Safety Pins: Just Wear One Already

Remember safety pins?!? When they were THE thing to argue about?!? Well, I drafted a note about them a few months ago, but for one reason or another never posted it. Part of the reason was that it seemed like an overly academic argument rather than something genuinely important. Oddly enough, after the shocking events of the last ten days, I feel like this symbol could be more potent than I originally thought.

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Google Trends chart of interest in “safety pin” in the US. Ok, so I’m a couple of months late. Hear me out though.

I’ve left my original draft largely unchanged because it’s eye-opening to compare what was important then to what is important right now. At the end, I’ve got a few updated thoughts. Spoiler: find a pin and start wearing it ASAP.

 


 

I’d like to share two things about myself:

Thing #1: Imagine: you’re walking down the hallway at work, hurrying to a meeting you’re already late for, and just as you turn the corner, a co-worker sweeps by and throws you a quick “how’s it going?” And in that moment, 50% percent of your brain is recovering from the near-collision, and 48% is focused on how exactly you’re going to apologize for your tardiness, so the best you can manage from the remaining 2% is to reply, “not much.”

So, this happens to me pretty often (once a day?). I typically need an extra beat to assess a situation before reacting. I’m not the quickest on my feet. Combine this with a smartphone/headphones and the problem only gets worse.

Thing #2: I don’t wake up every morning thinking about how to make the world a better place on that day. I make those decisions in big chunks for the long-term (as I described in a prior post, I decided 10 years ago that climate change was the biggest problem facing this planet, and I’ve been studying/working in the renewable energy field ever since). I just find that I need time to sit and think and decide how to take action, it’s usually not part of my day-to-day. [note: it has now become part of my day-to-day]

I recognize that this mindset is born of demographic privilege – if I were a person whose life is made more difficult on a daily basis by being who I am, then I would probably be more conscious of acting to address these issues daily. But as a white, able-bodied, straight, cis, upper-middle class man with a college degree, it’s not a challenge to be myself on a day-to-day basis. I’m never called to action to defend my right to be me (and if I were, I might not know what to do in the moment – see #1 above).

Perhaps these two traits are the basis for my utter confusion regarding the war over safety pins. Yes, safety pins. For those who haven’t picked up on this piece of post-election hoopla, the safety pin was originally a symbol adopted by people in the UK after Brexit to show support for, appreciation for, and allyship with groups who were targeted by post-vote harassment.

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Google Trends chart of interest in “safety pin” in the UK. Proof that this was their idea first.

Now, perhaps this symbol elicited a similar level of handwringing across the pond, but the suggestion that the safety pin should be adopted in the US following Trump’s election seems to have run into a strawman-shredding buzzsaw. The main argument against this action appears to be that people will wear the safety pin, think that they’ve done something great, pat themselves on the back, and move on with their lives, blindly accepting the fate of the nation over the next four years. That the pin is some sort of meek show of protest and is nothing but self-congratulatory hollow symbolism.

If I’ve learned one thing from the last two weeks [note: Nov 8 – 22 at time of original writing], it’s to never assume that my experiences and views are widely representative of the views of others. So I’m going to tell you how I process the idea of the safety pin. Try it on for size and see if it fits you too.

Key point #1: The power is not in the object, but in the act.

Key point #2: The biggest impact is internal, not external.

Putting on the pin every day is a personal, internal vow to take action and to help those around me should they need it. Especially important for me, in light of the traits I described above. First, in putting on the pin each morning, I can think about situations in which I might need to act, priming my awareness. Second, it removes the decision to act from the moment of tension and uncertainty. Instead, I can make that decision each morning in the security of the home. If the need to act arises, my mind is already tuned in and my decision has already been made.

You may be skeptical about this: “one little piece of metal will not change how people act.” Oh really? Ever heard of a wedding ring?

The mindset that sees the safety pin as external posturing to peers and/or a sign that says “holler if you need me” is one that views a wedding ring as a sign that says “already taken.” However, if you agree with my assessment of the safety pin as having its greatest impact on the wearer, you might instead see wedding ring as an intimate reminder of love for and commitment to one’s spouse.

Apart from this comparison, there’s real evidence that wearing a physical object can make one act differently. As profiled in a great episode of Invisibilia, one experiment showed that study participants who wore a doctor’s white coat while taking an intelligence test scored higher than those who did not. So, in addition to the decision-making that putting on the pin might support, wearing a symbol of allyship and action makes one more inclined to follow through, just as the doctor’s coat (a sartorial symbol of intelligence) prompted test takers to achieve higher scores. Finally, there are greater consequences to inaction when wearing the pin, such as loss of credibility among peers. You’ve made your position clear and now you have to own it. It’s no longer possible to just think “it’ll be fine,” “it’ll be over soon,” or “whatever, they’re not bothering me, so…”

So, for me, the true value of the outward symbol of the pin is the internal impact on the wearer. It also helps that they’re a pain to get on. The intense focus needed to not stab your fingers or chest underneath is a great reminder of all that you’ve signed up for by putting it on.

Any external benefits to wearing the pin – lending comfort to someone who has been feeling scared or alone, sparking a conversation with a stranger to find out why you’re wearing a safety pin in the first place, or starting a discussion with a friend or co-worker about how to best support people who have been marginalized – these are bonuses. Some might argue these are the main points, and that my internalization of the symbol is just gravy. I’d be happy to have that discussion! But for the way I’m wired, the internal effects are the core function.

 


 

Wow! What simpler times we lived in, when all we had to worry about in the liberal blogo-twit-face-sphere was whether deciding to wear a safety pin was a good or bad thing. How quaint!

I don’t need to tell you, dear reader, that we are now in far more serious times. However, it’s these times that I think can make the pin more powerful. It’s not a theoretical solution looking for a problem.

First, as I described above, it’s a personal commitment that you will join in, that you will resist. When I originally wrote about the pin sparking me to “take action,” the action I imagined was intervening if I witnessed discriminatory harassment, as this seemed especially relevant post-election. However, the internal action it sparks now is far broader: yes, I will march for causes I believe in. Yes, I will call my senators and representatives (coming for you, Cory Gardner). Yes, I will donate to causes that will protect people and planet (ACLU got the big kudos this weekend, and deservedly so. I’m backing Earthjustice to do the same on the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines).

