The Day After: The Far Future

(Image source: Institute for Justice)

The last blog ended with the impact of recent Supreme Court decisions:

These cases questioned whether judges should defer to agencies’ interpretation of gaps and ambiguities in the laws they implement under the Chevron doctrine. The decision to overturn the doctrine will have significant implications for federal regulators.

The fear is that environmental regulations will be the first casualties of this ruling. The justification for such a ruling, long sought by conservatives, was that it will force legislators (and presidents) to create laws without “gaps and ambiguities.” To make such laws, however, you need expertise that most of us—judges and legislators included—don’t have: knowledge about what will be relevant given predicted future environmental conditions.

The main job of the Supreme Court is to try to make sure our laws are consistent with the Constitution. A common attitude is that environmental laws are not a constitutional matter and if we want an institution such as the Supreme Court to confirm them, we need to change the Constitution:

In the United States, we acknowledge and protect free speech, property, and gun rights. We don’t formally recognize a right to drink clean water, to breathe clean air, and to have the healthy environments essential to supporting and sustaining healthy lives. Instead, these fundamental human rights are entrusted to a political system with competing demands — where money and special interests have primacy over justice and basic human needs and where partisan gamesmanship is often more important than facts, science, and human life. As written, our environmental laws accept pollution and degradation as a foregone conclusion — a right of industry, something to be managed through reviews and permitting rather than prevented through good government action.

Under this system, communities are suffering from pollution and environmental degradation. We are facing a growing climate crisis that is causing floods, drought, wildfires, and an uncertain future. That’s why we must add a Green Amendment to the US Constitution.

I will try to show here that we don’t need to do this almost impossible task of changing the Constitution!

A long-standing Conservative attitude is that the only federal constitutional demand that we have is defense. Below is part of the report that was written by Jim Talent for the Heritage Foundation:

Providing for the Common Defense

In brief, the Constitution says three things about the responsibility of the federal government for the national defense.

National defense is the priority job of the national government. Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution lists 17 separate powers that are granted to the Congress. Six of those powers deal exclusively with the national defense—far more than any other specific area of governance—and grant the full range of authorities necessary for establishing the defense of the nation as it was then understood. Congress is given specific authority to declare war, raise and support armies, provide for a navy, establish the rules for the operation of American military forces, organize and arm the militias of the states, and specify the conditions for converting the militias into national service.

… The only substantive function of government specifically assigned to the President relates to national security and foreign policy, and the first such responsibility granted him is authority to command the military; he is the “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.”

National defense is the only mandatory function of the national government. Most of the powers granted to Congress are permissive in nature. Congress is given certain authorities but not required by the Constitution to exercise them…

But the Constitution does require the federal government to protect the nation. Article Four, Section Four states that the “United States shall guarantee to every State a republican form of government and shall protect each of them against invasion.” In other words, even if the federal government chose to exercise no other power, it must, under the Constitution, provide for the common defense.

National defense is exclusively the function of the national government. Under our Constitution, the states are generally sovereign, which means that the legitimate functions of government not specifically granted to the federal government are reserved to the states. But Article One, Section 10 does specifically prohibit the states, except with the consent of Congress, from keeping troops or warships in time of peace or engaging in war, the only exception being that states may act on their own if actually invaded. (This was necessary because, when the Constitution was written, primitive forms of communication and transportation meant that it could take weeks before Washington was even notified of an invasion.)

From my perspective, these key two sentences in this report summarize the issue:

Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution lists 17 separate powers that are granted to the Congress. Six of those powers deal exclusively with the national defense—far more than any other specific area of governance—and grant the full range of authorities necessary for establishing the defense of the nation as it was then understood.

The last five words are the most important. The Constitution was drafted in 1787, four years after the end of the American Revolution in 1783.  Given the timing, there should not be much guessing about what the writers of the Constitution had in mind with the term “national defense.” Let us get through some details:

I asked Google about foreign invasions of the US since 1787 (the drafting of the Constitution). It linked to a draft Wikipedia article that is under review but the gist of it is this:

The United States has been physically invaded on several occasions: once during the War of 1812; once during the Mexican–American War; several times during the Mexican Border War; and three times during World War II, two of which were air attacks on American soil.

The Defense Casualty Analysis System has a detailed list of war casualties. However, more than foreign armies, what are invading with increasing frequency are the climate consequences of environmental threats:

The disparate death counts in Kentucky are part of a long-standing problem: Despite the growing danger from climate-driven disasters, there is no single, reliable count of who is dying as a result of extreme weather in the United States. For any given weather disaster, multiple government agencies publish independent — and often widely differing — death counts.

The definitive federal accounting of climate change’s impacts in the United States, the National Climate Assessment, estimates that upward of 1,300 people die in the U.S. each year due to heat alone and that extreme floods, hurricanes and wildfires routinely kill hundreds more. But those numbers are rough estimates.

Or, on a more global scale, as Reuters reports: Extreme heat kills hundreds, millions more sweltering worldwide as summer begins:

LONDON, June 20 (Reuters) – Deadly heatwaves are scorching cities on four continents as the Northern Hemisphere marks the first day of summer, a sign that climate change may again help to fuel record-breaking heat that could surpass last summer as the warmest in 2,000 years.

Record temperatures in recent days are suspected to have caused hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths across Asia and Europe.

In Saudi Arabia, nearly two million Muslim pilgrims are finishing the haj at the Grand Mosque in Mecca this week. But hundreds have died during the journey amid temperatures above 51 degrees Celsius (124 degrees Fahrenheit), according to reports from foreign authorities.

The yearly US expenditure on defense is about 2 trillion US$, which is one third of the total federal expenditure. Going back to the beginning of this blog, it is true that the Constitution does not guarantee a blue sky and clean water to the population, but it mandates that the federal government must provide security to protect us from deadly harm. It doesn’t specify whether such security must be focused on human invasions or whether it can extend to the environmental consequences of human activities.

This is not a call to reduce expenditures on defense, as currently understood, but it is important not to dress up such expenditures as a constitutional mandate. EPA and OSHA mandates routinely come before the Supreme Court and the distinction is crucial.

The US Army and the US National Intelligence Council already recognize the role that environmental threats play in US national security (see the “global trends” series of blogs, in particular, the May 23, 2017 blog and “The Age of Consequences” movie discussed in the April 9, 2019 blog). It’s time for the Supreme Court and Congress to follow suit and recognize the current and oncoming dangers.

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The Day After: November 5th

Op-Art Illustration of 2024 presidential debate

(By Nancy Ohanian, Source: Seattle Times)

It was the aftermath of a discouraging debate that made me create a series about the “day after” November 5th. I ended last week’s blog with this:

 It was clear (to me) that if given a second term, President Biden would try to continue what he is doing now but his success or failure would depend on the makeup of other governmental branches elected in November. Judging what ex-President Trump would do is more difficult. I couldn’t rely on what he said because he only talked about the great America that he left for President Biden to ruin. However, there are other, richer sources of information about what President Trump would do after winning the presidency in November. I will try to draw some “day after” descriptions gathered from these sources.

A few days after I posted that blog, the Supreme Court got into the mix with a set of decisions that made the follow-up of November 5th even more worrisome. They convinced me that I needed to change the direction of my blog from the relatively distant future of the “end” of the energy transition (2050??) to the more immediate future.

The first burning question that is now at the center this matter is whether President Biden will be convinced to withdraw his candidacy for reelection. Here is Bret Stephens’ opinion on the issue in the NYT: “The ‘Bad Debate’ Nonsense”:

Wishful thinking, to adapt a phrase, is a helluva drug.

In the aftermath of Joe Biden’s debate with Donald Trump, his well-wishers are claiming that it was just an off night. “Bad debate nights happen,” wrote Barack Obama in a social media post that’s garnered more than 100 million views. Reid Hoffman, the LinkedIn co-founder and a major Democratic donor, wrote that when Biden “does poorly, he tends to bounce back — and then win.” Biden himself told a gathering of East Hampton donors that “I didn’t have a great night, but neither did Trump.”

Pure nonsense.

