A new survey from the National Surveys on Energy and Environment shows rising public support for ditching coal.
In 2008, America got roughly half of its electricity from coal. A decade later, the public has grown more hostile toward the dirty energy source, even while its support for natural gas hasn’t wavered much.
But the country’s toxic relationship with coal isn’t over: The survey, which sampled random U.S. adults over the phone, shows a majority of the public is “not yet ready for a complete phase-out.” Break-ups are hard, we get it.
More from the survey:
In 2017, 48 percent of those surveyed supported a coal phase-out.
Opinions differed along party lines: 30 percent of Republicans support a phase-out, while 54 percent of independents and 56 percent of Democrats do.
Only 34 percent opposed phasing out the dirty fuel — a big jump from a year earlier, when 50 percent opposed doing so.
People who live in coal mine states are more likely to strongly oppose a coal phase-out.
Whether you’re on Team Coal or Team … Not Coal, the important thing to keep in mind is that coal has a prettier, smarter, and healthier alternative: renewable energy.
The fact that EPA administrator Scott Pruitt sat several seats to the right of President Trump during his announcement of a $200 billion infrastructure plan on Monday was one clue that it was actually jam-packed with policies taking aim at environmental regulations. For instance, a substantial portion of the proposal eases the environmental reviews for infrastructure projects, which may not ensure that roads and bridges are being repaired, but does help industry snake new natural gas pipelines through federal lands.
In many different ways, this infrastructure plan seeks to privatize some public lands and ensures that the fossil fuel infrastructure remains on them. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s legislative director Scott Slesinger says Trump is “using the infrastructure bill as another attack on the environment.”
Here are four of the ways that he does:
1. Changing the federal permitting process
Trump asks for dramatic changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which affects how environmental reviews for federal permitting are handled. This essentially speeds up the environmental review process so that permits might be approved without full consideration of the potential damage, while downgrading the EPA’s role in the process. This means that a nuclear plant or an especially controversial pipeline through a town could face speedier approval, with less opportunity for legal intervention.
2. Cutting oversight
The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers have historically been in charge of interpreting what bodies of water are subject to the Clean Water Act. There has been a longstanding fight over that Obama-era definition under Waters of the U.S. rule, which the Trump administration is seeking to roll back. The new plan would shift the responsibility for determining what waters fall under the umbrella of federal water oversight from the EPA’s water experts to the Army Corps of Engineers. By “Establishing the Secretary of the Army’s authority to make jurisdictional determinations under the Clean Water Act,” Trump has given responsibility to the organization likely to be more lenient.
3. Veto restrictions
Another threat to water oversight is a section that limits the EPA’s ability to veto a federal permit if the project would lead to unsafe discharge. This power has only been used a handful of times but was the reason the Obama administration could reject the controversial Pebble Mine permit in Alaska’s Bristol Bay — which, by the way, Trump has reversed.
4. Gas pipelines in the parks
His plan lets Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke approve natural gas pipelines to cut through national parks without any oversight whatsoever. Right now, the Interior Department must get specific congressional authorization to approve permits. “Obtaining congressional approval for each pipeline crossing and facilities necessary for the production of energy is time consuming and delays construction of needed natural gas pipeline facilities,” the plan says.
None of these proposals are guaranteed to pass Congress. Indeed some may be dead on arrival. Still, the NEPA reforms may catch on with members of the Republican party.
There are plenty of other criticisms of Trump’s plan, from its approach to privatizing some federal parkways and airports to completely ignoring the major infrastructure issue facing the U.S. over the next century. “You don’t build what was there before; you build to what the environment is going forward,” Slesinger says. “There’s nothing in here addressing climate issues.”
The aspiring attorney general takes military jets and stays at high-end hotels, the Post reports. In a matter of weeks last June, he and his aides racked up $90,000 in travel bills — a figure that doesn’t include the cost of his 24/7 security detail. The world traveler went on tour to Morocco and Italy last year, and has upcoming plans to visit Israel, Australia, and Japan.
In response to reports of his pricey travel arrangements, Pruitt told reporters, “I’m not involved in any of those decisions.” The EPA said on Tuesday that he has a “blanket waiver” to upgrade from coach because of “security threats.”
