seems Paul Hawken got tired of waiting.

Hawken is a legend in environmental circles. Since the early 1980s, he has been starting green businesses, writing books on ecological commerce (President Bill Clinton called Hawken’s Natural Capitalism one of the five most important books in the world), consulting with businesses and governments, speaking to civic groups, and collecting honorary doctorates (six so far).

A few years ago, he set out to pull together the careful coverage of solutions that had so long been lacking. With the help of a little funding, he and a team of several dozen research fellows set out to “map, measure, and model” the 100 most substantive solutions to climate change, using only peer-reviewed research.

The result, released last month, is called Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming.

Unlike most popular books on climate change, it is not a polemic or a collection of anecdotes and exhortations. In fact, with the exception of a few thoughtful essays scattered throughout, it’s basically a reference book: a list of solutions, ranked by potential carbon impact, each with cost estimates and a short description. A set of scenarios show the cumulative potential.

It is fascinating, a powerful reminder of how narrow a set of solutions dominates the public’s attention. Alternatives range from farmland irrigation to heat pumps to ride-sharing.

The number one solution, in terms of potential impact? A combination of educating girls and family planning, which together could reduce 120 gigatons of CO2-equivalent by 2050 — more than on- and offshore wind power combined (99 GT).

Also sitting atop the list, with an impact that dwarfs any single energy source: refrigerant management. (Don’t hear much about that, do you? Here’s a great Brad Plumer piece on it.)

Both reduced food waste and plant-rich diets, on their own, beat solar farms and rooftop solar combined.

(Important note: The above comparisons are true in Drawdown’s central, “probable” scenario. There are also more ambitious scenarios, in which each solution is pushed to its full potential. In the “optimum” scenario, onshore wind rises to crush all competitors, reducing 139 GT. All scenarios use only existing, commercialized technologies, so they should be considered conservative. All the solutions, data, and references are available at

I spoke with Hawken over a beer when he passed through Seattle on his book tour. He told me the book is already in its third printing, confirming our mutual sense that the public is hungry for this kind of practical wisdom. An edited transcript of our conversation follows, with occasional editorial comments in [brackets].

David Roberts

For the record, explain the term “drawdown.”

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California grid sets record, with 67% of power from renewables

By Dominic Fracassa Updated 5:10 pm, Thursday, May 18, 2017

A stretch of sunny, windy days, combined with brimming reservoirs at hydroelectric plants across the state, helped California reach a renewable energy milestone last weekend.

Early Saturday afternoon, renewable sources produced a record 67.2 percent of the electricity on the portion of the state’s power grid controlled by the California Independent System Operator. That figure does not include large hydropower facilities, which added another 13.5 percent. Based in Folsom, the ISO runs 80 percent of the state’s grid.

More than half of the renewable energy flowing across the grid at that moment on Saturday came from large solar facilities and wind farms. The ISO’s numbers do not even account for electricity from rooftop solar arrays.

Overall, renewables accounted for 42 percent of the California grid’s power on Saturday, not counting the large hydropower plants.

“The fact that the grid can handle 67 percent renewable power from multiple sources — it’s a great moment, and it shows the potential we have,” said Sachu Constantine, the director of policy at the Center for Sustainable Energy, a nonprofit clean energy advisory firm in Berkeley.


Sustaining such high levels, however, will be challenging, he said.

California law requires utilities to get 33 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, rising to 50 percent by 2030. Last year, California's three large electric utilities collectively got 32.3 percent of their electricity from renewables. (Neither the state requirement nor the 2016 figure includes large hydropower facilities.)

Saturday’s numbers are the latest benchmark in what is expected to be a record-setting year for renewable energy production in California, because of the growing number of solar power plants in the state, the seasonal increase in sunshine and the flush hydroelectricity reserves produced by last winter’s rain.

For a span of three hours on March 11, solar power met roughly half of all electricity demand across much of the state, according to the federal Energy Information Administration, the Energy Department’s statistics division. The proportion of power produced from renewables that day peaked at 56.7 percent — a record at the time.


The torrents of rain that fell in the state have filled hydroelectric dams to levels not seen in decades. Up to 21 percent of the state’s total electricity output could come from hydroelectricity this year, according estimates from the California Energy Commission.