It’s true that Obama had a bad first debate against Mitt Romney in 2012, just as Ronald Reagan had a bad first debate against Walter Mondale in 1984 — and both men went on to win resounding re-elections. It’s also true that Donald Trump’s performance — by turns bombastic, evasive, mendacious and meandering — would have been seen as embarrassing against nearly any other opponent.

But Biden was his opponent, and the transparent problem with the president’s performance wasn’t that he debated poorly. It’s that he is suffering from serious cognitive decline, something from which there is no coming back. I don’t say this as a medical expert, only as one of many millions of people who have witnessed, in elderly people we love, the same symptoms we saw in Biden on Thursday: the garbled thoughts and slurred words and unfinished sentences; the vacant stare; the confusion.

As a human matter, this is heartbreaking. As a political one, it’s disqualifying. Biden is asking voters for four more years to “finish the job.” Given recent reports in The Wall Street Journal about the speed of his deterioration, that’s a promise he’d be unlikely to keep even if he somehow wins the election.

All this has been increasingly obvious for years — and some of us have repeatedly said so. But this is also a time to ask questions of those who saw the president and insisted there was nothing seriously amiss, or that his verbal stumbles were just a function of his stutter, or that his voice may be soft but his thoughts are clear. Were they clueless? Dishonest? Choosing to not see?

Whichever way, they bear some of the blame for trying to prop up a mentally unwell incumbent in order to stop a morally unfit challenger. To those who love the president, starting with his wife, it’s time to tell him: for God’s sake, and the country’s, and his own — don’t run.

President Biden himself claims that his bad debate performance originated from too much global travel before the debate. His advisers put the blame on a cold that he got just before the debate.

Writing from some experience on this issue (I am 85), the status of neurology and clinical psychology today is such that measurements with MRI, PET scanning, EEG, and blood testing can say a great deal about the nature of cognitive issues and memory loss. Specifically, they can tell if the deterioration is non-reversible, age related, reversible (through slow treatment), or the temporary impact of stress or a cold. However, there was no mention of direct involvement from neurologists or clinical psychologists on the nature and prospects of his cognitive abilities. I am not the only one that sees the need for definitive answers about his physical and mental state.The second issue that I promised last week I would start addressing, is the current, and changing, projections of what Ex-President Trump will do if re-elected on November 5th. Michelle Goldberg’s article in the NYT, titled “Trump’s Allies Say They’ll Enforce the Comstock Act. Believe Them” gives us a good starting place: 

Named colloquially for the fanatical postal inspector Anthony Comstock, the 1873 act — which is actually a set of anti-vice laws — bans the mailing of “obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy or vile” material, including devices and substances used “for producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral purpose.”

The Comstock Act is from 150 years ago but the NYT article was referring to a much more recent publication: Project 2025’s “Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise.” The 920-page document is online and was published by the Heritage Foundation. The first paragraph summarizes its objective:

We want you! The 2025 Presidential Transition Project is the conservative movement’s unified effort to be ready for the next conservative Administration to govern at 12:00 noon, January 20, 2025. Welcome to the mission. By opening this book, you are now a part of it. Indeed, one set of eyes reading these passages will be those of the 47th President of the United States, and we hope every other reader will join in making the incoming Administration a success.

I searched the document for “Climate Change” and got 54 entries. I am obviously not going to quote all of them. However, this is one of the first:

The NSC should rigorously review all general and flag officer promotions to prioritize the core roles and responsibilities of the military over social engineering and non-defense matters, including climate change, critical race theory, manufactured extremism, and other polarizing policies that weaken our armed forces and discourage our nation’s finest men and women from enlisting to serve in defense of our liberty.

NSC refers here to the National Security Council. The spirit of the rest of the quotes is similar and I strongly encourage you to go through the document. Many of the organizations and individuals who authored this document will have Trump’s ear if he is re-elected.

Recent reports claim that Trump is trying to disavow himself from Project 2025. I view this reported attitude as more tactical than truthful. It is on the same level as some of his abortion announcements.

The third issue that surfaced over the last few days involved a recent Supreme Court decision that in my opinion will be the most consequential. Many of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions will have a direct impact on who will be elected on November 5th. But from my own perspective, the most critical decision that the Supreme Court made recently was to overrule the longstanding Chevron doctrine. This will have a critical impact on the future of the US and the world:

On June 28, The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a 1984 decision known as the Chevron doctrine.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases, Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo and Relentless, Inc. v. Department of Commerce, challenging a federal rule that requires commercial fishing vessels to pay for the onboard observers who monitor their catches.

These cases questioned whether judges should defer to agencies’ interpretation of gaps and ambiguities in the laws they implement under the Chevron doctrine. The decision to overturn the doctrine will have significant implications for federal regulators.

Jody Freeman, Harvard Law professor and EELP founding director, and Andy Mergen, HLS visiting professor and director of the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, have been answering questions about Chevron and the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision.

As described, the issue before the court seems far removed from today’s concerns. It needs space to make the case. Next blog will start the process.

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The Day After: A Solar Future?

NYC sunsetMany of us saw the Netflix series “3 Body Problem,” which is set on a planet that circulates two suns. The series is based on a book and has been renewed for another season. Those of us who liked the program might have wondered about the title. As usual, under such circumstances, we can find a relevant Wikipedia site that explains. In physics, a three-body problem refers to three masses—in this case, planets and stars—and the gravitational push and pull between them. One of the most important things to understand is that three-body systems, unlike the more familiar two-body systems, are inherently unstable.

A sun, per definition, generates its own energy through the fusion of hydrogen in its core. This type of immense, nearly limitless energy solution would be ideal for the “day after” the present global energy transition. We cannot live on a star because the surface temperature, even on the smallest stars, is much too high for survival (for example, the coolest Red Dwarf is still over 2000oK or 3000oF), so we would need to make reactors to generate the fusion energy on Earth. We know how to make bombs based on the technology (hydrogen bombs). However, we still don’t know how to make a reactor that can generate electricity for us to use. I wrote about the effort in a previous blog (December 12, 2017, Long-term Mitigation: Fusion). In a “day after” scenario, we might succeed or we might not, but we already have a workable alternative: we can use the fusion from our only sun and capture much more of its energy than we are currently collecting. We are making great strides in this direction.

A few weeks ago (June 22nd), The Economist published a special issue, “Dawn of the Solar Age.” Some paragraphs of the introductory article are cited below:

To call solar power’s rise exponential is not hyperbole, but a statement of fact. Installed solar capacity doubles roughly every three years, and so grows ten-fold each decade. Such sustained growth is seldom seen in anything that matters. That makes it hard for people to get their heads round what is going on. When it was a tenth of its current size ten years ago, solar power was still seen as marginal even by experts who knew how fast it had grown. The next ten-fold increase will be equivalent to multiplying the world’s entire fleet of nuclear reactors by eight in less than the time it typically takes to build just a single one of them.

…To grasp that this is not some environmentalist fever dream, consider solar economics. As the cumulative production of a manufactured good increases, costs go down. As costs go down, demand goes up. As demand goes up, production increases—and costs go down further. This cannot go on for ever; production, demand or both always become constrained. In earlier energy transitions—from wood to coal, coal to oil or oil to gas—the efficiency of extraction grew, but it was eventually offset by the cost of finding ever more fuel.

As our essay this week explains, solar power faces no such constraint. The resources needed to produce solar cells and plant them on solar farms are silicon-rich sand, sunny places and human ingenuity, all three of which are abundant. Making cells also takes energy, but solar power is fast making that abundant, too. As for demand, it is both huge and elastic—if you make electricity cheaper, people will find uses for it. The result is that, in contrast to earlier energy sources, solar power has routinely become cheaper and will continue to do so.

Other constraints do exist. Given people’s proclivity for living outside daylight hours, solar power needs to be complemented with storage and supplemented by other technologies. Heavy industry and aviation and freight have been hard to electrify. Fortunately, these problems may be solved as batteries and fuels created by electrolysis gradually become cheaper.

