Climate Change Blog 44
Facts on the Ground:
California went from one extreme, drought and wildfires, to another, heavy rain, flooding, landslides and wind in the Bay Area and blizzard and heavy snowfall in the Sierra Nevada. Meteorologists spoke of a “bomb cyclone” and an “atmospheric river” to drive home just how unusual this late October storm was.
The vast storm covered Marin County to the area just south of Big Sur to southern British Columbia. After heavy rainfall in Santa Barbara County residents that were not told to evacuate were advised to shelter in place and go to inner rooms or higher floors because of life-threatening flash flooding and debris flows in the Alisal Fire burn area. Where drought and fire had destroyed vegetation, there was nothing to hold back rushing mud, rocks or vegetation that may sound like a freight train. Such dangers existed in many areas including Fresno and Madera counties as heavy rainfall made the ground susceptible to slides in the Creek Burn scar area. About 100,000 customers were without power in California, according to PowerOutage.US, a site that tracks outages.
Oregon and Washington experienced winds up to 61mph which caused at least two deaths near Seattle, where a tree fell on a car. About 38,000 customers lost power in Washington, PowerOutage.US reported and a few thousand customers in Oregon were without power as well.
“The atmospheric river is aiming a fire hose, if you will, into our area,” said Sean Miller, a meteorologist for the Weather Service in Monterey, CA. An atmospheric river is a concentrated plume of moisture that extends over the ocean, typically in the troposphere, the lowest layer of the atmosphere, Mr. Miller said. The current trough was angled toward the North Bay, he said.
In the Pacific Northwest, a bomb cyclone was expected to push the atmospheric river south, affecting areas south of San Francisco, Mr. Miller said. It’s true name is “explosive cyclogenesis” which refers to a storm where pressure drops 24 millibars in 24 hours — and in this case it dropped that much in nearly 12 hours – and brings heavy rain and hurricane-force winds.
“This is more typical of something we tend to see in December or January,” he said, pointing out that the confluence of the two meteorological phenomena was “anomalous.”
In British Columbia, nearly 7,000 customers in the Lower Mainland and Sunshine Coast lost power as did 5,500 Vancouver Island customers as wicked winds battered B.C.’s southern coast. More than 3,300 homes were without power in Surrey and Langley. B.C. Hydro says its customers in Sechelt, Texada, Gambier, and Keats Island were without power overnight. Cortes Island will remain without power due to downed wires and the lack of ferry service to the island.
The incredibly intense low-pressure system and heavy winds created monster swells that caused a Victoria-bound cargo ship to lose 40 containers overboard. The MV Zim Kingston is moored off the coast of Victoria and caught fire.
Buoys near the storm reported waves in excess of 12 metres (40 feet). A buoy off Tofino recorded a pressure of 942.6 mb which is a new Pacific Northwest low pressure record. The previous record was 943 mb, which was recorded during post-tropical cyclone Harriet in 1977.
Hurricane Ida was an exceptional storm. It lasted from August 28 until September 4, it reached Category 4, with sustained winds of 150 miles an hour (and a max of 172mph) it caused damage in Cuba, Venezuela, Jamaica, Colombia, Cayman Islands, Louisiana and most of the East Coast of the US. It caused many deaths along its long path. It was the second-most damaging and intense hurricane to make landfall in Louisiana (behind Hurricane Katrina in 2005). About one million people lost power and much of New Orleans was without electricity as all eight transmission lines that deliver power to the city were knocked out of service. The storm caused catastrophic flooding across the Northeastern US including the drowning deaths of 11 inhabitants of basement apartments in Queens, NY. It was the sixth-costliest storm on record, having caused at least $65.25 billion in damages, of which $18 billion was in insured losses in Louisiana, and $584 million was from agriculture damage in the US. It caused $16 to 24 billion in flooding damage in the Northeastern US, making it the costliest storm to hit the region since Hurricane Sandy in 2012. On August 29, the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Ida made landfall near Port Fourchon, Louisiana, devastating the town of Grand Isle. Nearby hospitals were already full of Covid patients in a state with one of the lower rates of vaccinations. People fled to shelters where the fear of transmission of the highly contagious Delta variant was high.