And on Tuesday, the state set a new record for wind power generation, producing 4,985 megawatts. A megawatt is a snapshot figure roughly equal to the amount of energy used by 760 homes at any given moment.

“It’s going to be a dynamic year for records,” said Steven Greenlee, a spokesman for the ISO. “The solar records in particular are falling like dominoes.”

It is possible, Greenlee said, that the state could cross the 70 percent threshold for renewable production this summer.

The steady stream of record-breaking days is a positive sign that the grid is adapting well to the influx of renewable energy, according to Greenlee. “That shows how our grid is shifting from the old paradigm, the old grid we used to have,” he said.

Given current weather forecasts, it is not out of the question that the state could push past the new record by this weekend, Greenlee said.

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Rising sea levels could mean twice as much flood risk in Los Angeles and other coastal cities



A sign lets visitors know that this beach-side parking lot near the Balboa Pier in Newport Beach, Calif., is flooded early Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017, following Friday's storm that brought high winds, heavy rain and pounding surf to Southern California. (Mark Rightmire/The Orange County Register via AP)


May 18, 2017, 5:00 p.m.

The effects of rising oceans on coastal flooding may be even worse than we thought. Scientists have found that a mere 10 to 20 centimeters of sea-level rise — which is expected by 2050 — will more than double the frequency of serious flooding events in many parts of the globe, including along the California coastline.

The findings, described in Scientific Reports, highlight the environmental and economic impacts of sea-level rise on coastal areas, and the need to properly predict and prepare for these effects.

As global warming marches onward and land-ice reserves continue to melt into the seas — thanks in large part to human-produced greenhouse gases — oceans are continuing their upward creep.

Researchers have long made global-scale estimates of sea-level rise and analyzed what effects the ocean’s ascent will have on coastal erosion, on the environment and on human communities. Those estimates have taken into account storm surge and tidal fluctuations, among other variables. But they haven’t included a crucial factor: waves.

“Most of these tide gauges are within harbors or in protected areas, so they don’t record any water level associated with waves,” said Sean Vitousek, a coastal scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Waves might seem like small potatoes compared with high tides, but they can have a big impact, Vitousek said.

“Waves often generate a pretty significant portion of the actual flood levels,” he explained. “For instance, if you think about just tides and storm surge, then in some areas, waves can add an additional 50-to-100% of that existing water level.”

That’s particularly true in California. Much of the flooding here is dominated by wave-driven events — which is why El Niño years with extremely large waves can have such profound effects on coastal erosion. A recent paper by one of Vitousek’s co-authors showed that the 2015-16 El Niño season caused unprecedented levels of erosion across much of the West Coast.

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Hickenlooper orders halt to fight over court oil-gas ruling, but AG Coffman moves ahead

AG Cynthia Coffman says Martinez case profoundly changes oil and gas regulation


Andy Cross, The Denver Post Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper during his State of the State address on the House chambers of the Capitol Jan. 12, 2017.

By BRUCE FINLEY | | The Denver Post

PUBLISHED: May 18, 2017 at 11:30 am | UPDATED: May 18, 2017 at 6:58 pm

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has ordered state regulators of the oil and gas industry not to fight a court ruling requiring protection of public safety, health and the environment by the state as a precondition before allowing drilling.

But Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman on Thursday went ahead and filed a 27-page appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court asking for review of that ruling in the Martinez case.

The issue is whether the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will be more protective of people and the environment at a time when industrial operations increasingly clash with Colorado’s booming Front Range communities.  A recent fatal house explosion caused by a severed underground oil and gas industry pipeline has piqued concerns, and Hickenlooper has vowed public safety will be paramount. The court ruling would make the COGCC more protective.

Colorado’s high court in the past has buttressed the power of agencies such as the COGCC to act independently of governors who appoint their members. While the Colorado Department of Natural Resources has administrative authority over the COGCC, state law grants the COGCC independent power to make rules, issue permits and penalize violators.

“We notified the attorney general that we did not want to pursue an appeal of the Martinez case. We believe that the statute governing the commission’s powers does not include the authority to initiate an appeal in this case. However, the attorney general reached a different legal conclusion,” Hickenlooper said in a statement issued after Coffman filed the appeal.