The correlation between the sharp reduction in price and the exponential growth in use is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2 – Cost and manufacturing capacity of solar cells over the last 20 years (Source: FreeingEnergy)

In a previous blog (June 9, 2020, Negative Energy Pricing), I described the phenomenon of negative energy pricing, which indicates that the supply of the energy exceeds demand. The examples in that blog were focused on the price of oil and electricity at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when there was a sharp decline in energy use. The imbalance now continues in Europe, this time driven mostly by an increased supply of solar energy:

Spanish consultancy AleaSoft Energy Forecasting recorded negative hourly electricity prices for all but one European energy market it analyzed during the first week of April, including in the Spanish and Portuguese markets for the first time. It also registered an all-time production record for photovoltaic energy in Portugal and the second highest value ever recorded in Italy.

In fact, for the first time, solar power supply exceeds oil in power generation:

Fortune: Electricity prices in France turn negative as renewable energy floods the grid

Since the first industrial revolution raised coal-rich Britain, Germany and the US to dominance, and the rise of crude brought power and wealth to Russia and the Middle East while extending America’s global lead, the nations that controlled the headwaters of these energy flows have been the hegemons of each succeeding century.

Right now, seven Chinese companies have a bigger stake in the power source of the 21st century than the Seven Sisters of oil that dominated the 20th. If you want to understand the roots of the geopolitical angst driving Washington’s crackdown on China’s clean technology, it’s impossible to ignore that fact.

The deciding role that solar power is now playing is not confined to rich countries. It extends to Africa, which remains the only continent in which electricity has yet to become universally available:

Solar power is increasingly seen as the solution. Last year Africa installed a record amount of photovoltaic (pv) capacity (though this still made up just 1% of the total added worldwide), notes the African Solar Industry Association (afsia), a trade group. Globally most solar pv is built by utilities, but in Africa 65% of new capacity over the past two years has come from large firms contracting directly with developers. These deals are part of a decentralised revolution that could be of huge benefit to African economies

One of my earlier blogs described solar power on the roads (February 18, 2020, Solar Roads: Driving into the Future). Now, it extends to floating on water:

New research has found that several countries could meet all their energy needs from solar panel systems floating on lakes. Climate, water and energy environmental scientists R. Iestyn Woolway and Alona Armstrong analysed how much energy could be produced by floating solar panels on just 10% of the water surface of one million bodies of water globally. They found that Ethiopia and Rwanda could generate more energy than their current national energy need from the floating energy systems alone.

Thursday evening (June 27th) I joined millions of others watching the presidential debate. I saw another version of the “day after”: the one following our elections this November. Watching the debate, it was obvious, at least to me, that while you cannot lie about the future, you can lie about past and present. The debate was supposed to tell us whose future we prefer but it didn’t provide us with the relevant information. It focused on Trump’s past and Biden’s current difficulties. I was focused on climate change and other global threats. The only “future” that I heard from either candidate was that the other candidate would ignite WWIII. In the 90-minute debate, there was one question that was focused on climate change. Ex-president Trump used his two minutes to describe that when he was president, the skies were blue and the water (in his language, H2O) clean. President Biden used his two minutes to summarize his achievements on the topic, including a short exchange about the US quitting the Paris Agreement at the beginning of Mr. Trump’s presidency and rejoining at the beginning of Mr. Biden’s presidency. It was clear (to me) that if given a second term, President Biden would try to continue what he is doing now but his success or failure would depend on the makeup of other governmental branches elected in November. Judging what ex-President Trump would do is more difficult. I couldn’t rely on what he said because he only talked about the great America that he left for President Biden to ruin. However, there are other, richer sources of information about what President Trump would do after winning the presidency in November. I will try to draw some “day after” descriptions gathered from these sources.

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“The Day After”: Electricity

NYC sunset

I am starting to write this blog on Thursday, June 20th, the Summer Solstice: the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. The concept of the “day after” has recently been widely used, mainly in the context of the Hamas-Israel war but also often when discussing the Russian invasion of Ukraine: what will happen when the war is over? These are not the only countries that are presently in some sort of state of war but they are the ones currently attracting the most global attention.

It seems that the “day after” is much more often discussed by people who cannot do anything about a situation rather than those who have the power to make big decisions. It should be useful to expand the concept to other important changes that we are experiencing. The global energy transition is high on my agenda, and the next few blogs will focus on the issue. In doing so, I will start by asking where  we are in the transition, where we want to be after the transition is over, and what we are doing about it. The top picture summarizes the concept from my perspective. The photograph was taken from my balcony in NYC of a scene that lasted only a few seconds. The setting sun is the central element; it signifies that once we “finish” the energy transition, most of our energy the “day after” will be derived—whether directly or indirectly—from the sun’s present energy. This is an important distinction from fossil fuels, which are the remnants of millions of years of solar energy. The picture is full of dark clouds partially illuminated by the setting sun and both the clouds and the sun beautify NYC. I will repeat this photograph throughout this series unless I get bored and/or take a better one that illustrates my point.

This blog starts to address the important question of how the world is doing in its transition to non-polluting energy sources. Based on what we find, we will try to extrapolate the continuation scenario to some endpoints and define them as a “day after” scenario (see July 6July 20, 2021 blogs about business-as-usual scenarios). To address this issue, we need to look at three important components of the energy transition:

  1. Efficiency of energy use, defined as the amount of energy that we need to generate our global GDP

This term is defined by our global energy intensity. I addressed this issue in some detail in an earlier blog (December 20, 2022), where I showed the constant decline in this parameter (less energy needed for a given GDP) over the period of 1990 – 2015. The decline was global, applying to both developed and developing countries. Figure 2 below shows more recent data, with a continuing decline. The same figure also shows carbon intensity (put carbon intensity into the search box for background on the various aspects of the term) and population, among other metrics, all normalized from 1965. Both intensities (energy and carbon) are continuing to decline.

Percentage change in the four parameters of the Kaya Identity, which determine total CO₂ emissions. Emissions fromfossil fuels and industry are included. Land-use change emissions are not included.Figure 2 (Source: Our World in Data)

  1. Increase in the role of electricity in energy use

It was also demonstrated in previous blogs that the most flexible way to decarbonize our energy use is to convert most of our energy to electricity (see April 9 and 16, 2024 blogs). Figure 3 shows that an important consequence of the energy transition is the relatively sharper increase in electricity generation compared to the increase in overall energy use.

increase in global energy consumption and world electricity generation since 1985

Figure 3 (Source: ResearchGate)

As was mentioned in this year’s April 9th blog, the recent jump in electricity demand is partially fueled by the recent developments in the use and production of electric cars and AI, both of which rely on electric power. Importantly, another significant part of the increased demand is the global increase in ability to use and generate electricity by countries that were not formerly able to participate in the transition (see April 16, 2024 blog).

But, as was discussed in earlier blogs (May 31, 2022), in most cases electricity is a secondary energy source. Converting energy sources to electricity contributes to the main objective of the energy transition only if the primary energy that is used for production is decarbonized.

  1. Decarbonizing Electricity

Many countries have made commitments to net-zero carbon in their electricity supply. Figure 4 shows these by date. This is much more helpful than the result of the Paris Agreement (See December 14, 2015 blog), which secured a commitment to a temperature increase with no specific date. However, as the situation in the US that followed the Paris Agreement showed, the validity of any such commitment is at the mercy of the state government.

The map shows a few small governments—mostly developing countries—that have already achieved the transition. However, the road to the “day after” here is clear: we can follow progress or regression.

World map with dates of net zero pledges

Figure 4 – Countries with laws, policy documents, or concrete pledges for carbon neutrality by target year (Source: Statista)

Figure 5 shows data for 2023 that tracks the success of non-fossil fuel energy around the world by share of electricity generated by low-carbon sources.

World map with each country's share of electricity generated by low-carbon sources, 2023

Figure 5 (Source: Our World In Data)

Next week’s blog will focus on the “day after,” when net-zero carbon will apply to all our energy use.

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Conflicts: Losers Should be Able to Share with Winners to Ensure Progress

stock image of smokestacks and solar panels

Figure 1 – “Dirty” vs. “clean” energy sources (Image source: RIFS Potsdam)

Conflicts are the natural consequence of every major collective transition. Our current global energy transition, which was set in motion to alleviate the deadly threats and present damage of global climate change, is no exception. Each of these conflicts comes with winners and losers. In democratic societies, both winners and losers vote, meaning that “losers” can easily become “winners” again. In such societies, a government can be elected that will try to stop or change the transition. Most of us remember how that happened in the US eight years ago. One of the best examples of these dynamics was described in a previous blog, “Wisdom from Germany: How to Transition Away from Coal” (October 8, 2019). In that example, when Germany decided to end the use of coal to power its electric grid, it compensated coal-dependent states, most of which were part of East Germany before unification.

