Briefly

Stuff that matters


We're going to need a bigger volt

Tesla has a big new competitor vying to build the batteries of the future.

Two big electricity companies, AES and Siemens, have teamed up to form a battery giant, called Fluence (as in fluency, or maybe affluence, or possibly both).

We’re going to need a lot of batteries if we’re going to rely on wind and solar power, which don’t necessarily provide electricity exactly when we need it. So companies, governments, and individuals are investing in big batteries to store electricity until they are ready to use it, e.g., Australia just made a deal with Tesla to build the world’s largest battery next to a wind farm.

Battery storage is still expensive. The best way anyone has figured out to make batteries cheaper is to build them at massive scales — hence battery behemoths like Fluence. But, as Grist’s Amelia Urry pointed out, what we really need is a breakthrough in something other than lithium ion — a pricey and occasionally flammable technology — to allow bigger strides forward.

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Resign of the times

Scott Pruitt’s got 99 problems but Trump ain’t one.

Congressional Democrats have been keeping an eye on the embattled EPA administrator, and they aren’t happy with what they’ve seen. On Wednesday, New Mexico Senator Tom Udall and Florida Representative Kathy Castor introduced a resolution to kick Pruitt out.

It was signed by 131 representatives and 39 senators — the most senators to call for the removal of a cabinet official in U.S. history. If you need any inspiration for insults, the press release about the resolution has plenty. Udall called him “the emperor of the swamp.” Castor said: “There is a slime problem at the EPA — and it is coming from the administrator’s office.”

Pruitt’s pileup of scandals ranges from wasteful spending (private flights) to ethical transgressions (sidelining officials who question him). That’s not to mention the damage his policies pose to public health. He faces a total of nine investigations from Congress, the White House, and his own agency. One investigation concluded this week that Pruitt broke the law in buying a $43,000 soundproof phone booth.

The call to boot Pruitt lacks bipartisan support, as Lisa Friedman writes, so it probably won’t have the desired effect. Some Republicans have turned against Pruitt, including John Kelly, the White House chief of staff. Most prominent Republicans, including President Trump, reportedly stand behind him — for now.


the northbeast

The Northeast is chugging right along on climate change action.

The West Coast often dominates the climate conversation, with its mudslides and wildfires and lawsuits against big polluters. But the Northeast also seems to be taking climate change pretty seriously.

Don’t believe me? Even New Jersey, America’s trash can, is cleaning up its act. Here’s what’s going down on America’s right-hand flank:

  • New Jersey is not only prepared to foil the Trump administration’s plans by banning offshore drilling — it also passed bills that require the state to get 50 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030. That includes a pretty big subsidy for nuclear energy (if that frightens you, check out this piece).
  • Five New England liberal arts colleges announced plans on Thursday to build a solar power facility in Maine. This is the first time a higher-ed alliance in New England has tackled a local solar project like this, but it follows a larger trend of universities picking up the slack on climate change.
  • A new study shows that the nine Northeast states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a state-led cap-and-trade program, have created thousands of new jobs in renewables, cut costs, and sharply reduced emissions.

Climate action isn’t limited to America’s coasts, of course. Communities in Colorado recently announced plans to sue the pants off of Big Oil — just the sort of local climate action we’ve been waiting for.


power outrage

The whole island of Puerto Rico went dark for the first time since Hurricane Maria.

On Monday, the island’s power utility boasted that it had restored electricity to 97 percent of customers. Two days later, the precarious electric grid collapsed, plunging the entire island into a blackout for the first time in seven months.

“Back to September 20th,” tweeted San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.

The outage, reportedly caused by a construction equipment accident, is the second to hit Puerto Rico recently. Last Thursday, a fallen tree took out power for 870,000 people. Such events have become a fact of life for Puerto Ricans, who are currently living through the second biggest electricity crisis in modern world history. Only the magnitude of electric grid damage by Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013, was worse.

The recovery effort continues to drag on, hampered by poor planning, rampant corruption, and logistical nightmares. So far, the hurricane has triggered more than a thousand deaths, a mental health crisis, and a mass exodus from the island.

Officials estimate that power will be restored in 24 to 36 hours. But it’s not coming back for everyone — tens of thousands of rural residents of eastern and central Puerto Rico have been waiting for their lights to turn back on since September.

And guess what? The next hurricane season is just six weeks away.


it's oil over

Boulder, Colorado, is the latest city to sue Big Oil over climate change.

Remember those lawsuits California and New York filed against major oil producers for knowingly heating up the planet? Two counties in Colorado just teamed up with the city of Boulder to file a similar lawsuit of their own. The complaint alleges that oil companies contributed greenhouse gases to the atmosphere for decades while knowing the consequences.

Boulder, Boulder County, and San Miguel County are taking ExxonMobil and Suncor Energy (Canada’s biggest oil company) to court in an effort to hold them accountable for damages caused by extreme weather — events scientists have linked to increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Colorado has seen a 2 degree F increase on average over the past 30 years, making it the 20th fastest warming state in the U.S. since 1970.

This is the first time non-coastal communities have sued fossil fuel companies over climate change, but inland states have their own set of climate-related problems. The three plaintiffs in the lawsuit say their communities have endured wildfires and flash floods fueled by climate change. They want ExxonMobil and Suncor to pay millions for the damage and fork over additional money to fund climate adaptation initiatives.

“Plaintiffs have taken substantial steps to reduce their own GHG emissions,” the complaint says. Meanwhile, “Defendants have acted recklessly.” Watch out, Big Oil! Colorado isn’t pulling its punches.

This story has been updated.


moody poutines

Tensions rise in battle over Canadian pipeline.

