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Grist 50

Meet the fixer: This physicist is shaping energy policy.

Before Varun Sivaram joined the Council on Foreign Relations in 2015, the leading U.S. policy shop wasn’t doing a whole lot of work in green energy. With a doctorate in condensed matter physics from Oxford and a background in public- and private-sector energy advising, Sivaram helped steer the council away from fossil-fuel thinking and toward the analysis of a renewable future.

What might this future look like? You’ll have to grab the book about solar power that Sivaram is finishing this year — or take the class on clean energy innovation he teaches at Georgetown University. One spoiler alert: Technological innovation is key, but venture-capital funding models for clean energy technology are broken. Luckily, policymakers and other private sector players can learn from venture capital’s mistakes by reading Sivaram’s research.

Looking forward, Sivaram suggests that policymakers disillusioned by the tumultuous energy and climate policy environment at the federal level could swivel an eyeball toward the progress being made by cities and states. Sure, one lone city touting “transformative” emissions cuts can amount to hype, but “what’s not hype is when a city or a state invents something innovative that can then be scaled around the world,” he says. “That’s actually important.”


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


sun blocked

The United States will start taxing solar panel imports.

We’d previously mentioned that President Donald Trump hinted at a tariff to “tank the solar industry.” Today, the Administration announced it’s actually doing it. Bloomberg called Trump’s move “the biggest blow he’s dealt to the renewable energy industry yet.”

The starting tax rate on imported solar cells will be 30 percent, but that will decline to 15  percent over the following three years. The United States imports 80 percent of its solar panels, mostly from Malaysia, South Korea, and a few other East Asian countries (where producers moved fleeing President Barack Obama’s levies targeting China). The new tax will likely drive up the price of solar installations in the United States.

However, U.S. solar cell producers had lobbied for the tariff to help them compete. Some have argued that the tax could help domestic solar companies develop superior technology.

Ironically, this is exactly the sort of thing that might have saved Solyndra, the failed solar company that in 2011 became a whipping boy for Republicans critical of Obama’s efforts on renewables. Solyndra was working on a more efficient form of solar cell, but it was swamped by a flood of cheap imported silicon cells.

Now, we have a Republican president interfering with free trade to shelter today’s Solyndras. We’re through the looking glass.


retro-leum

The United States could become the world’s biggest oil producer. It’s been a while.

Spurred by the higher profit margins that come with fracking technology, U.S. oil production is poised to set a record in 2018, potentially passing top oil producers Saudi Arabia and Russia.

For context, the last time we were pulling this much oil out of the ground — in 1970 — the Beatles broke up, the Apollo 13 mission narrowly avoided disaster, the United States invaded Cambodia, and the dot-matrix printer made its debut.

Now we’ve moved on to 3D printers, but we’re still stuck with petroleum technology.

If you count natural gas, the United States has been the biggest oil and gas producer since 2014. While China is now the world’s largest fossil fuels burner and biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States is a (much) larger producer, digging up and selling far more than our share of the problem.


Pipe Up

Opponents mount protests after major natural gas pipeline moves forward.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted the PennEast Pipeline its certificate of public convenience and necessity on Friday, which also allows the company to acquire land through eminent domain.

The proposed $1 billion pipeline would run nearly 120 miles from Pennsylvania to New Jersey and transport up to 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day. Its opponents say it would threaten the health and safety of nearby communities and endanger natural and historic resources. Proponents maintain that the pipeline is an economic boon that will lower energy costs for residents.

After getting the OK from FERC, the company moved up its estimated in-service date to 2019, with construction to begin this year. But it won’t necessarily be an easy road ahead. The pipeline still needs permits from the State of New Jersey, Army Corps of Engineers, and the Delaware River Basin Commission. And while Chris Christie was a big fan of the pipeline, newly elected Governor Phil Murphy ran a campaign promising a green agenda and has already voiced opposition.

Pipeline opponents are demonstrating this afternoon and taking the developers to court. “It’s just the beginning. New Jersey doesn’t need or want this damaging pipeline, and has the power to stop it when it faces a more stringent state review,” Tom Gilbert, campaign director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, said in a statement.


workin' hard or hardly workin'

What’s Ryan Zinke been up to lately?

The Secretary of the Interior is always busy, relentlessly shaping the future of our public lands! Let’s check in:

  • Less than a week after the Trump administration announced a controversial offshore drilling draft plan, Zinke announced he was letting Florida opt out (in a tweet, no less.) Ironically enough, the White House isn’t too pleased with Zinke’s missive, and a top official at the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management says Florida is still being considered for offshore drilling. Sorry, Rick!
  • The Huffington Post reports that Zinke owns shares in PROOF Research Inc., a company from his hometown of Whitefish, Montana that makes and sells weapons. Cabinet nominees have to submit assets worth $1,000 or more to the Office of Government Ethics, and the Interior Secretary didn’t disclose these holdings. That said, it’s unclear whether the value of Zinke’s shares exceed the government cap. The major question is whether the connection will benefit PROOF Research, which already had a meeting with Zinke last April.
  • Last but not least, Zinke approved a road through a federal wildlife refuge in Alaska on Monday, connecting a remote community to an all-weather airport. Conservationists say the road jeopardizes fragile wildlife habitats.

That’s all, folks! For now …


mine country

So is coal great again or what?

Early last year, President Donald Trump signed an executive order reversing the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. He told the assembled coal miners that the move promised boom times ahead. “You know what this says?” Trump asked. “You’re going back to work.”

Ten months later, the results are mixed. Behold the facts:

  • Jobs gained, jobs lost: Total U.S. coal employment was up about 1.6 percent last year, with most new coal jobs added in Virginia and West Virginia. But preliminary federal data obtained by Reuters shows that nearly two-thirds of coal-producing states reported coal job losses, including Ohio, Kentucky, Montana, Wyoming, and Texas.
  • Closure ahead: About half of the gains in coal jobs will be wiped out if the 4 West Mine in Pennsylvania closes this summer as scheduled, laying off around 400 coal workers.
  • Coal jobs near historic low: Some 50,000 people work in the coal industry, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s roughly one-third of what it was in the late ’80s.
  • More miner deaths: Last year saw 15 workplace-related coal worker deaths, an increase from nine in 2016.
  • Demand still sliding: Thanks to the usual suspects of cheap natural gas and falling costs for solar and wind power, old coal plants are getting less competitive, and U.S. demand for the fuel is decreasing.

One year after Trump was sworn in, his dreams of rolling back environmental policies have come true. But his promise to bring back coal is another story.


risky business

Climate change hits businesses where it hurts: their wallets.

Climate change and extreme weather topped the World Economic Forum’s annual list of risks facing businesses.

Out of 10 major threats to business in 2018, climate-related risks took slots 1 (extreme weather events), 2 (natural disasters), 5 (failure of climate change mitigation), and 7 (human-made environmental disasters) — outranking issues like terrorism, number 8. The forum ordered the risks by asking experts and companies to assess the likelihood of each risk.

In one vast, terrifying web, the report shows that environmental changes are linked to societal risks. Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, for example, are linked to the spread of infectious diseases and food crises.

That’s the part of the report the authors seem to be most concerned about: the interconnectedness of all of these issues. “When risk cascades through a complex system, the danger is not of incremental damage but of ‘runaway collapse,'” the report says. Scared yet?