Today’s blog will return to this issue with a focus on the US.

The most obvious conflict between winners and losers in the energy transition is the conflict between the oil and gas industries and, hopefully, the rest of us. The article,“Oil and Gas Companies Are Trying to Rig the Marketplace” summarizes the issue. A central paragraph is given below:

But as renewables have become a more formidable competitor, we are now seeing something different: a large-scale effort to deceive the public into thinking that the alternative products are harmful, unreliable and worse for consumers. And as renewables continue to drop in cost, it will become even more critical for policymakers and others to challenge these attempts to slow the adoption of cheaper and healthier forms of energy.

The simplest way that “winners” can fight “losers” is to sue them. In this case, we can count the state of Michigan as the winner and the fossil fuel industry as the loser. This is what the state of Michigan is trying to do:

Attorney General Dana Nessel announced her intent to sue the oil and gas industry in May, saying the industry profited while knowingly selling products that cause climate change. Nessel is requesting a special assistant attorney general. Her office is searching for attorneys at private law firms with previous experience pursuing similar claims.

According to GLISA, temperatures in the Great Lakes region have jumped 2.3 degrees since 1951, and predict temperatures will continue to climb at least an extra three degrees by 2050. Climate experts say the warmer weather has caused Michigan to have stronger storms, more invasive species, and algal blooms, which have resulted in the state spending millions of dollars cleaning up. However, the Attorney General’s office believes it should be the fossil fuel industry footing the bill.

About 20 other US states are trying to do the same.

But the losers have their own political backing and they are trying to block such suits:

Far-right fossil fuel allies have launched a stunning and unprecedented campaign pressuring the supreme court to shield fossil fuel companies from litigation that could cost them billions of dollars.

Some of the groups behind the campaign have ties to Leonard Leo, the architect of the rightwing takeover of the supreme court who helped select Trump’s supreme court nominees. Leo also appears to have ties to Chevron, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

In Colorado, there is a similar conflict between constructing new roads or using the resources for public transport:

Today, state highway departments have rebranded as transportation agencies, but building, fixing and expanding highways is still mostly what they do.

So it was notable when, in 2022, the head of Colorado’s Department of Transportation called off a long planned widening of Interstate 25. The decision to do nothing was arguably more consequential than the alternative. By not expanding the highway, the agency offered a new vision for the future of transportation planning.

In Colorado, that new vision was catalyzed by climate change. In 2019, Gov. Jared Polis signed a law that required the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent within 30 years. As the state tried to figure out how it would get there, it zeroed in on drivers. Transportation is the largest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, accounting for about 30 percent of the total; 60 percent of that comes from cars and trucks. To reduce emissions, Coloradans would have to drive less.

In Virginia, the losers are trying to limit rooftop installations of solar cells (Also, see April 2024 blogs on this issue):

Four years ago, Fairfax County, Virginia, unveiled an ambitions program that would bring rooftop solar systems to many schools, community centers, and park buildings in the county. Those systems would be paid for over time by reductions in the amount of money the county paid to Dominion, the utility company that services much of Virginia, including Fairfax County. Those rooftop solar installations were expected to generate up to 45 megawatts of emissions-free electricity and save the taxpayers of Fairfax County $60 million over their expected 25 year useful life.

At the time the plan was unveiled, Jeff McKay was about to become the chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. He told the Washington Post the county wanted to force the conversation on solar energy as part of a broader goal to be more aggressive about climate change related initiatives. “My theory on these environmental things is, we’re a big county; we’d better go in big and set an example,” he said. Also, “the estimate of $60 million in savings is not insignificant. There’s no downside to doing this at all.”

Fairfax County officials say they were inspired by agreements in other jurisdictions and by environmental activists. The inclusion of nearly 90 schools in the county’s initiative was due in large measure to a group of student activists — especially those at James Madison High School in Vienna who had lobbied for solar energy for several years.

But the plan did not sit well with Dominion, which, like many large investor-owned utilities, has a vested interest in selling as much electricity at possible — and limiting the ability of others to horn in on its territory. It argues that plans like this unfairly raise utility rates for others, especially low-income residents, because the $60 million the county saves will have to be made up somehow, most likely by raising rates for residential subscribers. The plan moved forward, however, until Dominion found a way to impose its will on the process in 2022. That’s when it came up with a scheme to shut the process down. How did it do that? By suddenly demanding exorbitant fees to connect rooftop solar projects like those in Fairfax County to the grid. All across Virginia, the company began requiring upgrades for a “direct transfer trip,” a device which automatically disconnects a system from the grid, on some projects. Doing so requires laying a dark fiber optic transmission line to a substation at a cost of $150,000 to $250,000 per mile, and in some cases adding a relay panel that costs $250,000 for projects exceeding 250 kilowatts. The requirement raised the costs of projects like those in Fairfax County by 20 to 40 percent.

Even within sustainable energy alternatives, there is now a conflict between solar and wind power, even though both are forms of solar energy.

Figure 2 – Capacity addition to the electrical grid in gigawatts (Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald).

We need to learn from the Germans that a good way to make progress is to try to make the losers smile. In other words, perhaps those in power might find it beneficial to compensate the “loser” fossil fuel companies in some way—or at least stop vilifying them.

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What Are We Trying to Teach Our Children?

Me and my mother

I started writing this blog on D-Day, Thursday, June 6th (see the June 11, 2019 blog) — 80 years to the day since the Allied troops invaded the shores of Normandy to liberate Europe from the claws of Nazi Germany. A few members of my family and I were liberated on April 13, 1945, by the American army, which was an important part of this invasion. The opening photograph of this blog shows my mother and me shortly after our liberation. I obviously don’t remember much of the occasion of the photograph, but I like to think that we were posing after a mother-son conversation. I imagine my mother tried to explain to me the nature and prospects of our changing reality and our responsibilities to use our liberation for the good of others and the world around us.

80 years later, when I put myself into the context of this blog’s title, the concept of children also applies to my grandchildren. As should be obvious now, I am an old guy, about to retire from a teaching position at a university (see the November 21, 2023 blog), where I have taught Physics for 45 years. My (younger) wife has taught at the same university for even longer. For the last 10 years, she has also taught a course at our Honors College, focused on changes in academic institutions. My youngest grandson just graduated from Rice and was accepted for his PhD at MIT. Retirement or not, I care deeply for our academic institutions. Much of my time teaching was focused on energy use, climate change, and a basic course in Cosmology. In my interpretation, I was teaching about our present global reality and our chances to escape from this reality, if needed. At my departmental retirement party, I asked the students to raise their hands if they belonged to Generation Z (currently those ages 12-27). Less than half raised their hands, even after I clarified the dates (Generation Z: born 1997-2012; Y or Millennials: 1981-1996; X: 1965-1980. For a more general concept of generations, see Wikipedia). Generation Z is the main group that is attending college right now, and therefore they are the ones who will be most impacted by current or upcoming changes to educational policies.

So, when I read a recent newspaper article announcing Harvard Says It Will No Longer Take Positions on Matters Outside of the Universitylast month, I paid attention:

Harvard said on Tuesday that it would now avoid taking positions on matters that are not “relevant to the core function of the university,” accepting the recommendations of a faculty committee that urged the university to dramatically reduce its messages on issues of the day. If put into practice, Harvard would no longer issue official statements of empathy, which it did for Ukraine, after the Russian invasion, and for the victims of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel, for example.

“In issuing official statements of empathy, the university runs the risk of appearing to care more about some places and events than others,” the report said. “And because few, if any, world events can be entirely isolated from conflicting viewpoints, issuing official empathy statements runs the risk of alienating some members of the community by expressing implicit solidarity with others.”