The storm continued north and east, leaving over 100,000 in Mississippi without power and causing flooding, power outages and destruction up to New England. It arrived in NYC Sept 1 delivering record-breaking rains that disrupted much of the area’s transportation for two days and stranded thousands of travelers as the area airports canceled dozens of flights.
Local officials noted that under-river tunnels were strengthened after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. The next step will be to improve coastline resiliency to mitigate floods and prevent them from overwhelming street drains.
Scientists say that unusually warm Atlantic surface temperatures have helped to increase storm activity. “It’s very likely that human-caused climate change contributed to that anomalously warm ocean,” said James P. Kossin, a climate scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Climate change is making it more likely for hurricanes to behave in certain ways.” Wind intensity has increased and storm surge is higher given sea level rise. For every degree Celsius air warms, it can hold about 7% more water vapor leading to heavier rainfall. There has been a 25% increase in rainfall in the US as storms are moving more slowly, perhaps due to changes in atmospheric wind patterns. The warming planet is producing more intense storms more rapidly. We can expect future storms to produce higher amounts of rainfall and greater death and devastation.
Wildfires too continued to devastate much of the western us. The Alisal fire, near Santa Barbara, forced evacuations and consumed 6,000 acres in 24 hours. Residents awoke on Oct 12 to an order: “Please leave the area immediately.”
Alisal is one of the latest fires in California where four 100,000-acre-plus mega-fires were burning in October, including the Dixie fire, which began in July and has consumed more than 963,000 acres. Nine of the 20 largest fires in California have occurred since 2020, according to Cal Fire. Wildfires are a regular occurrence throughout the West, but scientists say that the prolonged periods of abnormally high temperatures this summer that have contributed to the devastating fires are in keeping with the expected effects of climate change and will worsen.
The world has already begun to experience increases in heat waves, droughts and other types of extreme weather over the past several decades as the atmosphere has warmed, and most climate models predict those kinds of events will increase as warming continues.
It has been a busy few months for meteorologists as the arrival of the peak 2021 hurricane season — August through November — led to a run of named storms that formed in quick succession, bringing stormy weather, flooding and damaging winds to parts of the US and the Caribbean.
Tropical Storm Mindy hit the Florida Panhandle on Sept. 8, just hours after it formed in the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Larry, which formed on Sept. 1, strengthened to a Category 3 storm two days later. It struck Canada as a Category 1 hurricane and caused widespread power outages in Newfoundland.
Not long before them, in mid-August, Tropical Storm Fred made landfall in the Florida Panhandle and Hurricane Grace hit Haiti and Mexico. Tropical Storm Henri knocked out power and brought record rainfall to the Northeastern US on Aug. 22. Hurricane Nicholas hit Texas as a Category 1 hurricane knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of customers.
In southwest Louisiana, many homes were still covered in blue tarps after Hurricane Laura tore the roofs off in 2020. More than 52,000 state residents have requested free installation of durable tarps through Blue Roof, a program funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
As bad as the hurricanes and wildfires have been, the greatest killer in New Orleans wasn’t Hurricane Ida, it was the heat. The storm knocked out power so even those with air conditioners could not use them. For days. People died in their over-heated apartments and homes. Ten of the 14 people killed by Ida died from heat exposure. Experts say there are probably more. All 10 people were in their 60s and 70s, and they died during four broiling days, the last of which was Sept. 5, a full week after the storm.
“Heat is a hazard that we simply haven’t given sufficient attention to,” said David Hondula, a professor at Arizona State University who studies the effects of sweltering temperatures. “All cities are in the early stages of understanding what an effective heat response looks like.”
Heat most likely contributes to more deaths each year than are officially recorded, Professor Hondula said. Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports fewer than 700 heat-related deaths a year, some studies suggest there have been 5,000 to 12,000. Last month, The New York Times found that 600 more people died in Oregon and Washington during the heat wave the last week of June, than normally would have, a number three times the state officials’ estimates of heat-related deaths.