“While we understand and respect the commission’s desire for further clarity from the supreme court, we believe the court of appeals’ decision does not represent a significant departure from the commission’s current approach,” Hickenlooper’s statement said. “The commission already elevates public health and environmental concerns when considering regulating oil and gas operations.”

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Fiat Chrysler, in Settlement Talks With U.S., Is Under More Pressure




Olivier Francois, head of the Fiat brand, unveiling the 2016 Fiat 500X in 2014 in Los Angeles. In a new study, researchers found evidence of a device used to cheat in emissions tests in the model.


Joe Wilssens/Chrysler Group L.L.C., via PR Newswire

FRANKFURT — Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, one of the world’s biggest carmakers, said on Thursday that it was in talks with the Department of Justice to settle an investigation into diesel deception, as growing evidence points to the carmaker’s use of illegal software to evade emissions tests.

The settlement talks add to the pressure on Fiat Chrysler at a time of meager profitability.

The German carmaker Volkswagen, which faced a similar scandal, has been hit with billions of dollars of settlements and fines, and seen several executives investigated or charged. Though Fiat Chrysler’s financial damage is unlikely to be as costly as Volkswagen’s, the emissions cheating, if proved, could still be expensive.

The investigation is following much the same path.

In January, the Environmental Protection Agency accused the carmaker of violating clean air rules in about 100,000 Dodge Ram and Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles. The Justice Department has since been looking into the matter.

Now, a new academic study is lending credence to the claims.

Researchers from the University of the Ruhr in Bochum, Germany, and the University of California, San Diego, said they found evidence of a so-called defeat device in a diesel Fiat 500X, a compact S.U.V. sold in Europe. Software in the engine’s computer reduced pollution controls 26 minutes after the car was started, according to the study. A standard emissions test procedure lasts a little less than 26 minutes. Fiat Chrysler declined to comment on allegations of cheating in the 500X.

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CA approves new refinery safety rules 5 years after Chevron fire

By David R. Baker Published 6:08 pm, Thursday, May 18, 2017

  1. pastedGraphic.pdf

Photo: John Storey, Special To The Chronicle

Fire at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, as seen from Tiburon, on August 6th, 2012. On Thursday, California regulators approved new refinery safety regulations inspired in part by the Chevron fire.

California regulators on Thursday approved new safety rules for oil refineries, nearly five years after a major fire at Chevron’s Richmond facility sent thousands of East Bay residents to local hospitals.

The regulations are designed to anticipate potential problems and prevent accidents that could harm refinery workers and surrounding communities. Christine Baker, director of the California Department of Industrial Relations, called the rules the “most protective” in the country.

The board of the department’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/Osha, approved the rules after a long drafting process triggered by the Aug. 6, 2012, Chevron fire. Six refinery employees suffered minor injuries from the fire, while an estimated 15,000 area residents went to local hospitals complaining of respiratory problems.

“This new regulation will ensure California's oil refineries are operated with the highest levels of safety possible and with injury and illness prevention in mind,” Baker said in a press release.


The new regulations require refinery owners to study how staffing levels and worker fatigue affect safety. They must also review their processes that can lead to equipment corrosion or mechanical wear. And the rules encourage refinery owners to pick the most effective safety measures when fixing hazards, even if those measures increase costs.

Many California refineries already use some of the practices the new regulations require, according to the department.

California has 19 oil refineries, 14 of which make gasoline. Most are concentrated in the densely populated Los Angeles area or the East Bay. And they have a long history of mechanical glitches, fires and explosions.

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Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao says she can’t approve Caltrain electrification grant yet

By CASEY TOLAN | | Bay Area News Group

PUBLISHED: May 17, 2017 at 4:41 pm | UPDATED: May 18, 2017 at 8:56 am

WASHINGTON — U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao isn’t budging on approving federal funds to help the Bay Area begin the electrification of Caltrain tracks.

Chao said at a hearing Wednesday morning of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee that she won’t sign off on a funding agreement necessary to release federal funds for the project, even as a critical June 30 funding deadline looms.