At almost the same time, I read a different article from December of last year: “Experts discuss whether college is still worth it”:

David Deming, Harvard University Professor of Political Economy, explained that after increasing for decades, the college wage premium—the difference in average earnings between college graduates and non-college graduates—has plateaued, but remains around 65%. That is, the average four-year college graduate earns about 65% more than the average high school graduate. The panelists also discussed the cost of going to college, noting that financial aid is available for qualifying low-income students, though it is not always enough to make college affordable. Stephanie Cellini, George Washington University Professor of Public Policy and Economics, pointed out that while the average posted “sticker price” of college has been rising, the “net price”—what students pay after subtracting out financial assistance that doesn’t have to be repaid—is lower than the sticker price that receives so much attention. She notes that the average sticker price has actually been decreasing in recent years. (See a recent discussion of that trend here.) Still, Cellini emphasized that many students have to take out loans to afford college and then struggle to repay these loans. Denisa Gándara, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at UT Austin, added that higher wages are not the only benefit of college attendance. For example, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that college graduates have better physical and mental health. Society also benefits when people go to college; college graduates tend to be more civically engaged, reported Gándara.

In my head, the two articles are strongly related. Of course, I am fully aware that Harvard is taking this position in response to their experiences with student and faculty demonstrations during the present Israel-Hamas war. But the new position is much broader and could have much larger consequences. It can be interpreted as an announcement that the school is not going to take positions on the reality of our current society—and as a result, will not teach students how to understand reality and decide for themselves how to deal with it. Most of the students at Harvard, as at any university, are Generation Z. As I have tried to show in the more than 12 years that I have been writing this blog, humanity is in the middle of at least 5 existential transitions; all of these started around WWII. They include climate change, nuclear energy, declining fertility, global electrification, and digitization. These transitions started around the time that I was born, but they will hopefully last (if some of them do not lead to extinction in the meantime) at least through the lifetime of my grandchildren (I call this time “now” in some of my writing).

My grandchildren belong to Generation Z; if universities will not try to teach them how to analyze these continuing global changes, what is the point of their attending? All of these trends have their roots in science. Now, there are prerequisites for learning how to deal with the real world but there needs to be a next step. If higher education teaches only these prerequisites, without connecting them to the real world, the schools are not doing their jobs and students are right to question being part of such an academic system. Advertising the number of majors that they offer (see October 31, 2023 blog) is not enough if the schools do not offer training for how to deal with changing global environment.

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In Six Months, We Might Lose It All: US States

This series has looked at the progress that the US has been making in the energy transition to sustainable energy sources–specifically, the steps that might be reversed with government changes in the November election. I found a blog that ties into this theme that was recently posted by DSIRE Insight, a project associated with North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center. Figures 1 – 4, taken from that bog, summarize important information. Figure 1 shows the number of climate actions taken in the first quarter of 2023. Only two states–Alabama and Oklahoma–took no action at all.

US map of state decarbonization actions Q1 2023

Figure 1 – Q1 2023 action on power decarbonization and resource planning

Figure 2 shows each state’s largest contributors to electricity generation.

Map of US largest contributing resources to state electric generation mix

Figure 2 – Largest contributing resource to state electric generation mix (2022) Data Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration – Electric Power Monthly, Net Generation by State by Type of Producer by Energy Source (Jan. – Dec. 2022).

Coal is still the main contributor in 11 states. Most states are now generating their electricity using natural gas but many of them are shifting to various forms of solar. Figure 3 shows where they are in this process (as of 2023).

Percentage of Clean Electricity Generated by State (2022)

Figure 3 – Percentage of clean electricity generated by state (2022)
Data Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration – Electric Power Monthly, Net Generation by State by Type of Producer by Energy Source (Jan. – Dec. 2022). Map represents percent of total MWh generated in each state from clean energy sources (biomass, geothermal, hydroelectric, nuclear, solar, and wind).

The Biden administration has committed to bringing the US to a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and a net-zero economy by 2050. The states shown in Figure 4 have also made commitments to reach net zero emissions by 2050. As we know well from experience, however, future commitments can easily change with changing leadership.

100% Clean Energy or Net-Zero Electricity Sector Emissions Targets (May 2023)

Figure 4100% Clean energy or net-zero electricity sector emissions targets (May 2023)

As the maps above show, California is among the states at the forefront of the energy transition in the US. It is not surprising, then, that the energy industry is using California to emphasize some of the difficulties that the transition is facing.  Some of these difficulties are summarized in the article below:

Soaring Solar Power Is Creating Challenges for the U.S. Energy Grid

By Tsvetana Paraskova – May 27, 2024, 5:00 PM CDT

  • Soaring solar installations are causing distortions in the power distribution and transmission systems in top solar-producing states like California.
  • Battery storage could alleviate these challenges, but it is still lagging behind solar capacity additions.
  • Despite the decline in coal power generation, coal still holds a significant share of the U.S. electricity mix, more than any renewable energy source.

No other energy source has seen more rapid growth in the United States over the past half a decade than solar power. But soaring solar installations have begun to distort the power distribution and transmission systems in the top solar-producing states such as California, creating challenges for utilities and the grid.

Battery storage could help alleviate these challenges, and although it is also surging, it is still lagging behind solar capacity additions.

It is no wonder then that despite a continuous decline in U.S. coal power generation, the share of coal in America’s electricity mix is still above 15%, more than any renewable energy source.

All renewable energy sources combined—wind, solar, hydropower, biomass, and geothermal—surpassed coal-fired generation in the U.S. electric power sector for the first time in 2022. But coal still holds about a 16% share of electricity generation, more than wind’s share of around 11%, hydropower’s 6%, or solar power’s 4% share of the electric generation mix.

Solar power has now grown to account for about 6% of total U.S. electric power generation after surging by 155% between 2018 and 2023, per EIA data cited by Reuters columnist Gavin Maguire.

But while solar power has made the U.S. power-generating system greener, it has also made it more volatile, especially in the top solar market, California.

There, peak solar power generation coincides with the lowest residential electricity demand during the midday. When power demand begins to surge after 6 p.m., solar output begins to fade.

Earlier this year, the EIA estimated that solar and battery storage would make up 81% of new U.S. electric-generating capacity in 2024. Developers and power plant owners plan to add 62.8 GW of new utility-scale electric-generating capacity this year, up by 55% compared to the capacity added last year, 40.4 GW. Solar is set to account for the largest share of new capacity in 2024, at 58%, followed by battery storage, at 23%, per EIA forecasts. The growth in solar additions would be almost double last year’s 18.4 GW increase, which was itself a record for annual utility-scale solar installation in the United States.

“As the effects of supply chain challenges and trade restrictions ease, solar continues to outpace capacity additions from other generating resources,” the EIA noted.

Battery storage additions are also expected to shatter records this year, with U.S. battery storage capacity set to nearly double in 2024 as developers plan to add 14.3 GW of battery storage to the existing 15.5 GW this year. In 2023, 6.4 GW of new battery storage capacity was added to the U.S. grid, a 70% annual increase. California and Texas are in the lead when it comes to battery storage additions due to the rapid growth of variable solar and wind capacity in these two states.

“In much of the US, batteries are not yet performing that crucial load-shifting role,” Ed Crooks, Vice-Chair, Americas at Wood Mackenzie, wrote last week.

We are all experimenting and learning how best to run the energy transition. The publication above uses California’s experiences to emphasize some of the difficulties that states encounter. However, the article does not mention the steps that some of the states and the federal government are taking to rectify these difficulties.

I will start with California and Vermont and finish the blog with the federal government.

California

Previous blogs have emphasized the importance of expanding the availability of electric power beyond centralized power utilities to include distributed generation (April 2, 2024 blog). To encourage broad participation in the effort, many states are introducing net metering to store unused power from distributed generation (March 26, 2024 blog). As I mentioned in these blogs, one of the issues with net metering is who pays for the effort. California is now experimenting with ways to address the issue:

Last year, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), with the active support of the state’s largest investor-owned utilities, eviscerated the existing net metering regulations. The new plan, known as NEM 3.0, slashes the amount the utilities have to pay their rooftop solar customers by 75 percent. Ouch! As a result, applications for new rooftop solar systems skyrocketed, as people sought to get in on the gravy before the new rules went into effect. After NEM 3.0, applications fell by about 50 percent. Since then, several large rooftop solar companies have gone bankrupt.