The 2018 National Climate Assessment, a major scientific report by 13 federal agencies, notes that the number of hot days is increasing, and the frequency of heat waves in the US increased from an average of two per year in the 1960s to six per year by the 2010s. The period from June through August this year was the hottest on record in the US, exceeding even the Dust Bowl summer of 1936, as per NOAA.
The average temperature this summer in the contiguous US was 74F, slightly exceeding the record set in the summer of 1936, when heat led to the death of thousands of Americans and catastrophic crop failure.
Five states — California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Utah — reported their warmest summers on record, while 16 other states reported “a top-five warmest summer on record,” the agency said.
Despite the fact that the cost of wind and solar energy has fallen so far so fast, areas such as New Orleans beholden to the oil and gas industry are still building gas power plants. In New Orleans East, tens of thousands of residents help fund through their monthly bills to Entergy, the city’s sole electric utility, a 128-megawatt gas power plant. It cost $120 million and went online last year with a promise that it would provide quick, reliable start-up power in event of another powerful storm. It didn’t.
More than a week after the Category 4 storm destroyed transmission lines and cut the city off from the power grid, many in New Orleans were still sitting in dark, humid homes and many died. The coroner said, after the city’s new power plant’s failed “black start,” a quick delivery of power in the middle of a blackout, that the prolonged heat was too much to endure. Louisiana is forecast to suffer dangerously hot temperatures on 115 days a year by 2050, more than triple the current number.
Residents and environmentalists had pushed the city to diversify its energy approaches, including investing in bulk battery storage and solar energy, hardening transmission infrastructure and minimizing overall demand. After the storm passed and the sun shone, solar panels could have delivered power and so could batteries.
“We, the citizens and the ratepayers that were against the plant, were correct,” said Dawn Hebert, the president of the East New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission. In exchange for accepting another industrial plant in their neighborhood, she said, New Orleans East residents had been promised they would have more reliable power. Instead, when Ida hit, “New Orleans East was not powered up.”
That the City Council had the sole authority to approve the plant was mystifying: that should have been the job of the Louisiana Public Service Commission. An internal city watchdog found in 2015 that New Orleans was the only city in the US charged with regulating an investor-owned energy utility in a state where there was an existing state agency that could do so. Thus, Entergy avoids direct oversight by energy regulation experts.
Residents opposed the construction of the plant, but the City Council heard testimony in support of the plant. Such testimony was due, in part, to a firm hired by Entergy that paid actors $60 apiece to go to Council meetings and pretend to support the development, an illegal tactic that led to a $5 million fine.
Entergy officials have continued to insist that relying on locally generated renewable power to tide the city through a hurricane remains a pipe dream. They argue that gas and oil are more dependable; meanwhile, 90% of New Orleans customers waited nearly two weeks for the power to be restored, and for nearly 421,000 of Entergy’s customers outside of the city, they remained without power in excess of two weeks, according to the utility.
In Nepal and India the monsoon season generally slows and storms tend to weaken by mid-Oct. Not this year. The water in the Bay of Bengal was unusually warm and higher ambient temperature added more water vapor to the atmosphere which produced unseasonably heavy rainfall that destroyed crops, washed away bridges and killed dozens of people. Landslides and flooding damaged homes and stranded thousands of tourists flocking to vacation spots and pilgrimage sites during Hinduism’s festive season, which coincides with the fall harvest.
“Historically October is the start of post-monsoon,” said R.K. Jenamani, a senior scientist from India’s meteorological department. “But this time what happened was that western disturbances were very, very intense.”
In the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, days of heavy rainfall — in one place, the most since 1897 — killed at least 46 people and stranded hundreds more with flooded lakes swamping roads.
South Asia’s monsoons have always been strong, but the recent scenes of death and destruction in the region are additional reminders of the urgency of climate change, experts say.