According to federal regulations, government travelers can travel first-class only in rare instances — such as when “exceptional security circumstances” mean that “use of coach class accommodations would endanger your life or government property.”
To be fair, the EPA inspector general, who is investigating Pruitt’s private flights and the unusual security measures associated with his office, says that Pruitt has received four to five times more threats than his predecessor, Gina McCarthy. But it remains unclear how exactly spacious seating and gourmet airline meals could possibly save his life.
Pruitt’s paranoia extends to his own employees, who must have an escort to gain entrance to his office. Sometimes, they’re asked to leave their cellphones behind and refrain from taking notes when they meet with him. (No unauthorized selfies or requests for autographs, please!)
Pruitt’s team guards his schedule carefully, so he tends to pop up in unexpected places. On Tuesday, he surfaced in New Hampshire to meet with Governor Chris Sununu. The visit was not announced in advance because of — surprise! — “security concerns.” Pruitt’s unanticipated visit to Florida last week also caught journalists off-guard.
While it’s not unusual for EPA administrators to travel, Pruitt’s secretive schedule is a departure from the norm and shields him from some level of scrutiny. It’s unclear if Pruitt is more concerned about outside threats or keeping journalists and the public in the dark about what he’s up to.
It could also be that he’s worried about his own reputation — just like any celebrity out there — and wants to control the narrative about his tenure at the EPA. While Pruitt has a lot of critics, he also knows how to play to his base. After taking office a year ago, he granted interviews mainly to conservative media outlets.
Last week, a 30 percent tariff that President Donald Trump tacked onto imported solar panels kicked in. Industry experts are predicting it will end up costing the U.S. 23,000 solar jobs in 2018 alone. There’s still a lot of uncertainty about how precisely the new tariff will impact domestic solar panel sales and jobs, but GTM Research expects it to slow the residential solar market by nearly 10 percent between now and 2022. That could affect the number of solar jobs in the future, especially where the power drill hits the rooftop — more than three-fourths of solar jobs in the U.S. are in demand-side sectors such as installation.
The United States was enjoying a 168 percent growth rate in solar jobs since 2010, according to the 2017 Solar Jobs Census report released last week. African Americans in particular have seen a burst in solar workforce participation over the past few years, constituting 7.4 percent of the workforce in 2017, compared to 6.6 percent the year before and 5.2 percent in 2015.
This, of course, is hardly proportional to the general working-age black population, but African Americans were the only racial group to see their share of the solar workforce significantly expand between 2016 and 2017 — every other group, save for whites, saw a drop.
In fact, the entire solar industry saw a decline in jobs last year, losing an estimated 9,800 jobs from 2016. This was the first year the solar census recorded a drop-off since it began tracking job numbers in 2010. The anomalous solar jobs increase found among African Americans is driven in part by the widening list of jurisdictions with large black populations that have adopted new solar policies — states like New York, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C., according to the report.
The depression found otherwise across the industry can be attributed to the cool-down in solar projects in states like California and Massachusetts, where solar already had a stronghold. There was a surge in solar power development in 2016, when there was something of a panic about federal solar tax credits expiring that year (Congress later extended those tax credits).
However, the solar market was rattled once again in 2017 when two solar power manufacturing companies, the bankruptcy-headed Suniva and SolarWorld Americas, petitioned the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) to adjust the prices of imported solar panels via tariff because they claimed they couldn’t compete. This is what triggered Trump’s decision in January to levy the tariff, based on an ITC ruling in September that sided with the two companies.
Over 38,000 solar workers are employed in manufacturing positions at firms domestically making solar components like inverters, racking systems and more. Guess what happens if one doubles the price of solar panels in America? This thriving industry will quickly succumb to tough competition from natural gas, coal and other forms of energy. Those 38,000 manufacturing jobs might disappear if artificially high input costs price the entire industry out of existence. Just ask the domestic steel industry, which blends tens of thousands of domestic jobs after the last successful Section 201 petition slapped tariffs on imported steel.
Since Trump followed through on the tariff, one major question has been whether it would impact urban-scale projects, especially with the spread of solar power developments for low-income households and community-shared distribution. Also, will the steady growth in employment for African Americans in urban centers now be blunted due to the expected rise in solar panel costs?