The CPUC justified the change by saying the state needed more batteries to soak up electrons during the day and send them back to the grid in the evening and in fact the number of residential batteries installed in California has jumped. But batteries are expensive and add quite a large amount to the total cost of a rooftop solar system. The amount the utilities now have to pay to access that stored electricity is hardly enough to justify the added expense, but it can lower utility bills if self-consumed by the homeowner.

Vermont

Vermont is trying to mobilize fossil fuel companies to “help”:

Vermont has passed a first-in-the-nation law that will require “Big Oil” to pay for damage caused by climate change, the long-term shift in weather patterns that is heavily influenced by fossil fuel emissions.

Vermont Gov. Phill Scott sent a letter to the state’s General Assembly on Thursday allowing the measure, which proposes to establish the Climate Superfund Cost Recovery Program, to become law without his signature. In that letter, Scott said that “taking on ‘Big Oil’ should not be taken lightly.”

“With just $600,000 appropriated by the Legislature to complete an analysis that will need to withstand intense legal scrutiny from a well-funded defense, we are not positioning ourselves for success,” he said. “I’m deeply concerned about both short- and long-term costs and outcomes.”

“Big Oil” – the world’s biggest oil and gas companies – mostly relies on fossil fuels in their businesses, which are “by far the largest contributor to global climate change,” according to the United Nations. The international group says that fossil fuels account for more than  75% of emissions of greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere and increase global temperatures, leading to more extreme weather events.

Meanwhile, the federal government is trying to make the use of coal more difficult: The other end of these developments are the states shown in Figure 2 that are still running their electricity mainly with coal. In many of these states, much of the land is owned by the federal government. Recently, however, the federal government has been considering ending the federal leases for coal mining:

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The Biden administration on Thursday proposed an end to new coal leasing from federal reserves in the most productive coal mining region in the U.S. as officials seek to limit climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions from burning the fuel. The Bureau of Land Management proposal would affect millions of acres (millions of hectares) of federal lands and underground mineral reserves in the Powder River Basin area of Wyoming and Montana. Thursday’s proposal was made in response to a 2022 court order that said two federal land management plans drafted for the Powder River Basin during former President Donald Trump’s administration had failed to adequately take into account climate change and public health problems caused by burning coal.

The upcoming November elections are not only for president. All arms of government will experience some changes. This is the essence of the democratic system that all of us enjoy. The impact of these elections on the energy transition will be a crucial test of our collective resilience.

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In Six Months, We Might Lose It All: The US Department of Energy

Last week, I mentioned that the Energy Department will play a key role in the implementation of an energy transition. The issue in question was the recent changes that were just issued for FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission). As was mentioned there, this is the commission responsible for regulating the national electricity grid. As such, this committee is one of the most important governmental tools for coordinating the required energy transition. After all, the transition is heavily dependent on a significant increase of electricity use. However, FERC is susceptible to major changes if the presidential election results in the re-election of ex-president Trump.

The Department of Energy is the main federal governmental agency responsible for coordinating the transition (as I will show in next week’s blog, however, it is not the only one). The present administration has now committed to transitioning our energy use away from fossil fuels and into sustainable energy. Most of this policy shift is reversible and thus makes it susceptible to changes in the federal government. For historical reasons, regulating our energy use is not the only job of the Department of Energy. A brief history of the department can be found on Wikipedia.

The best way to illustrate the vulnerabilities is to follow the changes in the departmental budget during President Trump’s tenure, which started in 2017. Figure 1 shows these changes.

Figure 1 – FY2020 request from DOE, FY2020 Congressional Budget Request: Budget in Brief (March 2019). FY2019 enacted and FY2018 enacted from the Joint Explanatory Statement accompanying H.Rept. 115-929 (Conference report) for P.L. 115-244) (Source: EveryCRSReport.com)

The abbreviations in this figure stand for the following:

NNSA: National Nuclear Security Administration

ARPA-E: Advanced Research Projects Agency

Most of the changes that are now being implemented to facilitate the energy transition to more sustainable sources are summarized by a report written by ITIF (Information Technology & Innovation Foundation). The executive summary of this report is given below:

The Biden administration’s FY 2024 budget request (PBR) for the Department of Energy (DOE) calls for an 18 percent increase in investment in clean energy research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) over FY 2023-enacted levels. The 117th Congress passed three landmark bills—the Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA), the CHIPS and Science Act (CHIPS), and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)—that are reshaping energy innovation in the United States. But despite boosts from these bills, the requested levels for many energy RD&D programs trend below the levels that the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and the Center on Global Energy Policy recommended in their 2020 report Energizing America.1 Continuing along Energizing America’s recommended trajectory is vital to develop the climate solutions the world needs while strengthening the competitiveness of U.S. technology developers and manufacturers.

The context for federal clean energy innovation investments is daunting. Unabated fossil fuels still dominate global consumption. New technologies that would drastically reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from many major sources cost substantially more than incumbent solutions, perform too poorly, or are simply unavailable. Although the global energy innovation system still has major gaps, many countries have advanced assertive programs targeting specific sectors that collectively threaten U.S. leadership, including in public funding for energy RD&D, where the United States has long been the top investor.

Yet, had it kept pace with growth in the U.S. economy since DOE’s founding in 1978, the department’s RD&D budget today would be $32 billion, more than three times its level in fiscal year 2023. The bipartisan consensus that led to recent legislation and funding increases must be sustained and further elevated to approach that level again, as numerous expert studies have advocated. At a time when the nation really needs a big boost from innovation to address competitiveness, climate change, and supply chain resilience, DOE’s budget is still a modest 0.04 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)—below several peer countries such as Norway, France, Finland, and even China. Congress should seize the opportunity to sustain the momentum, accelerate domestic clean energy industries, and shape the U.S. response to climate change. This report describes DOE’s RD&D programs, assesses significant updates to them, and discusses notable gaps that still remain. It is supported by an interactive data visualization that will be updated throughout the FY 2024 budget cycle.

As was mentioned before, the Department of Energy is responsible for putting most of these changes into effect, meaning that the department is vulnerable to changes in the priorities of the federal government. To outline these vulnerabilities, we will have to examine the present structure of the department through its web page (Department of Energy). The website is divided into the four focus areas of the department: Science and Innovation, Energy Economy, Security and Safety, and Energy Saving. The Science and Innovation section is the most vulnerable to governmental changes and will be described in some detail below, followed by short descriptions of the other three sections:

Science and Innovation:

As a science agency, the Energy Department plays an important role in the innovation economy. The Department catalyzes the transformative growth of basic and applied scientific research, the discovery and development of new clean energy technologies and prioritizes scientific innovation as a cornerstone of US economic prosperity.

Through initiatives like the Loan Programs Office and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the Department funds cutting-edge research and the deployment of innovative clean energy technologies. The Department also encourages collaboration and cooperation between industry, academia and government to create a vibrant scientific ecosystem.

In addition, the Energy Department’s 17 National Laboratories are a system of intellectual assets unique among world scientific institutions and serve as regional engines of economic growth for states and communities across the country.

This section of the website includes the following subsections: Energy Sources, Clean Energy, Efficiency, Artificial Intelligence, Climate Change, Vehicles, and STEM.

Digging deeper into Argonne National Laboratory, one of the 17 national research laboratories mentioned above, one finds the National Virtual Climate Laboratory:

The NVCL is a portal for those working on the climate crisis, such as researchers, students, faculty, and other interested organizations. Portal users can find a wide range of national laboratory experts, programs, projects, activities, and user facilities that are engaged in climate research across the BER portfolio.

NVCL Objectives

  1. Centralize access to DOE climate research

Offer a well-curated, easily accessible, plain-language inventory of BER projects related to climate research and user facilities. The portal content is updated regularly.

  1. List related opportunities

Provide students, faculty, and research scientists access to internship, educational, and training opportunities at DOE and participating DOE laboratories. Opportunities provide coaching and mentoring in the skills they need to ensure success in their careers.

  1. Encourage collaborations

Facilitate robust, self-sustaining collaborations between national laboratories and interested organizations, including colleges and universities that serve underrepresented students such as Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Short descriptions of the other three sections are given below:

Energy Economy. Mainly includes related economic data. Divided into sections that include Resources for Small Businesses; data; Work Force Training’ and Subtopics such as Prices and Trends, Funding and Finances, Federal States and Local Governments, Manufacturing and Inventions and Patents.