Second, as in the original post-Brexit intent, it continues to be valuable as a signal to people who may be feeling directly threatened or marginalized. With each day, it seems more and more important to make sure these folks know that you care.

Third, its most important value (and one I didn’t really consider in my earlier note) is to signal to other allies that they are not alone. The last ten days have been trying and I’m sure there is more to come. There will be times when each of us will feel down, feel helpless, will need someone to vent to. The election and the recent demonstrations both showed that there are millions of us out there. Heck, there are MORE of us. But if we start succumbing to complacency and emotional fatigue because we don’t have a shoulder to lean on, we will lose our ability to avert the worst of what may lie ahead.

We cannot lose each other.

So, pins on, friends! Do it for yourself, for those who need your help, and for those who need your ear. You won’t regret it.

 

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Join me?

 

** Endnote: my original text included one caveat to my enthusiasm for the safety pin. Given the state of affairs today, I’m far more willing to err on the side of a show of support, but including here for completeness. Plus it has a ridiculous analogy. **

My only hesitation about the safety pin is whether it will be appreciated by the people to whom it attempts to signal support. Like, suppose tomorrow there were a sudden plague of enormous vultures that only eat right-handed people and are deathly allergic to citrus fruit. Would I be comforted if all the lefties started affixing Sprite or Fanta bottlecaps to their lapels and carrying bags of tangerines? “Don’t worry, if those bird bastards come for you, we’ve got your back.” Or would I be exhausted by being reminded, even in moments of total security, that there’s a threat to my safety circling overhead?

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Energy and the Environment: The Next Four Years

In the past week, we’ve started to learn more about the people involved in the Trump transition team and potential high-level appointees. Let’s just say that what we’ve seen so far hasn’t been pretty. We could see a head of the EPA that is openly antagonistic toward the settled science of climate change, and the names swirling around Dept. of Energy and Dept. of Interior also give me the creeps.

If that were the whole story, it would just be confirming the unhappy outcomes that we’ve expected throughout the course of the campaign. However, the last week has also shown numerous shifts from pre-election hardline positions (ever the chameleon, this one). So what we’ve seen and heard may not be what we end up with. But I’ve got to start somewhere, so I’m working off recent and campaign trail material to inform this, then extrapolating to areas not mentioned by name but which would likely see similar treatment. If we get favorable shifts later on, we can just count that as a bonus.

So what might the next four years look like for energy and the environment? I’ve had some quibbles with folks over the last few days about whether Trump himself will actually take a specific action (or can). Which to me misses the point – what we’re considering is the combined effect of Republican control of all three branches of government, meaning relatively swift appointment of Cabinet nominees, no veto threat for legislative actions, and an anti-regulation, if not outright anti-environmental, bent to the Supreme Court.  I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.

Things That Will Actively Get Worse

Paris Climate Agreement – Whether the US walks (just doesn’t comply), runs (formally withdraws once legally able in 2020), or sprints (leaving the entire UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) away from this agreement, I’m fairly certain we will not be taking any actions to participate. The only thing that could possibly keep the US in is as a piece of great-power politics with China; without US involvement, the world’s largest carbon-emitter (yeah, not per capita, I know, I know) could make huge diplomatic gains by meeting its emissions reduction targets and handing out aid to at-risk nations. If China really does make moves in this area, maybe we keep our seat at the table? Probably wishful thinking.

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No really, we’re right behind you guys, we promise.

Clean energy research – It’ll be scaled back, as Congress will definitely tighten the purse strings. How much and in what ways I don’t know. It won’t be zeroed out – there are some countervailing forces I’ll discuss below that should keep some things afloat. But it wasn’t huge to begin with either: research through DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy was only about $3 billion in the Department’s 2017 budget request of $33 billion, more than four times the research budget for fossil fuels. Those figures could draw level or flip-flop. Foundational science and advanced research projects (ARPA-E), which combine for another $6 billion, could also take a hit.

Atmospheric research – Federal funding for research on climate change will dry up. I just don’t see any way around it.

Things That Aren’t Getting Any Better

Clean Power Plan (CPP) – After Paris, this has been number two on every single list of “energy/climate things that will get the axe under Trump.” But it’s important to remember that the CPP is not a done deal to begin with – it’s currently being challenged before the courts and one of the last acts of a Scalia Supreme Court was to stay implementation of the CPP until this case has been resolved. So unlike Paris,  which entered force this fall when it achieved sufficient international ratification, this wasn’t a sure thing at all. Some have pointed out that due to the Supreme Court’s prior ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA, the executive is required to regulate carbon emissions in some way as a pollutant requiring action under Clean Air Act (see comment from Gary Yohe here). So the Trump administration may be required to replace the CPP with something, but it won’t be anything worth writing home about.

Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) – This regulation is far less well-known than the Clean Power Plan, but actually been one of the contributing factors for recent or near-future coal plant closures, due to the cost of compliance retrofits in a low-cost natural gas environment. The Supreme Court sent the EPA back to the drawing board on this regulation in 2015 for failing to properly account for the costs of the regulation, though the courts permitted the EPA to continue to enforce the rule as it was being reworked.

Following the slap on the wrist from the Supreme Court on its cost evaluation, the EPA then made the boneheaded move of basically saying, “nah nah, even if our rule was no good, look at all the coal plants we scared into doing what we wanted anyway.” No wonder the Supreme Court stayed CPP implementation, you clowns. The supplemental findings with full accounting for costs have been issued, though the final technical revisions and supplemental findings are both now tied up in court themselves. Similar to the case of carbon dioxide, none of the court cases have challenged the EPA’s authority to regulate mercury and air toxics. So the new administration will likely gut its impacts through lenient standards while still complying with its statutory duty.

CAFE Standards – Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards were established of cars and light trucks by Congress in 1975 as a way to reduce demand for gasoline after the 1973 oil crisis. This has been a driving (ha!) force for reducing vehicle energy consumption (and GHG emissions) ever since. As with the above two cases, I haven’t heard any chatter about Congress actually repealing the underlying law. But the level of stringency is set by the regulatory authority of the executive branch, so also like the above, the existing standards will likely be replaced by something much more lenient.

