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Stuff that matters


Grist 50

Meet the fixer: This entrepreneur helps the solar industry compete.

Behind the business of energy production, there are a lot of numbers. Usage data is essential to solar companies who are trying to figure out how to work in a given region — but it’s often hidden away in the outmoded databases of individual utility companies who aren’t in the business of accessible data storage.

Less than a year after kicking off her clean-energy career as a low-level analyst at PG&E, Elena Lucas decided she wanted to tackle that problem head-on. She cofounded the Bay area–startup UtilityAPI in 2014.

UtilityAPI wrangles the data and delivers to the companies who need it — and in doing so, it has brought the cost of installing solar panels down by 5 to 10 percent.

Lucas is also working to to make her company — and tech culture at large — more welcoming to women. Nearly half of UtilityAPI’s employees are women, most in executive positions. “I think it’s really different than a lot of other companies in the Bay Area,” Lucas says, “and I’m so proud of that.”


Meet all the fixers on this year’s Grist 50.


Will they or won’t they?

The European Union is considering an electric car mandate.

After the United Kingdom and France joined the Netherlands and Norway in putting an end date on the sales of fossil fuel–powered cars, the E.U. may set wide-reaching requirements for electric vehicles.

Per reports from Climate Home, the E.U. governing body is mulling an electric and hybrid car quota for automakers by 2030. Though such a proposal would fit with the E.U.’s overall pro-climate stance, it may or may not happen, according to contradictory accounts that have emerged over the past few weeks. The most recent report suggests a proposal is likely.

“They have made it very clear that it is their intention to go to a zero-emissions mandate,” an unnamed source with knowledge of internal E.U. talks told Climate Home. “The car industry has been told to stop complaining about it and start being constructive.”

Policy aside, recent economic forecasts suggest that electric vehicles may account for more than half of global car sales by 2040. Several European companies, including Volvo, are taking the hint. Even scandal-embattled Volkswagen unveiled four new electric cars in April.


it's a bird, it's a plane — it's solarman!

Wind and solar energy are literally (that’s a literal ‘literally’) saving lives.

The increasing presence of wind and solar in the United States helped prevent the premature deaths of up to 12,700 people between 2007 and 2015, according to a new study from Nature Energy.

How’s that? Well, with the rise of clean energy, there’s a reduced risk of exposure to harmful emissions from fossil fuel–burning power plants, like the class of sooty airborne particulate known as PM2.5 (which has been found to damage lungs).

But wind and solar can’t take all the credit — increased regulations and shifting markets helped, too. The study authors report that sulphur dioxide emissions fell from almost 10 million tons in 2007 to 2.7 million tons in 2015 after coal plants were required to complete retrofits to meet air-quality standards.

So that’s one more piece of evidence that wind and solar really do save the day.


flood zone

Trump wants to ignore the effects of climate change when permitting infrastructure projects.

President Trump signed an executive order Tuesday that he said will streamline the environmental review required to get large public construction efforts — like roads, bridges, and buildings — off the ground.

From the gilded lobby of Trump Tower, the president proclaimed that the executive order would repair our “badly broken” process for garnering permits for infrastructure projects.

The policy sets a goal of two years for finishing a permitting process and assigns a lead government agency to helm each approval. The order also rescinds an Obama-era requirement that government-funded buildings take into account likely sea-level rise in design and construction. (States and other local agencies, however, will still be able to establish stricter permitting practices.)

Updating America’s “crumbling infrastructure” became a central tenet of Trump’s presidential campaign — and he promised billions to the effort. Trump called the current permitting process a “massive, self-inflicted wound on our country.”

“It’s disgraceful,” the president said.

The White House argues the order will bring “accountability and discipline” back to the permitting process. But many environmentalists decry it as an obvious attempt to skirt environmental rules — and cite it as further evidence of Trump’s anti-climate change agenda.


Standing Rock

The security firm that tracked DAPL opponents denies providing illegal services.

Last week, North Carolina–based TigerSwan answered a lawsuit brought by the North Dakota Private Investigative and Security Board alleging it operated without a license for months during anti-pipeline protests.

In its filing, TigerSwan describes its business in North Dakota as “management consulting” as opposed to security work. While the firm admitted to making recommendations to local law enforcement, it claims it “did not undertake or furnish ‘private security service’ or ‘private investigative service’” in the state.

In early June, Grist and the Intercept published details from situation reports prepared by TigerSwan for its client, Energy Transfer Partners — the company constructing the Dakota Access Pipeline. The documents describe the firm’s military-style surveillance tactics against anti-pipeline activists and their allies during the protests. That month, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners said it was no longer employing TigerSwan — though Louisiana later denied TigerSwan a license to work on another Energy Transfer Partners pipeline.

The North Dakota board sued TigerSwan in late June, seeking thousands of dollars in penalties. TigerSwan says the regulations referred to in the complaint are vague and asks for the court to dismiss the lawsuit.


the social science network

Your previously worthless tweets could be used for science.

There’s an enormous amount of information posted to social media sites every day, and increasing ability to sift it for patterns and trends. Scientists could potentially find useful data about ecosystems’ health on Twitter, according to a report in The Conversation.

Researchers recently tested this hypothesis with 300,000 tweets sent from the Great Barrier Reef. They filtered for useful tweets — those containing pictures or observations about wildlife, coral bleaching, or other environmental factors — and then plotted them on a map of where they had been sent.

The Conversation

Even though the tweets came from amateurs with no intention of participating in a citizen science experiment, passive info like location tags and timestamps could give scientists useful data, especially in places without other methods of environmental monitoring in place.

As the researchers write, “Think of it as citizen science by people who don’t even realise they’re citizen scientists.”


doomsday trippers

Glacier National Park is overcrowded. Thanks, climate change.

A record-breaking 1 million people visited Glacier in July, up 23 percent from last year. Park officials are stuck dealing with overcrowded parking lots, more medical emergencies, and a shortage of open campsites.

While the number of visitors has fluctuated in past decades, it’s been on the rise over the past five years. Some attribute the park’s popularity to low gas prices (perfect for road trips!) and all the envy-inducing photos making their way to Instagram, while others blame our old pal climate change: All but 26 of the 150 glaciers that existed in Glacier National Park in the late 1800s have melted away, and scientists say it’s “inevitable” we’ll lose the rest. Such predictions have prompted a wave of “doomsday tourists” who want to catch a glimpse of climate change in action.

“People tell us they want to see glaciers before they’re gone,” Pamela Smith, a Glacier campground volunteer, told the Missoulian. “They have come here to see the impacts of climate change for themselves.”