As the NAACP recently noted in the launch of its new Solar Equity Initiative, low-income households spend more than twice as much of their take-home wages on lighting and heating their homes than do middle-class and wealthy households, and nearly 70 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. Which means they live with those plants’ air pollution. Scaling up and pricing down solar costs could help alleviate those problems.
It’s too early to tell what impact this will have on city-located solar jobs with the tariff just kicking in this week. The bulk of the cost of solar projects is mostly in labor, permitting, and installation, even for systems in low-income areas. The cost of panels is usually less than 15 percent of the total cost of these kinds of projects. Still, the future is somewhat uncertain for some organizations that have committed to spreading solar to poor families.
A loan from the City of Baltimore’s Energy Initiative Loan Program gave the nonprofit the capital to cover all the upfront costs of solar installation on the houses it’s serving. Civic Works will receive additional help from the 30 percent federal solar tax credit to recoup some of those costs, which is generally how low-income solar is financed. Many of the nonprofit’s workers are people who’ve been incarcerated and unemployed. However, nonprofits usually are working on very thin-margin budgets in this game, and can’t afford anything even a little financially surprising.
“Our suppliers have told us, ‘Don’t worry, we have tons of solar panels already,’ so it’s not something that’s going to affect us immediately, but it will down the line,” said Earl Millett, Civic Works’ chief operating officer. “To get the project done that we just did at the end of 2017, we needed everything to pull together perfectly, and we still had just a little wiggle room in the economics.”
Millett continued: “The economics are tough to work out with any solar project, though, and doing it on low-income homes adds an extra complexity. But it’s something people are working to overcome, because having a large segment of our population miss out on the benefits of solar just because they’re low-income residents shouldn’t be acceptable.”
Anya Schoolman, executive director of Solar United Neighbors of D.C., said the the real impact of the tariff will be felt on large utility-scale solar projects, like the fields of panels you might find on undeveloped land or in a desert. Solar United Neighbors has been working to spread community solar and also embarked on a project to rest solar panels on the roofs of 220 low-income households in D.C., at no cost to the homeowners.
“The tariffs are going to be an issue, but it’s one of the smaller variables,” said Schoolman. “We have many other variables to consider such as permitting costs [and] interconnection costs, which are what the utility companies charge, and those things end up making a bigger difference.”
However, the blow to the larger utility-scale solar projects is not insignificant. According to Schoolman, those projects, some of which are now on hold because of the tariff, were just beginning to compete with coal and natural gas. The 2017 Solar Jobs Census found that 86 percent of surveyed solar businesses said the tariff would negatively impact their company. The census also reported that 78 percent of project developers and 70 percent of companies that do installations would decrease their solar activities under new trade restrictions. This was all before Trump imposed the tariff. Since then, one major solar project in Texas has been stalled, according to Utility Dive.
The tariff directly affects only jobs in the manufacturing industry, which account for roughly 15 percent of the solar industry. The installation sector, by comparison, accounts for roughly 52 percent of the industry. Neither Millett nor Schoolman thought the tariff would have any real impact on installation jobs in their programs, at least not immediately, despite the prospect of panel prices slightly rising. Both the installation and manufacturing sectors experienced job losses in 2017, according to the Solar Jobs Census.
“If you’re talking about jobs and building the industry, then this isn’t the way to do it because you’re throwing workers from thriving businesses in a nascent industry out,” he said. “Now they are back at square one, which puts them back on unemployment and back on welfare rolls. And I thought that what this was what Trump’s policies were supposed to prevent?”
Her Majesty officially banned plastic straws and bottles from all cafés, dining halls, and catered events on royal estates.
Like many of us, she was influenced by the soothing voice of David Attenborough. Unlike almost all of us, that happened while she filmed part of a conservation documentary with the venerable naturalist, where we imagine they discussed crumpets, ocean plastics, and being 91 years old.
“Across the organization, the Royal Household is committed to reducing its environmental impact,” a Buckingham Palace spokesperson said. The ban is one of a few big green moves of late by Her Majesty, including plans to add solar panels and biogas generator to Buckingham Palace.
Of the 300 million tons of plastic produced every year, more than 8 million are estimated to end up in the ocean. Brits alone use well over 7 billion disposable plastic water bottles a year, recycling fewer than half of them (and recycling plastic comes with a whole other set of problems). If that rate remains unchanged, there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the ocean by 2050.
Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, calls it a “Blue Apron–type program.” But unlike Blue Apron, the boxes wouldn’t include fresh food: They’d be filled shelf-stable milk and canned meat, fruits, and vegetables. Yum!
Meal kits have some environmental drawbacks. They usually require more packaging than what you’d pick up at the grocery store because of the non-standard quantities of ingredients used in recipes.
And while the White House says the boxes would save the federal government $214 billion, states would have to foot the bill for distributing the boxes and cope with the associated carbon emissions.
Proponents of ready-to-make dinners say that the portion-controlled meals help reduce food waste. But this wouldn’t be the case for Trump’s “America’s Harvest box,” which would essentially dictate what 16 million low-income households should eat — regardless of differences in culture, preference, allergies, or medical needs. And rather than expanding access to fresh produce, the program would render families dependent on canned and processed foods.
Lissa Lucas is running for a seat in West Virginia’s state legislature, against a Republican incumbent who has received thousands of dollars from fossil fuel companies.
On Friday, Lucas took to the West Virginia House floor to enumerate those dollars while speaking out against a bill that would allow companies to drill on private land with permission of only 75 percent of the affected landowners.
At the public hearing, Lucas began by listing the donations to members of the West Virginia House judiciary committee, Charlotte Lane (at least $10,000 from industry interests) and John Shott (at least $8,000). She was starting in on Jason S. Harshbarger, the Republican she plans to run against in the upcoming midterm elections, when Shott cut her off for making “personal comments.”
Lucas continued to list Harshbarger’s campaign donations until she was removed from the floor. As she left, she shouted Montani Semper Liberi — “Mountaineers are Always Free,” the motto on West Virginia’s state seal.
Last week, a judge ruled that the environmental impact report for the proposed World Logistics Center in Moreno Valley, California, is inaccurate. That means that Highland Fairview, the controversial warehouse’s developer, may need to perform additional studies before construction can begin.
“After the court’s decision, we can all breathe a sigh of relief,” Earthjustice attorney Adrian Martinez, whose organization is representing the plaintiffs, wrote to Grist in an email. That reprieve may be brief: The warehouse project will likely continue despite the legal setback.
Here’s how humanity could all but ensure its own demise: Dig up all the coal we have left and burn it, warming the planet 4 to 6 degrees C.
But that worst-case scenario doesn’t match up with what’s really happening in the world, Justin Ritchie, lead author of a new study published in Environmental Research Letters, told Grist.
That’s because money spent on climate change measures goes further than it did 30 years ago. Plus, baseline trends show greenhouse gas emissions are on the decline. Most studies underestimate the effect these factors have on global decarbonization.
The study indicates that the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement are more achievable than previously projected — but that’s not to say humanity isn’t in deep trouble.
It’s not “4 to 6 degrees bad,” Ritchie says. “It’s 3 degrees bad. You can’t say we don’t have to worry about implementing policies, we do. But it’s not going to reach the truly catastrophic scenarios.”
Another recent study published in the same journalshows that if all the coal plants currently planned actually get built, humanity could blow past the Paris goal of limiting warming to 2 degree C above pre-industrial levels.
Ritchie said his research doesn’t counteract that finding. “There’s a whole range of scenarios that can occur,” he says. “What our paper is trying to do is look at that whole range and how can we design policies that are more robust.”
It’s been nearly 40 years since the battery world had a major shake up. In 1980, a researcher at England’s University of Oxford made the first breakthrough that would eventually take lithium-ion batteries from theoretical to possible. But the industry was slow to embrace the shiny new design. It would be more than a decade before Sony decided to throw its weight behind lithium-ion, and the future where it powers everything from cell phones to laptops to Teslas.
If the next superstar battery is biding its time in a dim university lab right now, it will have an even harder time supplanting lithium-ion. But Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemist Donald Sadoway thinks he has a contender.
His lab pioneered a liquid metal battery that’s currently being developed by its spin-off company, Ambri. And in research published in Nature Energy last month, Sadoway announced a new design with even greater potential to be both durable and dirt cheap. He’s calling it a “liquid displacement battery” or metal mesh battery.