Public Lands – I would expect federal lands under management of the Department of Interior to see expedited permitting and leasing processes for oil, gas, and coal extraction, with minimal monitoring, reporting, and remediation requirements. I believe such actions by the federal government would trigger National Environmental Protection Act review, which could be a major headache, making it more likely that the Trump administration would pursue an alternative path: leave the pillaging to the states.

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I think this is map is from 1997, but more recent ones all look the same. This is a lot of land.

In recent years, there’s been a major push in western states to see federal lands revert to state control (culminating in the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon). Local budget squeezes would likely predispose state governments to sales or leases for resource extraction rather than preservation. And according to my scientific evaluation of the map above, that’s a ton of land at risk. I believe such reassignment of federal land to the states would need to come through Congress, but if it makes it to Trump’s desk it’s getting signed.

Pipelines – Federal approvals for these should be easy to achieve, whether from FERC or other relevant federal organizations (EPA, Army Corps of Engineers, DOI). On the bright side, these processes have been designed to take forever, as they should, so even if the approval is never in doubt, actually securing it could take a while (I mean just look at this flowchart). Also of note is that natural gas pipelines have a much clearer approval process at the federal level than crude oil pipelines thanks to the Natural Gas Act (how original), so if you’re in the  natural-gas-is-the-least-worst-option/never-coal camp, there’s that. Further, there’s an intricate web of approvals and regulations that fall to the states, including some authorities under the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, siting, permitting of land uses, and authorization for use of eminent domain. So while there might be some streamlining at the federal level, there are a whole lot of stumbling blocks along the way.

Fracking – National regulations are not coming through that door. States already have significant say in many aspects of the fracking process, including site location, design, identification or inventory or materials and chemicals used, permitting, baseline groundwater measurements, groundwater and surfacewater testing, wastewater disposal, and solid waste management. The variation between states is huge – here are 27 pages of maps, each tackling a different feature of fracking regulation, and no two maps are the same.

Clean Water – The Waters of the United States Rule/Clean Water Rule was a recent regulatory effort to clarify what bodies of water the federal government had authority to regulate under the Clean Water Act. Traditionally, the scope for federal regulation under the Clean Water Act has been only waters that are “navigable” by boat, as they could reasonably be considered an avenue for interstate commerce. The Waters of the US Rule was constructed to clarify federal authority over the waters which feed into these bodies, as well as poorly defined areas such as wetlands. A strong rationale for this additional oversight would be the 117 million Americans who receive their drinking water from sources not under the Clean Water Act. This new rule was name-checked repeatedly by Trump and has been derided by numerous Congressional Republicans. It’s toast.

Loans – The Loan Programs Office, which we have to thank for birthing the utility-scale solar power plant market (and which gave us the conservative bogeyman Solyndra) will likely see activities redirected away from renewables and towards advanced fossil, advanced nuclear,  and automotive manufacturing projects.

National gas tax, carbon tax, cap-and-trade, anything else on your Christmas list – forget about it.

 

Things that Should Be Fine

Renewable Electricity Deployment – After that long list of struggles, it’s hard to think there’s any upside on clean energy and the environment over the next four years, but the ever-expanding deployment of renewable energy sources, particularly wind and solar, is one of them. Now, to be clear, there’s not as much upside as under the Clean Power Plan, especially in the long term. So “success” might just be “any forward movement at all,” in which case renewable energy certainly qualifies. I sincerely believe the Trump administration will not work to actively defeat renewable energy. I just don’t expect them to lift a finger to help it, while boosting its competition in all the ways described above. Still, I see rnewables making progress for the following reasons:

Tax credits – Late last year, Congress surprisingly and fortuitously renewed both the Investment Tax Credit (which offers 30% tax break on the nominal value of a solar facility) and the Production Tax Credit (which offers $23/MWh credit for energy generated by wind and other renewables projects in the first ten years of operation).

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Either your state has wind turbines or makes wind turbines (or both).
Source: http://www.awea.org/Resources/Content.aspx?ItemNumber=5059.

I’d be shocked if Congress acted to roll back these tax credits back. They’re tax breaks, they benefit companies that are creating thousands of jobs, and they’re already in place. Plus renewables (wind especially) have achieved the “political diversification” that so many defense contractors practice in their supply chains. Like, look where wind components are manufactured (red dots in the map above) and deployed (shaded states). There are a lot of states with Republican congressional delegations with an interest in seeing wind succeed. Put it this way: if there’s a major mobilization to repeal the ITC and PTC, the ideology of anti-environmentalism has been internalized far more deeply into the Republican Party than I’ve appreciated, pragmatism is out the window, and we’re in for a way rougher four years.

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Just chugging along.

States – Over the past decade, the humble engine of renewable energy growth has been Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), which set requirements for the share of a utility’s electricity sales which must be procured from renewable sources. Now in place in over half of US states, these are the main reason that losing the Clean Power Plan doesn’t sting quite so badly, especially as compliance targets for the CPP are not due to enter effect until 2022. We just saw a number of states set 50% renewables targets (CA and NY by 2030, OR by 2040) so there will be several markets for significant renewables growth out there.

Electric Transmission – In the universe of energy-related construction projects, few things are harder to get built than electric transmission lines. These routinely take a decade to complete, as route selection, permitting, financing, regulatory approvals, and construction all take their toll. Perhaps wishful thinking, but if these receive a similar Trump boost as new pipelines, it could lay the groundwork for far-greater renewable development in the long term. Like, there is a ton of wind where nobody lives and lots of sun where no one in their right mind lives (hi Patti and Duke!). Now, these new power lines wouldn’t get built just to move wind and solar around – there are plenty of cost savings to be had just by moving coal and gas-fired electricity around a larger area – but they could prove seriously useful for renewables in the long term.

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Few people live in the high-wind (purple) areas.

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No one  should live in the red areas. Also, in terms of sunshine: Alaska > Germany and Wyoming > Spain.

Getting these lines built using other justifications would also help to avoid the chicken-and-egg problem in renewable transmission development. Basically, there’s a huge mismatch between the development cycles of renewables projects (2-3 years) and the power lines (10+ years). The renewables company can’t just develop a project and have it sit idle for 7 years, nor can the transmission developer trust that its anchor customers will still be in business in 10 years.