Caltrain is waiting for a $647 million federal grant for the electrification project, which would lead to faster and more reliable trains up and down the Peninsula. Before Trump took office, the grant had been through a multi-year approval process and was close to being finalized. But it’s been held up by the U.S. Department of Transportation after all 14 members of the Republican members of the California congressional delegation argued in a letter to Chao that it would go to bolstering the state’s high-speed rail project — which Republican politicians generally despise.

While bullet trains would run on the electrified track, supporters of the project say it’s necessary in its own right to keep Caltrain running with reasonable speed and reliability.

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Tesla factory workers reveal pain, injury and stress: ‘Everything feels like the future but us’

Exclusive: CEO Elon Musk defends workplace, saying ‘[we are not] just greedy capitalists who skimp on safety’ – and declares his $50bn company overvalued


The Tesla CEO has been celebrated for his ambition, but workers say there is a human cost to his bold agenda for growth. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong in Fremont, California

Thursday 18 May 2017 03.00 EDT

Last modified on Thursday 18 May 2017 20.50 EDT

When Tesla bought a decommissioned car factory in Fremont, California, Elon Musk transformed the old-fashioned, unionized plant into a much-vaunted “factory of the future”, where giant robots named after X-Men shape and fold sheets of metal inside a gleaming white mecca of advanced manufacturing.

The appetite for Musk’s electric cars, and his promise to disrupt the carbon-reliant automobile industry, has helped Tesla’s value exceed that of both Ford and, briefly, General Motors (GM). But some of the human workers who share the factory with their robotic counterparts complain of grueling pressure – which they attribute to Musk’s aggressive production goals – and sometimes life-changing injuries.

Ambulances have been called more than 100 times since 2014 for workers experiencing fainting spells, dizziness, seizures, abnormal breathing and chest pains, according to incident reports obtained by the Guardian. Hundreds more were called for injuries and other medical issues.

In a phone interview about the conditions at the factory, which employs about 10,000 workers, the Tesla CEO conceded his workers had been “having a hard time, working long hours, and on hard jobs”, but said he cared deeply about their health and wellbeing. His company says its factory safety record has significantly improved over the last year.

Musk also said that Tesla should not be compared to major US carmakers and that its market capitalization, now more than $50bn, is unwarranted. “I do believe this market cap is higher than we have any right to deserve,” he said, pointing out his company produces just 1% of GM’s total output.

“We’re a money-losing company,” Musk added. “This is not some situation where, for example, we are just greedy capitalists who decided to skimp on safety in order to have more profits and dividends and that kind of thing. It’s just a question of how much money we lose. And how do we survive? How do we not die and have everyone lose their jobs?”


Tesla worker Jonathan Galescu says he has seen co-workers collapse or be taken away by ambulances. Photograph: Josh Edelson for the Guardian

Musk’s account of the company’s approach differs from that of the 15 current and former factory workers who told the Guardian of a culture of long hours under intense pressure, sometimes through pain and injury, in order to fulfill the CEO’s ambitious production goals.

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First Came the Hydrogen Cars. Now, the Refilling Stations.




Heather McLaughlin, who in February leased a 2017 Honda Clarity FC, refueling her car at a hydrogen station in Hayward, Calif. The state has 30 hydrogen stations and intends to have 100 by 2020.


Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

The daily commute is a real grind for most people, but not for Heather McLaughlin.

In February, Ms. McLaughlin leased a 2017 Honda Clarity FC, a sedan powered by hydrogen fuel cells and available only in California. And it has transformed her daily 20-mile commute near San Francisco.

With no pistons or spark plugs, the car is serenely quiet. Its electric motor provides a peppy ride. And wherever Ms. McLaughlin goes, the only thing that comes out of the tailpipe is a bit of water vapor. There are no pollutants, no greenhouse gases.

“On cold mornings you can actually see drops of water — it’s so cool,” Ms. McLaughlin said recently. “Driving to work is usually the best part of my day.”

Right now, a morning ride in a hydrogen-powered car is possible only in California. But in the coming months, environmentally minded consumers on the East Coast will have the opportunity to join in.

Automakers and environmentalists have long hailed fuel cells as a revolutionary technology that can reduce planet-warming tailpipe emissions, which account for a significant portion of the greenhouse gases released in the United States. After years of development, several models are now on the road, like the Toyota Mirai and the Honda Clarity FC.