More than 40 people in Kerala drowned or were killed in the recent landslides and floods, said Neethu V. Thomas, a hazard analyst at Kerala’s disaster management agency.
Landslides and floods also struck Nepal with at least 50 people killed in flooded villages. Hundreds of hillside-houses were swept away. Highways were blocked, and a regional airport, its tarmac submerged, canceled flights.
Heavy rain damaged rice paddies ready for harvest, causing Nepal’s farmers to despair and raising fears of a food crisis in one of the world’s poorest countries.
“Rainfalls in October were reported in the past, too, but not to this intensity,” said Ajaya Dixit, an expert on climate change vulnerability in Nepal. “Climate change is real, and it is happening.”
Two meetings addressing twin existential threats are of note: climate change and biodiversity collapse. Environment officials, diplomats and other observers from around the world met online in mid-September, and a small group assembled in person in Kunming, China, for the 15th United Nations biodiversity conference. Countries are gathering to address the on-going biodiversity collapse that threatens the existence of over 1 million species and could alter life on earth as we know it.
Because of the pandemic, the conference has been broken into two parts. The virtual portion was largely about summoning political will. National leaders will meet again in China in the spring to ratify a series of targets to stem biodiversity loss. The goal is to adopt a pact for nature akin to the Paris Agreement on climate change, said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the executive secretary of the convention.
The US is the only country in the world besides the Vatican that is not a party to the underlying treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity, due to Republican opposition. American representatives participate on the sidelines of the talks, as do scientists and environmental advocates.
The second meeting will involve 20,000 government leaders, journalists, activists and celebrities from around the world meeting in Glasgow, Scotland beginning Oct 31, for a climate summit.
The stakes at the two meetings are equally high, many leading scientists say, but the biodiversity crisis has received far less attention. “If the global community continues to see it as a side event, and they continue thinking that climate change is now the thing to really listen to, by the time they wake up on biodiversity it might be too late,” said Francis Ogwal, one of the leaders of the working group charged with shaping an agreement among nations.
Because climate change and biodiversity loss are inter-related, they must be addressed together, scientists say. But their current global summits are separate, and one overshadows the other. “Awareness is not yet where it should be,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, a biologist and climate researcher who has helped lead international research into both issues. He calls them “the two existential crises that humankind has elicited on the planet.”
Increasing numbers of religious groups and environmentalists call the twin threats the moral crises of today. But the threats are existential because without a healthy ecology, the future of human survival is at risk. “The diversity of all of the plants and all of the animals, they actually make the planet function,” said Anne Larigauderie, an ecologist who directs the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. “They ensure that we have oxygen in the air, that we have fertile soils.”
Ecosystems will stop working after a certain level of disruption. The average abundance of native species in most major terrestrial biomes has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900, according to a major report on the state of the world’s biodiversity published by Dr. Larigauderie’s panel.
Climate change is a complicated driver of biodiversity loss but more direct causes on land is habitat destruction via activities like farming, mining and logging. At sea, it’s overfishing. There are many other causes, including pollution and introduced species that drive out native ones.
“When you have two concurrent existential crises, you don’t get to pick only one to focus on — you must address both, no matter how challenging,” said Brian O’Donnell, director of the Campaign for Nature, an advocacy group. “This is the equivalent of having a flat tire and a dead battery in your car at the same time. You’re still stuck if you only fix one.”
Last year, officials reported the global failure to achieve the targets of the previous global agreement on biodiversity, made in 2010. If the new commitments are not translated into “effective policies and concrete actions,” Ms. Mrema said, “we risk repeating the failures of the last decade.”
The working draft includes 21 targets that act as a blueprint for reducing biodiversity loss. They include, in summary:
-Create a plan, across the entire land and waters of each country, to best locate areas for activities like farming and mining while also retaining intact areas.
-Ensure sustainable hunting/fishing.
-Reduce agricultural runoff, pesticides and plastic pollution.
-Use ecosystems to limit climate change by storing GHGs in nature.