Manufacturing – Do I think the US will suddenly sprout new solar factories overnight? No, I don’t think those jobs are coming back. They’ve been too successfully commoditized overseas. But there are areas where the US cleantech industry could align with Trump’s stated goals of generating jobs. Tesla’s Gigafactory is the most prominent new example of high-tech clean-tech domestic manufacturing. Other autonomous vehicle companies may find it beneficial to keep manufacturing domestic as well.

Another interesting possibility is the hyperlocalization of wind manufacturing. Basically, the technology has gotten good enough that we’re building ever-larger blades and ever-higher towers to capture the stronger winds aloft. Only problem is we are bumping up against the maximum size of components that can be transported to these sites. Our trucks, trains, highway overpasses, and onramps just can’t deal. So companies may start employing on-site temporary manufacturing for large wind projects (setting up a mini-factory at the wind farm site) to get around the transportation impossibilities.

Offshore wind – The other way around these wind transport challenges is to just put all the stuff on a boat and stick the truly massive machines out in the ocean, where the wind speeds are incredible (see map above). We’ll probably see streamlined permitting for offshore energy development (i.e. drilling); hopefully offshore wind, whether built up from the seafloor or on floating platforms, can ride those coattails.

Electric/Autonomous Vehicles – Not sure whether this gets a boost or is unaffected by the political environment. It could certainly play into the narrative of domestic manufacturing and innovation. Driving is such a pain in the ass that I think industries which offer to let us not drive will always have a market. State-level tax credits can continue to boost sales around the country as well.

Cybersecurity – This is not really a clean energy/fossil energy thing. But it’s something that should probably receive more attention than it has, given the age of our grid infrastructure, the number of threats it faces every day, and demonstrated examples of security breaches from other parts of the world. To me, the grid is too good of an asset to let go to waste, so we need to keep it reliable in order to move energy between neighborhoods cities and states. This allows us to avoid the incredibly high collective costs of widespread grid defection (people providing their own power with no outside electrical service). Every time someone advocates for a nation of independent homes running on solar, batteries, and/or backup generators, I just imagine lighting piles of money on fire.

Opportunities for Action

Engage with States – as you might have gathered from the above, states have a great deal of say in numerous energy and environmental issues, whether it’s permitting for pipelines or new power plants, regulating fracking, managing water resources, setting clean energy targets, or regulating the energy procurement decisions of utilities. These are forums where environmental and renewable energy voices need to be heard loud and clear over the next four years.

Be Opportunistic – as tempting as it is to just hide under a rock, it would be foolish to not at least try to tackle the things that do have a chance of getting done. For example, electric transmission projects are like the flossing of renewable energy – yeah, everyone knows they need to do it, but feels better to go build a wind or solar project that will be done next year and let someone else worry about it. But if there are fewer of those short-payoff projects out there, why not try to get the long process started? You might have to package it as a jobs-infrastructure-physical security play, but it will be a plus for renewables in the long run.

Win the Race to the Bottom (Line) – if something is cheaper, people will use it. This is the main reason coal is dying: not from some regulatory “war,” but because of cheap natural gas power. Similarly, utility companies in some states are realizing how cheap wind and solar power can be and are buying it even when they don’t have to. Big corporate buyers like Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple are doing the same. If the cost advantages for these resources hold up in the face of easier production and potentially declining costs for coal and natural gas, renewables will continue to have a market no matter what.

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Efficiency, wind and utility-scale solar can outcompete natural gas already, without subsidiesMore than anything else, this gives me hope.
Source: https://www.lazard.com/media/2390/lazards-levelized-cost-of-energy-analysis-90.pdf

P.S. Ideas for this piece confirmed or cobbled together from numerous sources, including several nice articles here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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Taking It Personally

If you were to list all the people who felt their world change for the worse early Wednesday morning, you should probably put me near the bottom. I am not in jeopardy of being tracked down and deported. I have no reason to fear that I will be forced to register with the government due to my religion. I do not anticipate that control over my own body will be usurped by law. I see little chance of being stripped of my right to marry.

However, in one specific way, I feel personally rejected by the president-elect and those who voted for him.

As I described to a friend on Tuesday evening, as CNN chattered in the background, I set my life on a very specific course a decade ago. As a graduating high school senior about to head off to college, I surveyed the world around me for the biggest problem I could find. “From those to whom much has been given, much will be expected” and all that. Eventually, I settled on two possibilities: conflict in the Middle East (sectarian civil war was then raging in Iraq) and climate change. Either I’d study Arabic and international relations or I’d package Mandarin with environmental engineering. Reluctant to abandon my love of math, I chose the latter.

So began five and a half years of late-night problem sets and papers, early morning vocabulary quizzes, four months abroad in smoggy Beijing, and a broad quest to understand how we humans can minimize our impact on the air, water, and land around us. After graduating, I wasn’t interested in really narrow questions (how do you make a better solar cell?) but rather broad ones (how do we apply these technologies in the real world?). My first-choice place to work was Pacific Gas and Electric, the electric utility in northern California. Not your typical Silicon Valley path, sure, but a national leader in renewable energy due to strong state mandates. Three years there led to the two more at the National Renewable Energy Lab, where I’ve continued working with utilities while also demonstrating the economic benefits of high adoption of renewables in island communities.

By Wednesday morning, we had elected a president who believes that climate change, the problem on which I’ve spent the last ten years of my life, is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

 

I’ve been stewing on this for two remarkably unproductive days, but as I glumly read about Trump energy policy this afternoon, I thought:

This is how some Trump voters feel about the last 20, 30, 40 years.

To take pride in your abilities, only to be told, “sorry, we don’t need you anymore.” To define yourself by your work, to derive purpose from it, then to see that work devalued. To feel powerless as the centerpiece of your adult life is rendered worthless, inconsequential, obsolete.

If it stung me after only a decade, imagine how they must feel.

Look at that bottom chart again. The county-by-county voting margins for Trump are strongly correlated with the share of jobs that can be classified as routine. Changes to trade policy and advances in communication, transportation, and logistics have increased competition from abroad in agriculture and manufacturing, reducing employment in these industries. Mechanization and automation have also eliminated jobs in these sectors. Both factors could squeeze out even more jobs in the future.