The next challenge is building networks of hydrogen stations so owners can refuel their cars.

So far California has 30, enough to enable owners to drive throughout the state without worry of running out of hydrogen, and it intends to expand that to 100 by 2020. Sales of fuel-cell vehicles have been limited to the state so far.

The automakers are poised, however, to expand into the Northeast. Air Liquide, a producer of industrial gases, is working with Toyota to set up a chain of 12 hydrogen fueling stations stretching from New York to Boston; the first is expected to go into operation later this year. Locations will include the Bronx; Brooklyn; Hempstead, N.Y., on Long Island; Lodi, N.J.; Hartford; and Braintree and Mansfield, Mass.

The availability of hydrogen fuel will pave the way for the start of East Coast sales.

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Oroville Dam spillway shutting down for summer repairs

MAY 17, 2017 4:40 PM



Water will stop flowing from Oroville Dam’s badly damaged spillway on Friday, in the hopes it’s the last time it will be used before the next rainy season.

Even with a heavy snowpack waiting to melt in the mountains above Lake Oroville, state officials say they’ve drained the reservoir down to the point where they can manage its level through the dam’s primary powerplant outlet. The lake was at 74 percent of its total capacity Wednesday.

Department of Water Resources officials say they have a contingency plan in place to use the spillway one more time in case their snowmelt runoff calculations are incorrect.

With no more water gushing down the spillway, contractors working for DWR will start working full-time to shore up the spillway before next winter.

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The Energy Endgame: We Already Have the Tools to End the Fossil Fuel Age


Tyler Norris lays out a vision for an energy transition driven by today’s technology advancements.

by Tyler Norris

May 17, 2017

Tyler Norris (Teryn) served as a Special Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Energy in the Obama administration. Until May 2017, he was a Director at S&P Global Platts/PIRA, a market intelligence consultancy, where he co-led the firm’s cleantech practice.

Ever since a team of Manhattan Project scientists created the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in 1942, the United States has led a multi-decade project to develop new energy technologies.

Beginning with its invention of nuclear power and solar photovoltaics, peaking with its creation of the Department of Energy in 1977, and culminating in the Obama administration’s clean energy innovation programs, the United States spent tens of billions of dollars to transform the underlying technologies that power the modern world.

That historical period is now over.

On the surface, the proximate marker of its conclusion was the election of Donald J. Trump and his administration’s commitment to dismantle the Department of Energy and wipe out the Mission Innovation program to double U.S. and international spending on energy research and development.

It is clear that the U.S. is not setting itself up to lead another wave of energy innovation -- at least not one based on new technologies.

Beyond any single policy decision, the more fundamental reason for the end of the expansionary period in energy innovation has to do with basic technological realities. The world has largely exhausted the low hanging fruits of the physical sciences, and the likelihood of a breakthrough changing the existing technological landscape is vanishingly small. Meanwhile, the developed world is increasingly unwilling to pursue complex, large-scale projects like nuclear power plants and carbon capture and storage systems, let alone the challenge of securing nuclear waste and subterranean carbon dioxide for millennia.

The other technological reality -- one that has fully transpired in just a few short years to send shockwaves through the energy industry -- is that we have succeeded at making clean energy cheap. Solar is on track to become the world’s cheapest source of power on an unsubsidized basis, even in regions with modest insolation rates. By the 2030s or sooner, electrochemical battery costs will decline so far that stored solar electricity will be nearly as cheap as natural gas electricity, and electric vehicles as affordable as conventional cars -- and even cheaper if the true costs of fossil fuels are accounted.

After 70 years of public and private investment, the U.S. and its allies have provided the world with the tools necessary to end the fossil fuel age.

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Mercedes-Benz Brings a New Model (of Battery) to U.S. Homes



Mercedes-Benz Energy and Vivint Solar have announced a partnership to bring energy storage units to the United States residential solar market.


Vivint Solar

Vivint Solar, a leading provider of residential rooftop systems, has tried many things over the years to gain an edge on the competition. Now it is hoping that offering customers a Mercedes-Benz for $5,000 to $13,000 will do the trick.

