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Grist 50

Meet the fixer: This professional trains people for solar jobs.

The solar industry is doing better than ever, creating well-paying jobs across the country — but those jobs aren’t evenly distributed. Oakland-based nonprofit GRID alternatives offers job training for low-income communities and people of color to help make that cleantech boom more accessible.

Erika Symmonds is at the helm of those job-training programs. She oversees existing projects and makes sure new ones reach a more diverse workforce. “Who are the people in our community who can most benefit and are most interested in this opportunity,” she asks, “and how can we make that connection?”

Raised by a single mom in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, Symmonds grew up focused on getting a good education. “What I had was pretty unique: the option of leaving the neighborhood,” she realized upon graduating from Wellesley. Plenty of people she knew back home didn’t have the same opportunity.

Her work at GRID is already making a difference: More than three quarters of program participants are people of color.


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


off the grid

The eclipse was a test, and the solar industry aced it.

As the United States momentarily plunged into darkness on Tuesday, from California to North Carolina, the electricity grid ran smoothly — despite the loss of a predicted 12,000 megawatts of solar power supplies.

“Things went really, really well,” said Eric Schmitt, vice president of California’s grid operator, at a press briefing.

Prior to the eclipse, some utilities were worried the temporary dip in solar resources might put strain on the grid. But others saw it a “dress rehearsal” for how the renewable-heavy system of the future might handle such disruptions. As solar and wind resources fluctuate with the weather — as opposed to fossil fuels, which can be burned continuously — it’s important to establish that they can reliably meet America’s energy needs.

For reference, solar made up just 1 percent of the electricity produced in the country in 2016. It reached the 2-percent milestone for the first time in March this year.

So, the eclipse came and went, but solar power — fresh off this small proof-of-principle — appears to be here to stay.


Backup Plans

New Orleans is now planning to evacuate the city if a heavy rainstorm comes.

That’s worrisome, especially for communities still struggling to recover from the damage of Hurricane Katrina — which was 12 years ago this week.

Since Aug. 10, New Orleans has been operating under a state of emergency in the aftermath of a freak storm earlier this month. To make things worse, city officials lied about the state of the below-sea-level city’s pumping infrastructure, which the mayor said has “never been fully operational.” As of Monday, 15 of the city’s 120 pumps were offline for repairs, and fixing the system is expected to take weeks.

Now, the New Orleans Advocate reports that officials are developing a plan to evacuate the city if more than a foot of rain is expected within a 24-hour period before repairs can be completed.

The good news is that the last time that kind of rain fell was 1995, so it’s a pretty rare occurrence. The bad news: Evacuating on the forecast of a rainstorm would be unprecedented in city history. In fact, I can’t recall ever hearing of such an evacuation anywhere in the world.

Potentially related: There’s a tropical system brewing in the Gulf of Mexico with a “near 100 percent” chance of development in the next five days. It’s expected to head very slowly northward — a perfect recipe for intense rain.


life in plastic

Trump reversed a plastic water bottle ban in national parks.

And pretty much nobody is happy about it, except maybe Nestlé.

Since 2011, 23 national parks had ended the sale of plastic water bottles to cut down on trash and litter. Before the ban took effect at the Grand Canyon, for example, water bottles made up 20 percent of the park’s total waste. But on Aug. 16, the Trump administration ended the six-year-old policy that enabled the ban, welcoming plastic bottles back to the Grand Canyon, Zion, and other national parks.

Bottled water companies had lobbied against the Obama-era policy for years. Coincidentally, the National Park Service’s statement on the reversal echoes the industry’s arguments: “It should be up to our visitors to decide how best to keep themselves and their families hydrated during a visit to a national park.”

Sierra Club campaign director Lauren Derusha Florez is calling for park superintendents to resist. “We know that many of our parks want to do away with bottled water,” she wrote in a blog post. “Let’s make sure they know that we support them in that move, even if the current administration doesn’t.”


It's The Economy, Stupid

Psst, Zinke — national monuments create jobs just the way they are!

Ahead of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Thursday announcement regarding the fate of the bundle of national monuments under review, Democrats tried to level with the conservative on his own terms.

Joint Economic Committee Democrats created a packet of fact sheets urging Zinke to keep monuments as they are for their economic benefits. “Conservation of these lands creates an economic engine that can be sustained for generations,” said a statement from the office of Senator Martin Heinrich, the group’s ranking member.

The areas around national monuments benefit from substantial revenue from activities such as recreation, service jobs, and tourism, as the Committee’s report outlines. For example, travel and tourism account for 44 percent of private employment in the region surrounding Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante.

So far, Zinke has said he’d maintain designations for six of the 27 monuments. But he hasn’t yet revealed a final decision on contentious spots like Grand Staircase or Bears Ears, both in Utah.

Zinke’s June recommendations to President Trump hinted that Bears Ears might lose some of its land — despite that the majority of public comments implored DOI to leave the monument as it is.


Rollbacked into corner

The oil industry fears Trump’s regulatory rollback could backfire.

The fossil fuel industry has largely applauded the administration’s assault on environmental policy, like green-lighting controversial pipelines. Oh, and don’t forget that Trump “canceled” the Paris Climate Agreement.

Now, Politico Pro reports that some industry insiders say the Trump administration’s hasty environmental rule–scrapping has gone too far — and they’re getting worried about what might happen if disaster strikes.

“Every industry wants regulations that make sense,” Brian Youngberg, an energy analyst, told Politico. Trashing too many rules could lead to an environmental catastrophe, and might prompt even stricter regulations down the road.

Imagine a major disaster occurred — say, one akin to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. People might not look kindly upon President Trump’s executive order in April that reversed Obama-era restrictions on offshore drilling. Trump’s move abolished key safety improvements and opened up environmentally sensitive areas in the Gulf, the Arctic, and the Atlantic Ocean to potential oil drilling.

If a disaster were to happen, an anonymous source at an oil and gas company told Politico, “[W]e’d be painted with it as an entire industry.”


forecast: flying pigs

Here’s how a Republican Congress might talk itself into taxing carbon.

Bare with us as we lay this out, it’s a little bit of a Hail Mary-meets-Rube Goldberg bankshot.

  1. Republicans yearn to take advantage of the fact that they control the House, Senate, and presidency by making permanent cuts to corporate taxes.
  2. They go searching the Congressional couches for spare change to pay for those cuts, because Senate rules don’t allow big revenue changes that put the country deeper into the red.
  3. In their desperation to get something done, Republicans partner with Democrats to pass a carbon tax, which covers the corporate tax cuts they so desperately want.

Could this actually happen? The New York Times says this scenario is “widely acknowledged as a long shot.” And Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine points out that “it seems absurd to believe [Congress] might achieve it under a president who denies the very existence of anthropogenic global warming and can’t seem to pass even bills he likes.”

A more likely scenario: Republicans reluctantly abandon their chance to truly shake up the tax code, pass some temporary tax-relief measures for businesses (without the help of Democrats), and declare victory.