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Via NYTimes: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/11/08/us/elections/how-trump-pushed-the-election-map-to-the-right.html

The combined effects are readily apparent in the election results: the areas with the biggest shifts toward Trump from 2012 to 2016 are almost entirely located in the Upper Midwest. Where once upon a time, you could get a steady job right out of high school, build a life for yourself, raise a family, and retire. It’s an area now commonly referred to as the Rust Belt.

The accepted name for this region is the chemical process by which steel weakens, corrodes, crumbles into dust.

No wonder people are hurting.

Then along comes someone who says they’re going to make America great again. Going to bring back the job that was more than just a paycheck. Going to strip away that rust, patch things up good as new, and throw on a fresh coat of paint.

This is as far as I can go with the midwestern Trump voter. I can share in the pain of having your efforts, skills, and capabilities tossed aside; having the ground shift under your feet, the current change midstream. I can even translate this pain into frustration at those who fail to recognize a crisis where I see one looming.

What I cannot understand is, in seeking relief from pain, accepting the sexist, racist, and xenophobic part of the bargain: condoning limits on the freedom of others; fomenting threats to others’ families and beliefs; abiding assaults on their physical persons. In my mind, that’s like going to the store to buy a dozen eggs, opening a carton with half the eggs already rotten, and thinking, “I’ll take it.” (I also recognize that there are some who would buy the carton because of the rotten eggs; I have only contempt for them)

So in some ways, I understand, but in other ways, I am at a loss. And I think that’s ok for now. I think we need to acknowledge the lack of understanding of one another that has been plainly laid before us. To jump to solutions is only to paper over the deeper problem. It’s uncomfortable to accept my ignorance, particularly in a week that has already been so challenging. But to learn what I need to learn, I think I first have to accept how little I truly know.

P.S. With regard to my belief in clean energy, I am frustrated and down, but I think there are some opportunities (and yes, I still have a job). The degree of difficulty will be higher, the positive impacts will be smaller, and together they’ll be nowhere near enough to put a dent in climate change. But they’re there. I’ll be writing about those too (promise!), so check back soon.

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SW Colorado Trip Report, Part 1: Ouray Ice Festival

Hello all! WordPress informs me it has been 18 days since my last post, which is probably too long a gap to be really keeping up with my New Year’s resolution to write regularly. But! I have an excuse! I been climbing icicles and dodging trees in the backcountry for a week and a half. Specifically, Teresa and I were down in Ouray and the surrounding area between January 14 and January 22. Below is Part One of our trip report, covering all the sweet times we had at the Ouray Ice Festival this year. Part Two on our backcountry hut trip to follow soon!

Wednesday, Jan 13: Getting Ready

Preparing for a week and a half of outdoor and/or backcountry adventures was no easy feat. For this trip we had stockpiled surplus hand and toe warmers, spare emergency blankets, about 20 frozen burritos (for dinners in town in Ouray) and two three-day dehydrated meal kits from Backpackers Pantry. Packing up took us about three hours, as all manner of warm socks, gloves, hats, pants, jackets and other items slowly organized themselves in bags. Meanwhile, Pigdog followed us from room to room, looking more and more anxious as bags accumulated by the door.

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Why you leave me?

Thursday, Jan 14: Escape from Real Life

I made it in to the office to take care of last minute needs – records show 14 emails in about 4 hours of time, as I offloaded responsibilities onto coworkers (sorry! but thank you!!!), set up the autoreply and grabbed a bite for lunch. Teresa drove down from Boulder to Golden to get me…and we were off! Navigating strong headwinds as a front moved into the Denver area, there were lots of unnerving gusts for the first hour. Eventually these gave way to smoother 80-mph cruising and audiobooks (a combo of Neuromancer and The Innovators) down through miscellaneous towns of central, west, and southwest Colorado (Olathe, Delta, Montrose,…). We pulled into Ouray in the dark around 8, hauled our stuff into a hotel room and crashed.

Friday, Jan 15: Lucky Breaks

One key lesson we learned from attending the Ice Festival last year is that ice climbers are morning people (these people climb ice, they don’t mind if it’s cold as hell before the sun comes up). So if you want to score some (free!) demo gear to use each day, you got to get there early. Today, we thought we might catch a break as the crowd wouldn’t be in full force until the weekend.

Officially, demos didn’t begin until 8, but by the time we rolled up at 8:10, many vendors had already loaned out the last of their gear. Fortunately, we were each able to scrape together a set of ice axes, crampons and boots in short order and hit the trail out to the South Park climbing area, a relatively easier area for top-roping with convenient anchor set-ups to match our small kit of gear.

Again, by ice climber standards, we appeared to be late to the game. Every single toprope anchor seemed to already be occupied by a rope (or a group about to drop a rope over the side) as we wandered to the very end of the canyon. Despairing of our chances to climb a bit, we followed a path down into the bottom of the canyon to see if there were any open spots we had missed. There were none.

We were running out of ideas and trudging around forlornly when the group at the very end of the park spotted us and offered the use of their ropes! A mixed crew of folks from Colorado, Wyoming and Arizona, they were pacing themselves and had three ropes set up: one low-angle climb that was almost walkable, one moderate slope and a short but steep pillar. The pillar was the only thing open, so we grabbed it.

IMG_4739

A pretty sweet (and hard) way to get back on the ice after a year.

All the anxiety (why are there so many people? why didn’t we get up earlier? are we even going to get to climb?) melted away in an instant. Last year, in our (short-lived) adventure blog, I wrote about some of the things that made ice climbing so satisfying during our first visit to Ouray: the satisfying “thwack” of the ice tools, the swing-kick-kick rhythm of ice tools and crampons, and the joy of learning a new skill. Those were all there the minute we got back on the ice. So too was the reminder that this stuff can be hard! We both reached the top of the pillar, but not without serious effort and a burning fatigue in the forearms.

The group who had adopted us was super-kind, allowing us to cycle through all the routes they had set up. Eventually, they decided to call it a day, so we set up our own rope and used it as a trading chip to swap routes with a number of other climbers in the canyon. We dragged ourselves up and down until we’d had enough and headed out to drop off our gear. The snow was coming down hard as we left to check into a new place to stay, where we had a cabin all to ourselves (yay!) but where all running water and bathrooms were housed in a communal building about 50 yards away (hmmmm…). We cozied in for microwaved dinners (frozen burritos fancied up with avocados, cheese and salsa), tried to minimize our trips outside as much as possible, and went to sleep at a shamefully early hour.