-Reduce subsidies and other financial programs that harm biodiversity by at least $500 billion per year, the estimated government support for fossil fuels and questionable agricultural practices.
-Safeguard at least 30% of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030. (Recently, nine philanthropic groups donated $5 billion to the effort, known as 30x30.)
With the global human population still increasing, scientists say that transformational change is required for the planet to be able to sustain us. “We actually need to see every human endeavor, if you will, through the lens of biodiversity and nature,” Dr. Larigauderie said. Since everyone depends on nature, she noted, “everyone is part of the solution.”
As of this writing, it is still unclear what climate action will be included in the twin bills pending in Congress. They include a $1 trillion infrastructure package with bipartisan support that passed the Senate, and a $3.5 trillion budget package proposed by House Democrats alone that is likely down to under $2 trillion now.
Biden has framed this moment as the country’s best chance to save the planet. That Biden is serious about including as much as possible is clear: “The nation and the world are in peril,” he said in Queens, after 11 people drowned in floodwaters from Hurricane Ida. “And that’s not hyperbole. That is a fact. They’ve been warning us the extreme weather would get more extreme over the decade, and we’re living in it real time now.”
The twin bills, as originally drafted, contain what would be the most significant climate action ever taken by the US. And, because Democrats could lose control of Congress after 2022 and because Republicans disdain climate legislation, it could be years before another opportunity arises — a delay that scientists say the planet cannot afford.
The intent of the bills is to quickly transform energy and transportation, the country’s two largest sources of GHGs, from fossil fuel-based systems (gas, oil and coal) to carbon-free systems (sun, wind and nuclear power).
But Sen. Joe Manchin has killed such a transformation. Despite a precipitous decline in the US, the coal industry still carries clout in West Virginia. Manchin has personal financial interests in the industry; he owns stock valued at between $1 million and $5 million in Enersystems Inc., a coal brokerage. Last year he reported earnings of $491,949 in dividends from this stock.
Plan B appears to be a proposed carbon tax that would likely target producers of petrochemicals and diesel, but not gasoline, to shield most American drivers at the pump. The carbon tax would affect polluting industries that would pay a fee based on the amount of CO2 they emit. This tax is seen by economists as the most effective way to cut the fossil fuel emissions that are heating the planet. Stay tuned.
A White House official said that staff members were still engaging with members of Congress and had not yet agreed to a final version of climate provisions.
The cut to the climate change program could be among the first consequential decisions in what will very likely be a painful process for Democrats as they pare their ambitious $3.5 trillion domestic policy package. Manchin and another Democrat, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have said they will not support that spending level. The White House will negotiate with Democrats over cuts to dozens of programs, as lawmakers try to whittle the original bill down.
Biden and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill have set a deadline of Oct. 31 for a deal that would enable Democrats to pass the bill with their razor-thin majorities in both chambers of Congress.
Congress “cannot afford to gut” the climate provisions in the bill, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, wrote on Twitter. “This issue is bigger than ideology. It is a moral imperative for humanity and our planet’s future to reduce and eventually eliminate emissions,” she wrote. “There are many ways to do it, but we can’t afford to give up.”
Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, has been involved with the “No climate, no deal” rallies. “Listen, my state is burning up. We’re losing our snowpack, the ocean’s acidifying, affecting our shellfish.” “This is a code red.”
The tax would be applied directly to coal mining companies, large natural gas processing plants and oil refiners, based on the emissions associated with their products, with one exception: Oil refiners would very likely be charged for producing diesel fuel and petrochemicals, but, as noted above, not gasoline.
An important part of the policy, Wyden said, will be to use the revenue for tax rebates or checks for poor and working-class Americans — particularly those employed in the fossil fuel industry. “You’ve got to show workers and families, when there’s an economy in transition, that they will get their money back,” he said. “They will be made whole.”