But the offer is not for a car from the German automaker. Instead, it is for a sleek battery the size of a mini-fridge that will allow homeowners to take better advantage of the energy their solar power systems produce, whether to cut costs or to maintain a steady source of electricity during power failures.

Mercedes has been selling the batteries in Europe and South Africa this year, but its partnership with Vivint, announced Thursday, represents its entrance into the United States market.

The combination, said Boris von Bormann, chief executive of Mercedes-Benz Energy Americas, will allow customers “to take the next step toward a sustainable energy future.”

To the companies, along with rivals like Tesla and other solar installers that have joined forces with battery providers, that future involves tracts of software-enabled homes with solar panels on their roofs feeding batteries that can charge electric vehicles and power lighting and appliances at times when drawing from the grid is costliest.

In some states, like California, where Mercedes and Vivint will first focus their efforts, the economic equation is beginning to make sense, investors and analysts say. But in many other states, potential customers may be driven more by emotion — like feeling environmentally responsible or self-sufficient — than by cost savings.

“Everybody’s adding an energy-storage offering one way or another,” said Shayle Kann, who leads GTM Research, which tracks the solar industry. “Solar plus energy storage at the residential level is almost definitely the future, but it isn’t yet the present.”


The Mercedes battery, about the size of a mini-fridge, will allow homeowners to take better advantage of the energy their solar power systems produce.


Vivint Solar

For solar companies, battery storage may provide a lift in a market whose dizzying pace of growth has suddenly slowed, especially for leading installers like SolarCity and Vivint, which both reduced their installation estimates amid corporate upheaval, and Sungevity, which went bankrupt.

At the same time, policy changes and proposals reducing incentives in Arizona, Indiana and other states have dimmed the prospects of rooftop solar. And in two leading markets — California and Hawaii — new rates, incentives and rules are pushing customers to obtain batteries along with the solar panels.

For the automakers, adding solar to the mix allows them to market themselves and their electric vehicles as even more environmentally friendly.

“The electric-car story is good — it’s better than internal combustion from an environmental point of view — but electric cars powered by solar: That’s kind of nirvana from an environmental perspective,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book.

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Amazon’s Clean Energy Procurements Should Include Nuclear, Say Advocates


Activists are urging the retail giant to include nuclear in its procurement policy to help save two plants in Ohio. They hope the model can save other nuclear plants, too.

by Julian Spector

May 17, 2017

A coalition of scientists, clean energy advocates, business leaders and Ohio political leaders is asking Amazon to expand its renewable energy procurement policy to include nuclear power, in the hopes of saving two plants in Ohio that might go out of business.

Amazon is a major employer and energy customer in the Ohio, where Republican Governor John Kasich has defended the embattled renewable portfolio standard as a good way to attract business and jobs. The pro-nuclear environmentalists hope to direct some of that good will toward nuclear energy.

The letter, penned to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos last week, marks a strategic shift in the effort to preserve nuclear generators as zero-carbon fuel sources in the midst of market turbulence. Nuclear plants that have closed in recent years were replaced largely by fossil fuel generation, complicating efforts to reduce the grid's climate impact.

In the past year, campaigns failed to preserve Diablo Canyon in California and Indian Point in New York, both of which succumbed to lobbying from anti-nuclear environmental groups and others who sought their closure.

Compromise plans did save plants in Illinois and upstate New York, though, by providing funds to economically battered plants in order to maintain their clean output as part of the long-term energy mix.

By reaching out directly to major corporate energy customers, nuclear advocates may be able to win support for those plants more quickly than intricate legislative or regulatory dealmaking allows.

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Follow the money

Amazon -- along with fellow tech giants Google, Microsoft and Apple -- has committed to sourcing clean energy. Its purchasing power for data centers and supply chain facilities makes it a powerful voice in energy-planning conversations in the states where it operates.

So far, that power has directed the deployment of wind and solar generation.

Amazon Web Services has committed to 100 percent renewable power in order to reduce its climate impacts. It recently surpassed the milestone of 40 percent renewable power and is speeding toward 50 percent in 2017.

The company built 10 renewable power plants to serve this goal, including two wind farms in Ohio -- 100 megawatts in Paulding County and 189 megawatts in Hardin County. The company says it produces enough electricity annually from its fleet of plants to power the equivalent of Portland, Oregon.