Saturday, Jan 16: Moxie

Remember that part about ice climbers being up early? On Saturday, at the Ice Festival, there are also waaaaaaaay more of them. Having learned from last year and our close call on Friday, we got to the Ouray Ice Park around 7:30 am, opportunistically scored equipment from the folks who had set out their gear early and were fully equipped by 8 am. Our clinic didn’t start til 9:30 am, so we wandered a bit, entered a few raffles, and watched a few pros tackle the main mixed (half ice, half rock) route in the canyon.

Eventually, we reconvened at the Grivel tent with our group…and Shingo! He was the leader of the clinic we took last year when we first tried (and loved) ice climbing. A super-upbeat guy who seems to know everyone at the festival, he is also a great teacher who simplifies how you should think about moving on the ice. And he’s funny:

Other guide near our group: I’ve never seen any of the athletes [leading the clinics] belay before.

Shingo, belaying: Umm, I’m not an athlete. You must mean someone else.

So, that was a major plus. The other awesome part was the ice! Where we had been mostly on 30-40 foot routes the day before, today we are tackling 50-70+ foot walls. The longer duration, coupled with a steeper angle, required you to get into an efficient rhythm (one axe swing or placement, kick in each foot, stand up using your quads, repeat), look for good spots to rest (hang an ice axe over one shoulder so you can shake out your free arm), and tough it out. These were some long and hard climbs with multiple stretches of vertical ice, so there was the added bonus of having all the blood drain out of your hands while you held them over your head trying to hack into the ice. A couple times I reached the top feeling like my hands were made of wood. But SO MUCH FUN!

The highlight of the day, unfortunately not captured on camera, was a climb with a cave in the middle. To complete the route, you climbed up about 30 feet into the bottom of the cave, climbed up the back of an ice sheet on the inside of the cave for about 10 feet, then, while spanning your feet between the two ice pillars that made up either side of the mouth of the cave, stuck your ice tools into good placements on the outside and swung out. More scary than difficult, mainly because of the degree you had to rely on foot placements while moving out of the cave. I had to complete it with a drop knee between both pillars. SO MUCH FUN!

drop knee

Spanning the cave required making this move between two pillars, in crampons, with ice axes overhead. Sweet.

Teresa was hauling herself up her 5th (6th?) route of the day when Shingo commented how he appreciated her determination and enthusiasm to just climb-climb-climb. I assured him that it’s a trait that’s definitely not limited to ice climbing. So he shouted up, “Hey Teresa, our word of the day for you is moxie!” This has since become a unifying concept for all outdoor outings.

Oh, funny side note: midway through the afternoon, rumors started drifting around: one of the pipes in the lower canyon (downstream from us) had broken?!? Also rumored was that they might be releasing water from the dam (above us) to relieve some pressure, potentially causing the water level to rise. The latter was thankfully false. The former? Definitely true. Never have I heard so many people who are not civil engineers say “penstock.”

We wrapped up a totally full day, retreated for dinner (more burritos!), made a quick appearance at a friend’s hotel suite for charades (where we were kicked out for submitting items that were too “philosophical,” i.e. didn’t include the words dick, ass, etc.), and crashed hard back at the cabin.

Sunday, Jan 17: That’s a Wrap

So, the only time ice climbers don’t get up that early is when they are brutally hungover. Not saying that there aren’t some who can fight through it, but it’s definitely not all of them. The traditional Saturday night festival rager took down a good number of competitors for demo gear when we went out for our last day of climbing, allowing us to check out some gear we had been missing out on the rest of the trip (Lowa boots, Camp/Cassein tools and crampons). We also saw Shingo, who basically said, “what the hell are you guys doing climbing again today?” To which we replied, “moxie.”

Unfortunately, hangovers hadn’t laid enough climbers low, and pretty soon we were back searching for an open anchor at the very end of South Park. However, the pillar we had climbed on Friday was open, so we tossed our rope down, ran a few laps (including some variations with some moves on the rock just to the left of the pillar) and made some trades with other folks. The biggest excitement of the day was when another climber, lowering from the top of our climb, tipped over to the left, swung down with his feet out to the ice to stop his fall…and punched his left leg directly through a hanging ice sheet. It made for a dramatic movement and a lot of ice fall, but luckily nothing beyond that. Teresa and I also took turns attempting speed climbing on the lowest-angle ice next to us. It was a totally different feeling – with the focus on speed, you aren’t looking for tool placements that are perfect, just good enough to make the next move. This made us realize how many “good enough” placements we had probably ignored on the steeper climbs, in our quest for perfect spots, and how much energy that probably cost us.

We dropped our gear off early, hung out for the wave of raffles in the afternoon (no wins, sadly), and headed to check into our final hotel. We wandered the main street a bit, stopped into a great bookstore, hung out at a gear shop, and generally killed some time. The views from town are pretty incredible – they call it the Switzerland of America. Having only seen Switzerland in pictures, I may not be the best judge, but seems pretty accurate.

We grabbed a real meal with a few friends in town at O’Briens (great Irish food and friendly staff, but don’t be lured into the shepherd’s pie, it’s minuscule). One of these friends, Mary Anne, we first met last year at Ouray. At the time she was living in Boston with her boyfriend, but Teresa totally talked up Boulder, and she totally bought it. Now? She and her boyfriend are 5 minutes from us in Boulder! Pretty sweet.

The evening was dominated by packing up for our next adventure – a 5 day, 4 night hut trip in the nearby mountains. We stuffed all manner of food, water, warm clothes, emergency gear, avalanche gear, and sleeping bags into our packs until they were about to burst. Then we strapped a few more things to the outside. We were ready.

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Renew Review: “The Conservative Case for Solar Subsides”

 

As some of you may well know, I am a clean energy nerd.* Have been for a long time, will be for the foreseeable future. It’s a field I care a lot about, because I believe, and have believed since about sophomore year of high school, that climate change is the biggest problem in our modern world and the most in need of solving. And so whenever someone or something with a more mainstream perspective takes notice of what’s going on in our little corner of the world, I initially get really excited. “Hey, here’s someone with a big voice who is going to tell our story and maybe CHANGE EVERYTHING!” But then, as I read or watch whatever piece has been produced, it’s a slow let down. “Well, sort of, but not really. And your numbers are dated. And we don’t call it that anymore.” Ultimately, I come away wishing that someone would just get all the details right for once. Just one time.