Biden is eager to have something to show the leaders of the other 195 nations who will be meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, at the climate summit. World leaders have been struggling for decades to take meaningful action and so far have utterly failed to propose action that would keep the planet from warming beyond 1.5C. The US has contributed more to global warming than any other nation and is intent on seizing a leadership role that was abdicated by Trump. Scientists warn that if we exceed this threshold then the dangers of global warming, deadly heat waves, water shortages, crop failures and ecosystem collapse, grow immensely. The world has already warmed 1.1C and is on track to warm over 3C.
“The whole world is watching,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a climate adviser for the United Nations Secretary General. “If these bills don’t come to pass,” she said, “then the U.S. will be coming to Glasgow with some fine words” but “not much else. It won’t be enough.”
Biden does have some momentum going into Glasgow as 32 nations have joined with the US in pledging to reduce methane emissions. Methane is the second-largest driver of global warming after CO2 emissions. It is the main component of natural gas and is released in enormous quantities during fracking as well from landfills, livestock and thawing permafrost. The pledge, developed with the European Union, commits nations to cut emissions from methane 30% by 2030.
The four largest emitters of methane (China, India, Russia and Brazil) have not joined the pledge, but nine of the world’s top 20 methane polluters have (US, the EU, Canada, Indonesia, Pakistan, Mexico, Nigeria, Argentina and Iraq).
But, once again, Manchin stands in the way. He has pushed Democrats to drop or weaken a second major climate change provision from the sweeping social policy and environmental spending bill that the White House hopes to finalize. He wants to remove or modify the provision that would impose a fee on methane emission.
Analysts have found that it would be technically possible, although difficult, for the US to meet its goals without passing the clean electricity legislation that Manchin killed. The broader spending package still includes about $300 billion in tax credits for wind and solar energy, which analysts say could get the US about halfway to Biden’s target. But removing the methane fee legislation could further weaken his case in Glasgow.
It’s not dead yet (Oct 25). “The methane fee is not out of the package,” said Rachel Levitan, a spokeswoman for Senator Thomas Carper, the Delaware Democrat who leads the Senate Environment Committee. “Chairman Carper is working to get robust climate provisions in the reconciliation bill and is in active negotiations to ensure that the bill meaningfully reduces greenhouse gas emissions.”
Separately, EPA is expected to release a draft regulation shortly that would compel oil and gas producers to monitor and plug methane leaks from existing oil and gas wells. Among Manchin’s objections to the fee is that it could be duplicative of those rules.
Biden also intends to reduce emissions of another GHG, hydrofluorocarbons by 85% by 2035. EPA has finalized a rule to phase down the use of HFCs in air-conditioners and refrigerators. HFCs were used to replace ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons in the 1980s but are now known to be a significant driver of global warming as they have a thousand times the heat-trapping potency of CO2.
Experts said the rule would go a long way in helping the US achieve Biden’s pledge to cut US GHG emissions 50 to 52% below 2005 levels by the end of the decade. Environmental groups and the business community have supported phasing out HFCs as well as a 2016 accord signed in Kigali, Rwanda, in the last days of the Obama administration, and bipartisan legislation passed by Congress in December. Biden is expected to send the Kigali accord to the Senate for ratification.
Biden has created The Office of Climate Change and Health Equity. It will be the first federal program focused at understanding how planet-warming GHG emissions from burning fossil fuels affect human health and their disproportionate effects on poor communities. It will be part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
“The health of the American people is falling through the cracks because there hasn’t been a targeted focus on climate risk,” said Aaron Bernstein, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “This is the opportunity to plug that hole.”
In 2009, scientists warned in the medical journal The Lancet that global warming would harm crop yields, cause tropical diseases to appear in new parts of the world and lead to water shortages. In 2020, the journal said those threats had arrived.
“Climate change is fundamentally a health threat,” said Gina McCarthy, the White House national climate change adviser. She said part of the mission of the office would be to encourage doctors to talk to their patients about protecting themselves from things like heat waves, wildfire smoke and other air pollution.
Experts said more needs to be done to understand how extreme weather affects older people as well as communities of color, where families are more likely to live in areas hardest hit by disasters.