Justin Trudeau, Alberta, and Kinder Morgan are on one side; British Columbia, First Nations, and environmental activists are on the other.

Alberta introduced legislation yesterday that B.C. officials say is retaliation against their opposition of the pipeline expansion, which would triple the amount of crude oil transported from the former to the latter. Kinder Morgan recently announced that it was stopping all nonessential spending on the project as a result of legal efforts and protests aimed at blocking it. If B.C. doesn’t back down by May 31, the company could scrap the project altogether. The Alberta bill allows the province’s energy minister to decide what fossil fuel products it exports, which could drive up gas prices in B.C.

Yet another battle was brewing in the courtroom. More than 200 anti-pipeline demonstrators have been arrested so far, including prominent political leaders Elizabeth May and Kennedy Stewart. A judge upped penalties for nearly two dozen protesters arrested alongside May and Kennedy from civil disobedience to potential criminal charges.

Amnesty International issued a statement in support of the activists: “Far too often, governments in Canada have overreacted to land rights protests and protests perceived to threaten favored resource development projects. It is clear that pipeline development is a high stakes issue for politicians. This means even greater vigilance is required to ensure that the right to protest is not sacrificed.” Fight on.


déjà vu

This 1983 article about the EPA hitting rock bottom is way too relevant.

Substitute some scandals, and parts of this 35-year-old New York Times report on the EPA sound like they could have been written today. “Once noted for its efficiency and esprit,” it reads, “the agency is now demoralized and virtually inert, according to past and current officials of the agency, Congressmen of both parties and outside critics.”

The article was published at the height of controversy in the tenure of former EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford — yes, she was Neil Gorsuch’s mother. Under President Reagan, she rolled back environmental protections and cut the agency’s budget, leading to a demoralized, understaffed agency. Sounds a lot like the EPA today, right?

The similarities with current Administrator Scott Pruitt don’t end there: Burford’s reign at the EPA was marked by ethical controversy. Her management of the Superfund program sparked a congressional investigation that stretched months. In the end, Burford withheld subpoenaed documents from the House and, held in contempt by Congress, she resigned.

This prompted some EPA employees to celebrate and start wearing T-shirts with the slogan “I Survived the Ice Queen’s Acid Reign.” Now there are calls to #BootPruitt, but it remains to be seen whether history will repeat itself.

And hey — the EPA rebuilt itself after 1983, so maybe there’s hope it will bounce back again.


Not in the plan

FEMA had a totally inadequate plan for dealing with Hurricane Maria.

The agency low-balled how much damage a Category 4 hurricane would leave behind in Puerto Rico, according to a Politico review of a recently released FEMA planning document. The 140-page plan from 2014 outlined how FEMA would respond to “the inevitable ‘big one’ that will test local, commonwealth, territorial, and Federal capabilities” in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The document reveals that FEMA intended to rely heavily on local authorities and the private sector in the event of a catastrophic hurricane. (To be fair, no one could have predicted the bizarre Whitefish fiasco.) Although FEMA often plays a supporting role to state efforts, it failed to take into account that Puerto Rico’s looming debt crisis and faltering infrastructure would severely limit the territory’s ability to bounce back on its own.

More than half a year after the storm, 50,000 people are still without electricity. The lackluster recovery effort is partly a result of FEMA’s decision not to take the lead in Puerto Rico’s hurricane recovery, disaster-response experts say.

Take this as an illustration of just how much FEMA underestimated the potential for devastation: The plan predicted the agency would move from response to recovery mode after only one month — something it’s just recently started to do.


wisdom youth

8 kids from Florida are suing their state over climate change.

Rick Scott, who has served as Florida’s governor since 2011, hasn’t done much to protect his state against the effects of climate change — even though it’s being threatened by sea-level rise.

On Monday, eight youth filed a lawsuit against Scott, a slew of state agencies, and the state of Florida itself. The kids, ages 10 to 19, are trying to get their elected officials to recognize the threat climate change poses to their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

18-year-old Delaney Reynolds, a member of this year’s Grist 50 list, helped launch the lawsuit. She’s been a climate activist since the age of 14, when she started a youth-oriented activism nonprofit called The Sink or Swim Project. “No matter how young you are, even if you don’t have a vote, you have a voice in your government,” she says.

Reynolds and the other seven plaintiffs are asking for a “court-ordered, science-based Climate Recovery Plan” — one that transitions Florida away from a fossil fuel energy system.

This lawsuit is the latest in a wave of youth-led legal actions across the United States. Juliana v. United States, which was filed by 21 young plaintiffs in Oregon in 2015, just got confirmed for a trial date in October this year.


Breathe Uneasy

Trump’s new executive order spells disaster for our air quality.

While we were all watching the Wheeler and Pruitt train wreck on Thursday, President Trump nonchalantly gave industry a huge pass to pollute. The executive order makes it easier for businesses to comply with air quality standards, and also limits the EPA’s ability to hold states accountable for failing to meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

The executive order is a big blow to science and health in the United States. It restricts what science can be considered when regulating air quality and directs the EPA to heed warnings from interests outside of the scientific and public health realms. That means taking into account things like how much it would cost to implement air quality regulations — something the Supreme Court decided was illegal in 2001 (so keep an eye out for Trump’s order to be challenged in court).

There are a lot of reasons why scientists, lawmakers, and advocates are crying foul. But it all boils down to this: We’re going to be breathing worse air because of it. And fence-line communities of color are going to be hardest hit. Not only because they already breathe the worst air in the United States, but because Trump’s executive order lets states trade pollution permits — which tends to allow polluters to stack their chips in the places that are already suffering the most.