That one time hasn’t happened yet. So I figured I would do the next best thing – BORE YOU ALL WITH THE ACTUAL DETAILS. Hence, the Renew Review: a likely-to-be-recurring feature where I share my perspective on a mainstream piece about clean energy. I won’t claim to be able to get you to the 100% truth – some of these issues are still under investigation and I work with lots of people who know more than I do in pretty much every single aspect of clean energy technology and policy. But this is my blog, not theirs, so :p

This week’s piece is a New York Times op-ed titled “The Conservative Case for Solar Subsidies,” written by Ben Ho, an economics professor at Vassar and Columbia and former lead energy economist for the White House Council of Economic Advisers from 2006 to 2007. In other words, not an outsider to this topic who thought it just might be an opportune thing to talk about post-Paris climate deal. The man knows his stuff. And yet, I’ve got a couple things to add.


 

 

After leading off with solar energy’s redemption from the ashes of Solyndra to now supporting twice as many jobs as coal mining, Ho first introduces his title topic this way:

“Solar, long viewed through the lens of crony capitalism, has shown the ability to inject real market competition in energy distribution, one of the last monopolies in the energy sector, while improving the efficiency of the grid and putting more dollars in the pockets of middle-class Americans. Conservatives, in other words, need to take another look at solar.”

Ho is right on here: solar as emerged as one of the few real sources of competition to regulated utility monopolies. However, it’s surprising he doesn’t acknowledge how much conservative solar advocates have already accomplished in solar, particularly in the U.S. Southeast.

In Georgia, Tea Party leader Debbie Dooley teamed with the Sierra Club in 2012 and 2013 to push for and then expand the Advanced Solar Initiative, which seeks to add a total of 735 MW of solar capacity in the state. In that process, Dooley often found herself battling the conservative-minded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Koch Brothers-founded Americans for Prosperity. These bipartisan actions laid the groundwork for further progress in 2015, when Republican-sponsored legislation was passed to allow solar companies to build and own rooftop solar systems on homes and then lease them to customers. This drastically reduces the initial cost of going solar, which can be a $10k-30k purchase, instead breaking that lump sum into manageable monthly lease payments. This business model, known as third-party ownership, is one factor that has enabled companies like SolarCity and states like California, Arizona, New Jersey and Massachusetts to deploy solar so rapidly. Further, as part of a broad coalition, Dooley and her organization Conservatives for Energy Freedom are pushing to get third-party ownership legalized in Florida thought a 2016 ballot initiative.

So full points to Ho for recognizing the potential for conservatives to get behind solar, but low marks to failing to present how much they already have.


After this, things take a turn for the wonkiest:

“Solar also solves an efficiency challenge. Right now, demand peaks during the daytime, far exceeding the supply of baseload power. To meet demand, we have invested in a great deal of spare capacity. Most of this capacity comes from coal and natural gas plants that run only for a fraction of the day. According to the Energy Information Administration, outside of peak hours, most natural gas-fired power plants in America used only 5 percent of their total capacity in 2012.”

Too bad you can’t put a chart in your op-ed, because this point is just begging for one. Here, have a look:

Load Duration Curve

This is a load duration curve from California. Her name is Loadette.

You build one of these by taking the electricity demand in each of the 8760 hours of the year and sorting them from highest demand to lowest. Interpreting points along the line could be something like “in 2012, demand in California was above 35,000 megawatts (MW) for 10% of the hours in the year” or “in 2012, demand was below 25,000 MW in 40% of hours.” But basically, this chart is a simple way to answer the question, “How often do we use a ton of energy?”

The answer to that question, as Ho explains and the chart above confirms, is “not that often!” Look at that sharp end on the left: the very top hour looks like around 47,000 MW. By maybe the 3% mark, we are down around 40,000 MW.

Now here is key point #1: you have to build the system to meet that top number (+ a bit in case one of your power plants goes down unexpectedly). Otherwise, you get blackouts. There’s no way, in our connected, electrified society, you can say “Oh, there’s demand for 49,000 MW? I only got 47,000. Sorry guys.”

Key point #2: You, as the customer, pay for what gets built. Even if it just sits there most of the time. That’s a cost. You get value when it runs. Check out the version below: you’re at least getting value in return for your costs where the pink and blue zones overlap (as they also do in the portion of the chart from 15000 MW to 0 MW which is not pictured). But look at the top right: you’ve got lots of costs and no value. This, in turn, makes the value that you did get more expensive (because you’re allocating more costs to each unit of value).

Load Duration Curve2.PNG

Based on my eyeballing, the value slice (including portions not pictured) is about 75% of the cost rectangle. Put another way, your costs are 133% of your value. Not a great deal!

Key point #3: Look back at that 3% mark for 2012 at 40,000 MW. If you could some how just shave the energy used above 40,000 MW in those hours (less than 0.4% of all energy used in the year), you could build 15% less capacity. To put another way, shrink the value by 0.4%, drop costs by 15%. (!!!)

We should recognize at this point that overcapacity surrounds us in our developed-world lifestyles and is not unique to the power sector. Storm drains, for example, are commonly designed to deal with a 100-year storm (an event that happens only once every 100 years). As in, they are designed to be full utilized once every 100 years. Car ownership is another extreme example, which Ho calls out in his following paragraph with references to Uber and ZipCar. Owning a car has a duration curve that looks like:

Car Ownership2

Kinda makes you wonder what took us so long to come up with Uber in the first place…


Ok, so it’s bad to have costs greater than value, but how does solar power fix this issue? Doesn’t this make your big pink rectangle solar-flavored instead of natural gas- or coal-flavored? The answer is, “not quite.” Ho hints at this a paragraph later:

“Critics of solar have often said that it produces only “when the sun is shining,” and that is true. Fortunately, we need energy most during the daytime — making rooftop solar a smart choice for consumers while adding energy to the grid when we need it most.”