To aid in the transition away from fossil fuels, Biden is promoting solar and wind power. The Energy Department issued a report in September outlining how the US could move from deriving 4% of our energy from solar to 45% by 2050 which would also require vast upgrades to the electric grid (addressed in the pending twin bills).
Such an increase is consistent with what most climate scientists say is needed to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Renewable energy is growing fast and it provides about 20% of the country’s electricity (natural gas and coal account for about 60%). In February, a division of the Energy Department projected that the share of electricity produced by all renewable sources, including solar, wind and hydroelectric dams, would reach 42% by 2050 based on current trends and policies.
The good news is that the cost of solar panels has fallen dramatically over the last decade, making solar the cheapest source of energy in many parts of the country. The growth of solar and wind energy has exceeded government and independent analysts’ predictions.
“One of the things we’re hoping that people see and take from this report is that it is affordable to decarbonize the grid,” said Becca Jones-Albertus, director of the Solar Energy Technology Office in the Energy Department. “The grid will remain reliable. We just need to build.”
Some recent natural disasters have been compounded by weaknesses in the energy system. Ida, as noted above, knocked out the electric grid in Louisiana, where hundreds of thousands of people were without power for days. Last winter, a storm left much of Texas without electricity for days, too. And in California, utility equipment has ignited several large wildfires, killing scores and destroying thousands of homes and businesses. Solar and wind power likely would have been up and running much faster as there would have been no wait for fuel deliveries, nor would it spark fire or pollute groundwater.
Jennifer M. Granholm, Biden’s energy secretary, said part of the administration’s strategy would focus on its Clean Electricity Payment Program, which would reward utilities for adding renewable energy to the electric grid, including rooftop solar. Many utility companies have fought against rooftop solar panels because of the perceived threat to their business and would rather build large solar farms that they own and control.
“Both have to happen, and the utilities will be incentivized to take down the barriers,” Ms. Granholm said. “We’ve got to do a series of things.”
Building and installing enough solar panels to generate up to 45% of the country’s power needs will strain manufacturers and the energy industry, increasing demand for materials like aluminum, silicon, steel and glass. The industry will also need to find and quickly train tens of thousands of workers. Some labor groups have said that in the rush to quickly build solar farms, developers often hire lower-paid nonunion workers rather than the union members Biden supports.
Challenges like trade disputes could also complicate the push for solar power. China dominates the supply chain for solar panels, and the administration has blocked imports connected with the Xinjiang region of China over concerns of forced labor. While many solar companies say they are working to shift away from materials made in Xinjiang, energy experts say the import ban could slow the construction of solar projects throughout the US in the short term.
Yet, energy analysts said it would be impossible for Biden to achieve his climate goals without a big increase in the use of solar energy. “No matter how you slice it, you need solar deployments to double or quadruple in the near term,” said Michelle Davis, a principal analyst at Wood Mackenzie, an energy research and consulting firm. “Supply chain constraints are certainly on everyone’s mind.”
Administration officials pointed to changes being made by state and local officials as an example of how the country could begin to move faster toward renewable energy. Regulators in California, for example, are changing the state’s building code to require solar and batteries in new buildings.
Another big area of focus for the administration is greater use of batteries to store energy generated by solar panels and wind turbines for use at night or when the wind is not blowing. The cost of batteries has been falling but remains too high for a rapid shift to renewables and electric cars, according to many analysts.
“Last year alone, our country experienced 22 major natural disasters costing Americans a record-shattering $95 billion in damages — figures that represent more than double the historical average, but which still don’t reflect the cost of lost jobs or the trauma of families losing their homes,” said Representative Frank Pallone, Democrat of New Jersey, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will draft the central climate provisions of the budget bill. “The climate crisis is here, and the cost of inaction is already staggering.”
The House energy committee will debate other climate provisions in the budget bill, including $13.5 billion to construct charging stations for EVs and promote the electrification of heavy-duty vehicles. Another program would spend $9 billion on updating the electric grid, to make it more conducive to transmitting wind and solar power, and to make it more resilient to the extreme temperatures, flooding and fires that scientists say are now unavoidable. Another provision would spend $17.5 billion to reduce the CO2 emissions from federal buildings and vehicles. The budget bill could also assess a fee from oil and gas companies for leaks of methane, a potent GHG. The government would use the revenue from those fees to pay for climate mitigation programs.