Security and Safety:

The Energy Department plays an important and multifaceted role in protecting national security. In addition to our work to increase nuclear nonproliferation and ensure the security of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, we manage the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, invest in protections against cyber and physical attacks on U.S. energy infrastructure, conduct programs to ensure worker health and safety, and provide training tools and procedures for emergency response and preparedness.

I was not authorized to open the “Nuclear Security & Nonproliferation” part of the website (I have no idea why such information is posted on the Internet!), however, the part that is accessible is the main page of the NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration).

The last section of the Department of Energy website is dedicated to self-explanatory Energy Saving.

Next week’s blog will finish the “In Six Months, We Might Lose It All” series by focusing on individual US states.

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In Six Months, We Might Lose It All: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)

FERC
(Source: Investopedia, Madelyn Goodnight)

The April 23rd blog ended with the following paragraph:

I will wait until I read the new FERC report on the issue and start next week’s blog addressing the international aspects of these issues. Specifically, how developing countries hope to generate the resources to finance the transition. Without their cooperation, the energy transition is bound to fail and all of us will suffer the consequences.

As promised, the report came out on time, last week. Below is the fact sheet of its findings:

Fact Sheet |Building for the Future Through Electric Regional Transmission Planning and Cost Allocation

FERC’s new transmission and cost allocation rule, Order No. 1920, continues the essential work of the Commission – ensuring a reliable grid – by requiring the nation’s transmission providers to plan for the transmission we know we will need in the future.

This rule adopts specific requirements addressing how transmission providers must conduct long-term planning for regional transmission facilities and determine how to pay for them, so needed transmission is built. The final rule reflects more than 15,000 pages of comments from nearly 200 stakeholders representing all sectors of the electric power industry; environmental, consumer and other advocacy groups; and state and other government entities.

The grid rule contains these major elements:

  • Requirement to conduct and periodically update long-term transmission planning to anticipate future needs.
  • Requirement to consider a broad set of benefits when planning new facilities.
  • Requirement to identify opportunities to modify in-kind replacement of existing transmission facilities to increase their transfer capability, known as “right-sizing.”
  • Customers pay only for projects from which they benefit.
  • Expands states’ pivotal role throughout the process of planning, selecting, and determining how to pay for transmission facilities.

Long-Term Regional Transmission Planning

More specifically, the rule requires each transmission operator to:

  • Produce a regional transmission plan of at least 20 years to identify long-term needs and the facilities to meet them.
  • Conduct this long-term planning at least once every five years using a plausible and diverse set of at least three scenarios that incorporate specific factors and use best available data.
  • Apply seven specific benefits to determine whether any identified regional proposals will efficiently and cost-effectively address long-term transmission needs.
  • Include an evaluation process to identify long-term regional transmission facilities for potential selection in the regional plan.
  • Include a process giving states and interconnection customers the opportunity to fund all, or a portion, of the cost of a long-term regional transmission facilities that otherwise would not meet the transmission provider’s selection criteria.
  • In the event of delays or cost overruns, reevaluate long-term regional transmission facilities that previously were selected in a regional transmission plan.
  • Consider transmission facilities that address interconnection-related needs identified multiple times in existing generator interconnection processes, but that have not been built.
  • Consider the use of Grid Enhancing Technologies such as dynamic line ratings, advanced power flow control devices, advanced conductors and transmission switching.

How to Pay for Transmission

The grid rule contains these cost-allocation provisions:

  • Before applicants submit compliance filings, they must open a six-month engagement period with relevant state entities.
  • Applicants must propose a default method of cost allocation to pay for selected long-term regional transmission facilities.
  • Applicants may propose, a state agreement process that lasts for up to six months after a project is selected for participants to determine, and transmission providers to file, a cost allocation method for the selected facilities.

Enhanced Transparency, “Right-Sizing” and Interregional Transmission Coordination

The grid rule requires transmission providers to:

  • Be transparent regarding local transmission planning information and conduct stakeholder meetings during the regional transmission planning cycle about the local process.
  • Identify opportunities to modify in-kind replacement of existing transmission facilities to increase their transfer capability, known as “right-sizing,” when needed.
  • Give incumbent transmission owners a right of first refusal to develop these “right-sized” replacement facilities.
  • Revise existing interregional transmission coordination processes to reflect the new long-term regional transmission planning reforms.

Order No. 1920 takes effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.  Compliance filings with respect to most of the rule’s requirements are due within 10 months of the effective date, while filings to comply with the interregional transmission coordination requirements are due within 12 months of the effective date.

The media response was immediate. I am including two examples: one from the NYT and one from Forbes:

NYT: New Rules to Overhaul Electric Grids Could Boost Wind and Solar Power

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the biggest changes in more than a decade to the way U.S. power lines are planned and funded.

Federal regulators on Monday approved sweeping changes to how America’s electric grids are planned and funded, in a move that supporters hope could spur thousands of miles of new high-voltage power lines and make it easier to add more wind and solar energy.

The new rule by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees interstate electricity transmission, is the most significant attempt in years to upgrade and expand the country’s creaking electricity network. Experts have warned that there aren’t nearly enough high-voltage power lines being built today, putting the country at greater risk of blackouts from extreme weather while making it harder to shift to renewable sources of energy and cope with rising electricity demand.

A big reason for the slow pace of grid expansion is that operators rarely plan for the long term, the commission said.

The nation’s New Rules to Overhaul Electric Grids Could Boost Wind and Solar Power are overseen by a patchwork of utilities and regional grid operators that mainly focus on ensuring the reliability of electricity to homes and businesses. When it comes to building new transmission lines, grid operators tend to be reactive, responding after a wind-farm developer asks to connect to the existing network or once a reliability problem is spotted.

The new federal rule, which was two years in the making, requires grid operators around the country to identify needs 20 years into the future, taking into account factors like changes in the energy mix, the growing number of states that require wind and solar power and the risks of extreme weather.

Grid planners would have to evaluate the benefits of new transmission lines, such as whether they would lower electricity costs or reduce the risk of blackouts, and develop methods for splitting the costs of those lines among customers and businesses.

“We must plan our nation’s grid for the long term,” said Willie Phillips, a Democrat who chairs the energy commission. “Our country’s aging grid is being tested in ways that we’ve never seen before. Without significant action now, we won’t be able to keep the lights on in the face of increasing demand, extreme weather, and new technologies.”

Forbes: Renewables Will Skyrocket Under New Transmission Policies

The transmission system must modernize and expand to meet the demands of the 21st Century. Indeed, the growth of artificial intelligence, data centers, and electric vehicles — powered by green energy — means the country must at least double regional transmission capacity.

That’s why the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) voted 2-to-1 Monday to modernize the nation’s long-distance high-powered transmission policies — geared to meeting the Biden Administration’s decarbonization goals and to harden the grid to withstand extreme weather that could wreak havoc on local economies.

The changes have multiple ramifications: It will help with backstop authority—or the ability to build transmission when progress slows. Over the next decade, it will lead to considerably more renewable energy and noticeably less coal-fired power. For both reasons, litigation will abound, although the regulatory commissioners considered that before approving the new policies.

FERC also revised its backstop authority. That means the feds can intervene if the states fail to push through vital — log-jammed — projects. “FERC’s backstop siting rule will help ensure that no one state can veto transmission lines that are in the general interest of the nation,” says Cullen Howe, senior advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Energy Department will play a key role in the implementation:

The Biden administration on Thursday finalized a rule meant to speed up federal permits for major transmission lines, part of a broader push to expand America’s electric grids.

Administration officials are increasingly worried that their plans to fight climate change could falter unless the nation can quickly add vast amounts of grid capacity to handle more wind and solar power and to better tolerate extreme weather. The pace of construction for high-voltage power lines has sharply slowed since 2013, and building new lines can take a decade or more because of permitting delays and local opposition.

The Energy Department is trying to use the limited tools at its disposal to pour roughly $20 billion into grid upgrades and to streamline approvals for new lines. But experts say a rapid, large-scale grid expansion may ultimately depend on Congress.

