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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.


fixer upper

Here’s an idea for retired coal mines: Turn them into giant batteries.

Energy companies are looking to retrofit old mines to store power from solar and wind, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The mine-turned-battery concept relies on something called “pumped hydro.” Basically, when you have extra power you want to store, you just use it to pump water uphill. When you want to use that power again, you release the water to flow back downhill, spinning a turbine to generate electricity.

It turns out the structure of coal mines is perfect for building these systems: Water can be cycled between reservoirs deep in the mine and holding ponds at the surface.

But, like all nice things, pumped hydro can be pretty pricey. In Virginia, where two energy companies are looking to build pump systems near old mines, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a bill allowing the companies to raise electricity rates to help get the projects up and running.

Still, pumped storage is more reliable than chemical batteries like lithium ion, which degrade over time. As more solar is added to the grid — and the need for electricity storage ramps up — giant coal-mine batteries could just keep going and going right into the future.


Tricep Harder

What if Baywatch were … better?

The Baywatch cinematic reboot, starring god-among-men Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, lesser deity Zac Efron, and Priyanka “Miss World 2000” Chopra, is out in theaters on Friday. We, the moviegoing public, should be blessed by this release, but early reviews suggest it’s actually just too ridiculous.

The New York Times: “Like its source material, ‘Baywatch’ is sleazy and wholesome, silly and earnest, dumb as a box of sand and slyly self-aware. It’s soft-serve ice cream. Crinkle-cut fries. A hot car and a skin rash.”

Vox: “Baywatch is a lot like [a] dead man’s penis: It’s a limp, charmless thing that doesn’t warrant the effort or time spent looking at it.”

The Atlantic: “… [Y]ou didn’t come for the plot. None of us, the writers of this film included, came for the plot.”

Wow! Decided burns, everyone. What if it were about climate change instead? Consider:

Maybe people would have liked it more.


alternative facts

Check out what career government staff is doing to fly under Trump’s radar.

According to a Washington Post report, agency staffers working on projects related to energy, agriculture, and infrastructure are tweaking the language in their proposals to avoid raising eyebrows in the White House.

Gone are terms like “climate change” — which is being replaced with “resilience.” And you won’t find the word “clean” in program descriptions involving energy.

The new strategy comes after the administration began deleting mentions of climate change from the EPA’s website. And shortly after Trump’s inauguration, pages devoted to civil rights and Native American rights were removed from the White House site.

One career staffer called the behavior “‘Keep their head down, maybe they won’t cut our budget’-mode.” But as Michael Termini at the Government Accountability Project told the Post, that’s really just a cute way of describing a chilling effect Trump is having on his charges: Staffers feel discouraged from exercising their rights because of threat — implicit or explicit — of being prosecuted or sanctioned.

For the moment, rebranding initiatives might be the only hope we have for implementing common sense policies — like ensuring the resilience of the fight against climate change or the development of renewable energy technologies.


Grist 50

Meet the fixer: This storyteller puts people first.

For all their glittering charisma, solar cells and wind turbines don’t make for the best story subjects. But the people who benefit from cleantech — whether they’re landing jobs in the industry, breathing cleaner air, or just saving a few bucks on utilities — have the real tale to tell.

With 100%, a media campaign from The Solutions Project, Sean Watkins and his team seek out diverse climate leaders across the country and tell their success stories over Facebook, Instagram, and sometimes even physical billboards. The purpose is to build inspiration and momentum for others to push for 100 percent clean energy in their communities and create campaigns that outlive our gone-in-a-minute attention spans.

For the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, Watkins enlisted Avengers star Mark Ruffalo to host eight short videos that profile tribal members and supporters at Standing Rock. Watkins also shines a light on communities that might otherwise fall under the radar. Case in point: a social media and YouTube campaign to recognize PUSH Buffalo, a local group that’s turning the shuttered houses and storefronts on the city’s West Side into a sustainable neighborhood. (Check out the story of PUSH Buffalo’s deputy director, Rahwa Ghirmatzion, another Grist 50 member.) “We know and believe that there are success stories everywhere,” says Watkins.


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


white greens

Environmental organizations still have a diversity problem.

A report on the employment practices of green groups finds that the sector, despite its socially progressive reputation, is still overwhelmingly the bastion of white men.

According to the study, released by Green 2.0, roughly 3 out of 10 people at environmental organizations are people of color, but at the senior staff level, the figure drops closer to 1 out of 10. And at all levels, from full-time employees to board members, men make up three-quarters or more of NGO staffs.

Click to embiggen.Green 2.0

The new report, titled “Beyond Diversity: A Roadmap to Building an Inclusive Organization,” relied on more than 85 interviews of executives and HR reps and recruiters at environmental organizations.

Representatives of NGOs and foundations largely agreed on the benefits of having a more diverse workforce, from the added perspectives in addressing environmental problems to a deeper focus on environmental justice to allowing the movement to engage a wider audience.

The most worrisome finding is that fewer than 40 percent of environmental groups even had diversity plans in place to ensure they’re more inclusive. According to the report, “Research shows that diversity plans increases the odds of black men in management positions significantly.”


over the hill

OPEC still just tryin’ to OPEC, but not doing so well at it.

The cartel confirmed at a Thursday meeting in Vienna that it would extend the production cuts announced in December through March 2018 to try to forestall further collapse of oil prices.

However, they’re just fighting the inevitable. Here’s everything working against OPEC:

  1. American-produced shale gas and oil (the kind you get from fracking) continues to be cheap and abundant.
  2. In recent years, investors have poured money into fracking companies, because they’re seen as more reliable than traditional drilling operations — in turn making the former less susceptible to shifts in price and production than the latter. (But bad news, frackers — that funding bubble isn’t expected to last forever.)
  3. Global demand for oil was lower than expected this year, and a recent analysis from consultancy Roland Berger predicts that industrialized nations’ appetite for oil has peaked, The Economist reports.
  4. The growth of the electric car market and increasingly computerized transportation means a push away from oil and gas, according to the New York Times.

To close, a brief list of metaphors used to describe OPEC’s ongoing struggles: relying on “Band-Aids to get through crises,” bringing “a knife to a gunfight,” and, our personal favorite, “U.S. shale’s the wild horse that OPEC just can’t tame.”