Regarding wind power, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said that the Department of the Interior will begin to identify, demarcate and attempt to lease federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico, Gulf of Maine and off the coasts of the Mid-Atlantic States, North Carolina and South Carolina, California and Oregon, to wind power developers by 2025. This follows the approval of the nation’s first major commercial offshore wind farm off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and the initial review of a dozen other potential offshore wind projects along the East Coast. On the West Coast, the administration has approved opening two areas off the shores of Central and Northern California for commercial wind power development.
Taken together, the actions represent the most forceful push ever by federal government to promote offshore wind development. “The Interior Department is laying out an ambitious road map as we advance the administration’s plans to confront climate change, create good-paying jobs, and accelerate the nation’s transition to a cleaner energy future,” said Ms. Haaland. “This timetable provides two crucial ingredients for success: increased certainty and transparency. Together, we will meet our clean energy goals while addressing the needs of other ocean users and potentially impacted communities.”
Biden has pledged to build 30,000 MW of offshore wind in the US by 2030.
In Congress, Biden is pushing for passage of a major spending bill that includes a $150 billion program that would pay electric utilities to increase the amount of electricity they purchase from zero-carbon sources such as wind and solar and penalize those that don’t.
Still, there is no guarantee that companies will lease space in the federal waters and build wind farms. Once the offshore areas are identified, they will be subject to lengthy federal, state and local reviews. If the potential sites could harm endangered species, conflict with military activity, damage underwater archaeological sites, or harm local industries such as tourism, the federal government could deem them unsuitable for leasing.
As they have in response to other offshore wind farms, commercial fishing groups and coastal landowners will likely try to stop the projects. In the Gulf of Mexico, where oil and gas exploration is a major part of the economy, fossil fuel companies could fight the development of wind energy as a threat to not only their local operations but their entire business model.
“To be making these announcements, and making them in ways that are very political, without looking at what that means, what area, when we still don’t know what the effects are going to be of these projects is really problematic,” said Anne Hawkins, executive director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, a coalition of fishing groups. “In an ideal world, when you welcome a new industry, you do it in phases, not all at once.”
Interior Department officials said they intend to take such considerations into account. “We are working to facilitate a pipeline of projects that will establish confidence for the offshore wind industry,” said Amanda Lefton, director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. “At the same time, we want to reduce potential conflicts as much as we can while meeting the administration’s goal.”
John Kerry’s trip in September to India ended without a commitment from the world’s third largest GHG emitting country, that it would raise its ambitions to fight climate change. He ended a recent trip to China, the top emitter, similarly empty-handed. China plans to develop 247 gigawatts of coal power domestically, nearly six times Germanyʼs entire coal-fired capacity. Brazil, which plans to continue burning coal for the next 30 years and where deforestation of the Amazon is a major contributor to climate change, skipped a virtual climate meeting convened by Biden in September.
Earlier this year Canada, South Korea and Japan raised their climate targets, in large part because of prodding from the US. And several administration officials said that Biden’s announcement that he intends to double aid on climate change to developing countries was a result of direct conversations with Kerry who argued that increasing climate finance will be critical to the success of the Glasgow summit.
Kerry insisted he is “hopeful” that the biggest economies will take meaningful climate action in Glasgow, if not because of the scientific imperative but because of market forces. Capital is shifting away from fossil fuels and towards new global investment in wind, solar and other renewable energy that does not emit GHGs, he said. About 70% of the $530 billion spent worldwide on new power generation this year is expected to be invested in renewable energy, according to the IEA. Technology is improving, the costs of clean energy are dropping and markets are moving.
The views expressed in the Blog are my own.
Carl Howard, Co-chair Global Climate Change Committee, EELS
Follow me on Twitter: @HowardCarl