The letter, whose signatories include climate scientist James Hansen, environmentalist Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame, Harvard professor Steven Pinker, and several local leaders from Ohio, asks Bezos to consider whether he values the deployment of renewables specifically, or if the ultimate objective is to spread clean energy, which could include nuclear.

By choosing the latter, they argue, Amazon’s support could preserve the Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear plants, which could close under economic pressure from cheap natural gas and RPS-backed wind and solar (The possible bankruptcy of owner FirstEnergy also complicates the situation.)

Ohio gets 60 percent of its electricity from coal and 24 percent from natural gas. Nuclear provides 14 percent, and renewables, including hydro, only produce 2.2 percent.

If the nuke plants close, new natural gas would most likely fill in the gap, rather than replacing more carbon-intense coal generation. The resulting energy mix would be one of the most fossil-fuel-heavy in the nation, contributing to negative health outcomes in addition to economic losses for the communities that host the plants.

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The fight to rethink (and reinvent) nuclear power

New nuclear energy technology has come a long way — but can we get over our fears?

Updated by Andy Murdock, University of California May 17, 2017, 9:00am EDT

In 2011, following the Fukushima Disaster in Japan, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that the country would completely phase out its use of nuclear power by 2022. This move was hailed by anti-nuclear activists, but criticized by some environmentalists: At a critical moment in the fight against climate change, it took away a working clean power source.

“When you look at the technology, and you ask yourself, how are we going to solve this problem of climate change, and how are we going to decarbonize? To not have nuclear energy on the table makes the job much harder,” said Per Peterson, a professor in UC Berkeley’s department of nuclear engineering.

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant came online in the early ‘70s. Much has changed in the world of nuclear power plant design since then. Peterson is one of the researchers working on next-generation reactors, designed to be so safe that even Homer Simpson couldn’t cause a meltdown.

“In the last 20 or 30 years, we've developed different types of fuel, which, in fact, physically cannot melt,” said Peterson.

Peterson works with pebble-bed reactors, which use small spherical fuel “pebbles” where the radioactive material is encased in a ceramic shell that can withstand extremely high temperatures. In the case of a power outage or other problem, fuel pebbles empty into a holding tank where they don’t need water or other cooling systems like older reactor designs.

The kind of nuclear power plants you picture from The Simpsons or The China Syndrome, are mostly due to be decommissioned by midcentury. And they won’t be replaced in kind: New reactor designs eliminate the risk of meltdowns, operate at much lower pressure than older designs and use fuel more efficiently to reduce waste.

None of these advances can fully overcome nuclear energy’s biggest obstacle: fear. While many nuclear worries are overblown, Dan Kammen, also a professor in the department of nuclear engineering at UC Berkeley, is clear that nuclear power’s bad reputation has been well-earned.

“When you have spill of solar energy, what's that called? It's a sunny day, right? No one objects,” said Kammen. “Well, you have a spill of nuclear power, it's not a sunny day.”

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BRIEFLY Stuff that matters LEND ME YOUR EARS


Grist / Gage Skidmore / Shutterstock

The EPA asked the public which rules to scrap and got chewed out. Last month, the agency put out a call for comments asking which environmental regulations to consider for “repeal, replacement, or modification.” More than 55,000 people weighed in before the comment period closed on Monday.

And guess what? A sweeping majority of Americans who responded want the EPA to keep protecting our health.

“Have we failed to learn from history, and forgotten the harm done to our air, water, and wetlands?” wrote Karen Sonnessa of New York. “If anything, regulations need to be MORE stringent. I remember the days of smog, pollution, and rivers spontaneously combusting.”

One person just filled the comment section with “no” 1,665 times.

“Know your history or you’ll be doomed to repeat it,” an anonymous commenter wrote. “Environmental regulations came about for a reason. … It is not a conspiracy to harm corporations. It’s an attempt to make the people’s lives better. You know people. They’re the ones who keep corporations running.”

A task force will review the comments and identify which regulations to place on the chopping block in a report to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. The effort is in response to an executive order President Trump issued in March.

Sad you missed the comment period? Well, if you’ve got an opinion on the possible elimination of our national monuments, the docket is open until May 26!

Kate Yoder

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