Think about what’s happening when demand is highest:

  • It’s daytime: people don’t use a ton of lights and gadgets when asleep. Also, in the daytime you are seeing energy consumption in both home and workplaces, which also means it’s a weekday.
  • It’s probably super-hot out: air conditioners are one of our most effective electricity consumers. Sub-happenings here:
    • It’s the summertime.
    • It’s the hottest part of the day (2-3 pm)

What else is happening when it’s 2-3 pm in the middle of the summer and it’s face-meltingly hot? The sun is shining HARD. So, key point #4: the availability of solar energy is really well-matched to the times of year when you need energy the most.

If you put solar on your roof, it is connected to your home electrical system, not directly to the grid. So it’s like having a source of “negative electricity demand” in your house (cool! a negative refrigerator!). That means that if you are using more power than your solar panels are putting out, then you are still using power from the grid, just less than you would have. And if you are using less than what your panels are generating, you will push your extra power out onto the grid, acting as a negative load on the system.

What does “negative load” mean? It means we can knock down that line in the load duration curve above. If enough folks do this, we can trim that far left peak and start bringing the pink cost box down to better match the blue value zone. YAY!

…for a while. Until you get so much solar that you’ve totally trimmed those peaks. At a certain point, the highest demand hour starts to move later and later in the day – on the hottest day of the year, it’s still really freaking hot at 7pm, but most of your solar power is gone because the sun has almost set. At this point, the more solar you build, the less valuable it becomes, as demonstrated by the wonky, lovely charts of this Lawrence Berkeley National Labs report:

Load Curves

A picture of model results for high-demand days. Notice how as you add more solar PV (from yellow to red), the peak shifts later in the day (and stops decreasing as much).

Most of the country is nowhere near this point yet, but this becomes a bigger and bigger issue if you want to get to really high levels of renewable energy (like 100% in Hawaii by 2045 or 50% in California by 2030). One way to keep solar valuable is to store its energy and then release it at the peak time of day. Ho calls out Tesla’s home battery system as one way to do this. Energy storage is one of the fastest-growing and -changing areas of clean energy and will be for some time.

I know that last sentence makes it sound like energy storage is going through puberty. I think that is totally accurate.


Ho concludes by playing a few hits off the solar energy greatest hits album. Yeah, we get subsidies, but have you looked at what oil & gas get? Solar power creates more positive/fewer negative externalities – gee, wouldn’t it be great if we had a pricing structure that recognizes that? etc.

One item in this last section that tripped me up was his description of the investment tax credit (ITC), which provides a tax credit to the solar system owner equivalent to 30% of the value of the installed system:

“Furthermore, the solar investment tax credit is pretty smart. It’s structured so that as solar power becomes more efficient, the effect of the credit on each watt produced becomes smaller.”

I’m not sure what he is getting at here, to be honest. There could be a couple of things. For one, the ITC was just extended, remaining at 30% through 2019 before dropping to 26% in 2020, 22% in 2021, and finally 10% in perpetuity beyond that. So it will phase down in the coming years and more solar will be deployed in the coming years, but there is no direct link.

The other possibility I see is that because the ITC is as a percentage of the installed system costs, reductions in that system cost mean smaller tax credits. A few years ago, you might see systems installed at $4 million per MW, for which the tax credit would be $1.2 million. Now, a system could easily cost $2 million per MW (or less), so the resulting tax credit would be only $600,000. So the absolute value of the ITC per MW of solar built will continue to decline.

I’ll give Ho a pass here, though the best example of a solar incentive that declined in value while the market advanced is the California Solar Initiative, which set 10 incentive steps tied to MW installation targets. The incentive started really high to attract businesses to form and to get customers to take the plunge; as the market gained momentum, it needed less and less support so the incentive declined accordingly along a predetermined trajectory, providing predictability as well.

CSI.PNG

Solar goes up, your incentive goes down.


Overall, I liked Ho’s op-ed (enough to write 2,300 words about it on a Friday night). I just wish he had done more to highlight how much progress has already been made in terms of getting conservatives on the solar bandwagon. It’s not an effort we need to start from scratch, it’s already happening! And the technology has no innate party affiliation. It’s not a registered Democrat. It’s getting cheaper and more cost-effective by the day. We’re not too far from the day when, no matter what you call yourself, it’ll be something you just want.

 

 

*Sorry, should watch my dangling modifiers: I’m a big proponent of wind, solar and other renewable energy sources, not a well-bathed oil and gas aficionado.

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New Year’s is the Worst Time to Make Resolutions

There’s a reason I set up this blog account in January 2015 and I’m only writing my first post today. It’s not my fault, I swear. Blame it on New Year’s resolutions.

Why? Because New Year’s is the part of the year that is unlike every other part of the year. Consider one of two possible outcomes for your winter holidays:

  • You have destroyed your brain/immune system/will to live with numerous hangovers/layovers and can barely drag yourself back to work, let alone make s spunky plan for being the very best you over the next 360+ days.
  • You are abnormally well-fed, well-rested, and unstressed, so after a few days of blissful relaxation you’re just looking for anything to fill in the time.

It’s this second state that’s the most dangerous, I think. It happens to me every year. “Oh yeah, look how much time I have! I could totally become a virtuoso guitarist/master chef/native-level Chinese speaker. No sweat.” Two weeks later, your brain is back in its normal state of “help. Coffee help?” and you’ve added an extra layer of disappointment to the mix as  you slip further behind your goals.

Ok, maybe the point is to make goals that are a bit overly optimistic. If we strive and achieve, we can accomplish well beyond our prior abilities, and even a partially-fulfilled goal counts as improvement. But I just don’t think this is how my brain works, especially if I’m tackling something well outside my routine. One small failure puts me into “why should I even try?” territory and it’s all downhill from there.

So how to fix this? Make less ambitious goals? I don’t think so. As long as your over-rested, exuberant self is in charge, you probably won’t be able to dial things back sufficiently.

My suggestion: make your New Year’s resolutions some other time, when you’ve got a little chunk of time but aren’t delusionally removed from the daily grind. Thanksgiving could put you in either of the vulnerable states above and is totally off-limits. Three-day weekends could work: MLK Day or President’s Day seem like good candidates, early in the calendar year but well enough back in the work cycle.

So here I am, ignoring all of my own advice, trying to to revive a 2015 resolution in the first week of 2016. Hopefully, I can hang on to this resolution until President’s Day. If not, at least it would be a good time to make some new ones.

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