Under the rule announced on Thursday, the Energy Department would take over as the lead agency in charge of federal environmental reviews for certain interstate power lines and would aim to issue necessary permits within two years. Currently, the federal approval process can take four years or more and often involves multiple agencies each conducting their own separate reviews.

At approximately the same time, news came from Florida, focusing our thinking on the immediate future. In six months, depending on the results of the national election, all of this progress may evaporate into thin air and we may again find ourselves powerless to fight climate change:

Florida’s state government will no longer be required to consider climate change when crafting energy policy under legislation signed Wednesday by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican.

The new law, which passed the Florida Legislature in March and takes effect on July 1, will also prohibit the construction of offshore wind turbines in state waters and will repeal state grant programs that encourage energy conservation and renewable energy.

The legislation also deletes requirements that state agencies use climate-friendly products and purchase fuel-efficient vehicles. And it prevents any municipality from restricting the type of fuel that can be used in an appliance, such as a gas stove.

The legislation, along with two other bills Mr. DeSantis signed on Wednesday, “will keep windmills off our beaches, gas in our tanks, and China out of our state,” the governor wrote on the social media platform X. “We’re restoring sanity in our approach to energy and rejecting the agenda of the radical green zealots.”

It all depends on us, whether we lose the ability to fight our contribution to global climate change (remember our “self-inflicted genocide”), or we are able to amplify our efforts to mitigate and adapt to the changes. I will try in future blogs to record our efforts on all levels, including describing where we are now and what are we at risk of losing. This blog started with FERC; the next one will proceed to the US Department of Energy.

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Minimizing the Cost of the Transition

The last two blogs tried to make the case that—without the full participation of developing countries—the energy transition away from fossil fuels is bound to fail. In the first of these two blogs (April 30th) I quoted two paragraphs from the long IEA (International Energy Agency) executive summary of the issue (Executive summary – Financing Clean Energy Transitions in Emerging and Developing Economies – Analysis – IEA).  Last week’s report referred to an oil industry source that concluded that the world is short of necessary funding for the transition by 2 trillion US$, and will likely never be able to close the gap. The dependence of developing countries on rich countries to provide the financing for this transition should be viewed as an important trigger for a catastrophic failure to complete a global transition. One way to counter such failure and promote global resilience would be to minimize the cost needed for the transition. This blog is focused on such attempts.

I will start by quoting more from the same executive summary of the IEA report that was quoted in the April 30th blog, finishing with a summary of the case studies it has presented:

The transformation begins with reliable clean power, grids and efficiency…

Transforming the power sector and boosting investment in the efficient use of clean electricity are key pillars of sustainable development. Electricity consumption in emerging and developing economies is set to grow around three times the rate of advanced economies, and the low costs of wind and solar power, in particular, should make them the technologies of choice to meet rising demand if the infrastructure and regulatory frameworks are in place. Societies can reap multiple benefits from investment in clean power and modern digitalised electricity networks, as well as spending on energy efficiency and electrification via greener buildings, appliances and electric vehicles. These investments drive the largest share of the emissions reductions required over the next decade to meet international climate goals. Innovative mechanisms with international backing to refit, repurpose or retire existing coal plants are an essential component of power sector transformations.

Action on emissions in emerging and developing economies is very cost-effective

The average cost of reducing emissions in these economies is estimated to be around half the level in advanced economies. All countries need to bring down emissions, but clean energy investment in emerging and developing economies is a particularly cost-effective way to tackle climate change. The opportunity is underscored by the amount of new equipment and infrastructure that is being purchased or built. Where clean technologies are available and affordable – and financing options available – integrating sustainable, smart choices into new buildings, factories and vehicles from the outset is much easier than adapting or retrofitting at a later stage.

Transitions in the developing world must be built on access and affordability

Affordability is a key concern for consumers, while governments have to pursue multiple energy-related development goals, starting with universal energy access. There are almost 800 million people who do not have access to electricity today and 2.6 billion people who do not have access to clean cooking options. The vast majority of these people are in emerging and developing economies, and the pandemic has set back financing of projects to expand access. Efficiency is key to least-cost and sustainable outcomes. For example, meeting rising demand for cooling with highly efficient air conditioners will keep energy bills down for households – and minimise costs for the system as a whole. Action to provide clean cooking solutions and tackle other emissions will have major benefits for air quality: 15 of the 25 most polluted cities in the world are in emerging and developing economies, and air pollution is a major cause of premature death.

One obvious step to cost-effectively increase resilience is to be more strategic with resources. A good example could be undergrounding power lines (see September 5, 2023 blog). It is an expensive proposition and not every part of the grid needs the same protections. Parts that need better protections (hospitals, military facilities, campuses, etc.) can be served by smaller mobile grids (mini- or microgrids) that can get better protection and can work either on their own or connect to and disconnect from the main grid. The only difference between mini-grids and microgrids is their size, with no sharp line to distinguish between them.

Microgrids have been discussed throughout this blog. Just put the word into the search box for a refresher on my related posts. Here are a couple good places to start: the guest blog by Elisa Wood, titled “Microgrids” (May 6, 2014), and the blog titled “Microgrids – History is Catching Up” (April 29, 2014), about our film, “Quest for Energy,” which documents the microgrid that brought electricity to a small town in the Sundarbans region in India. The description of the film in that blog omits a personal note about something that took place during our travel, so I will add it here. During our two trips to India to make the film, my trip was divided into two parts; in the first part, my wife joined me as a “typical” American tourist and we visited many popular tourist destinations. In the second part of the trip, my wife returned home, and I proceeded to Kolkata to join the team that produced the film.

At the start of the first part of our first trip, we stayed in a hotel in Delhi. There were many other Americans in the hotel. During breakfast, an American lady asked me why we came to India. I described the film that we were about to produce to her; I still remember her reaction. My memory is not good enough for a direct quote but she looked at me with an approving look and spoke about a conspiracy theory with me. I still remember the Northeast blackout of 2003. One of the stories that spread around was that in certain neighborhoods (she specified which ones), people noticed a significant increase in pregnancies after the blackout. She gave me a half-smile and concluded that I was there to prevent people from “swamping the planet” with too many Indian babies. The fear of being “swamped” by the high fertility of developing countries was more common in the second half of the 20th century than it is now and was shared by many. It can be viewed as a predecessor of “replacement theory” (see my March 5, 2024 blog), which now dominates certain circles’ discussions of immigration policies.

Racism aside, the movie, “Quest for Energy,” showed the process of the globalization of electricity use (that I have described in previous blogs), which almost always proceeds through micro- and mini-grids. The newer aspect is the use of these facilities to enhance equity and resilience in both developed and developing countries on their ways to convert to “smart grids.” This is subject to extensive research that I will describe in future blogs.

This is obviously not the only cost-effective way to participate in the energy transition.

Throughout most of my scientific career, the dream of most scientists who have done research on solar cells was to be cost-competitive with fossil fuels. We have now reached that point. Solar and wind have become the dominant global primary energy sources; both are forms of solar energy (see November 5, 2019, blog). Figure 1 shows the changes in photovoltaic prices. Most of the declining prices are triggered by China’s efforts in this field. The recent drop into negative prices, shown in Figure 1, was discussed before (see June 9, 2020 blog); it indicates that supply is starting to exceed demand.

Graph of solar panel pricesFigure 1 – Solar panel prices in US$/Watt (Source: Our World in Data)

The Chinese continue to dominate production of solar panels; this is already triggering tariffs in various quarters, which are not helpful for the global energy transition.

However, the global energy transition is still highly dependent on local politics. The political situation in the US resembles 2016 (see the December 18, 2018 blog). Perhaps the most consequential international agreement on how to proceed with the global energy transition was the Paris Agreement, which was signed in December 2015. The following year, Ex-President Trump was elected to the presidency. One of his first actions was to take the US out of this agreement, an action that slowed down the transition considerably. This year, former president Trump is again the leading Republican candidate, with a considerable chance of succeeding. If he becomes president again, there is no reason to believe that he will act differently. Next week I will focus on the US government’s role in the transition—specifically, the activities most sensitive to changes in political power.

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