“I know what our materials costs are, and they’re below the materials costs of lithium ion,” he says. That’s important. Next to the battery’s performance, price is the biggest indicator of its chances of sticking around.
But like lithium ion after its big unveiling, Sadoway might have to wait a while for a major company to take interest in his new technology. Thanks to the rise of battery-powered electric vehicles, lithium ion batteries are cheaper than ever, which makes them more attractive to anyone looking to install a lot of energy storage. Plus, all that sustained attention on a single technology feeds a loop of research and development that keeps making lithium-ion batteries faster and more reliable as the price continues to plummet.
All of that means that, today, the field is more tilted against new technologies than ever. Last year, the promising upstart Aquion, a company making large-scale batteries out of little more than salt water, declared bankruptcy. It was a sudden and inauspicious end for a battery that had seemed poised to claim a slice of the market for the first time in a long time.
But according to Sadoway, the reigning battery of the moment has some important shortcomings, too. “It’s good for handheld devices — we can debate whether it’s the right chemistry for an automobile — but at grid level it’s just not adequate,” he told me on a visit to his lab in 2016.
For one thing, he explained, lithium ion relies on a flammable electrolyte — the gel or liquid in the battery that ions flow through. So if you make a lithium battery too powerful or let it get too hot, the whole thing can go up in flames. That’s why the famously pyrotechnic Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone is no longer allowed on airplanes, and why larger versions of lithium ion batteries — such as grid-scale battery farms tethered to renewable energy installations, like this one in Hawaii — always need to use some of their power to keep themselves cool.
But Sadoway’s batteries — both the original liquid metal battery and his new metal mesh battery — operate at temperatures well over 400 degrees F without any danger of combustion. That means they will probably never be portable enough to carry in your pocket or drive around under the hood of your car (maybe not the place you’d want to keep what is essentially a box of molten metal in any case). But at large enough scales, sitting next to a wind or solar farm, they could give lithium ion a run for its money.
And, Sadoway says, the metal mesh battery design from his lab’s January Nature paper is perhaps the most exciting development he’s seen so far.
“This is a gigantic improvement over a technology that was invented about 50 years ago,” Sadoway says. That design started with a Ford Motor Company battery that used molten salt to pass current across a thin, ceramic mesh barrier. But now, instead of the fragile, ceramic mesh of the original, Sadoway substitutes a metal basket.
With that change, Sadoway believes, a battery that was once too finicky and fragile to use in anything but the most specialized conditions — mostly, Japanese state-run nuclear plants — has a whole new set of possibilities.
“You know the difference between something that’s metal and something that’s ceramic,” he explains. “You drop a metal object on the floor, the worst thing that happens is it gets a little bit dented. You drop your coffee cup on the floor and you’re not going to be able to put it back together.”
Even with its liabilities, the original ceramic mesh battery had potential. In 2005, General Electric poured millions of dollars and years of research trying to bring it to market. The company called it “Durathon” and even went as far as to open a manufacturing facility in Schenectady, New York, in 2011.
But by 2015, after a decade of research and development, GE pulled the plug. The batteries — originally developed for train locomotives and eventually installed in a few cell towers and wind farms — were just too expensive.
Ultimately, the thing that makes lithium ion so tough to topple is something called the “experience curve.” The curve maps how, over time, in many different sectors, increases in scale lead to a reliable and predictable decrease in price. It works for solar panels and semiconductors, even contact lenses and motorcycles, and it definitely works for lithium-ion batteries, says Chris Shelton, chief technical officer at energy company AES. In other words, every time you double the volume of lithium-ion battery production, you reduce the cost by more than 15 percent.
AES regularly does an exhaustive screen for potential new battery technologies, but for the past few years, none have been able to get close to lithium ion. It’s simply the most robust technology out there. And the thing Sadoway points to as a weakness of lithium ion — the fact that it can serve the electronics sector as well as the electricity sector — is in fact a strength, Shelton says, at least as far as the market is concerned.
“Its success does not depend on what happens in the electric industry alone or in the telecom industry or data centers or whatever,” he explains.
Shelton does concede that lithium-ion batteries might have some limitations, such as the fact that the battery’s solid electrodes degrade as they charge and empty over and over again. (That’s why your iPhone battery stops working as well over time, too.) But even with those limitations, Shelton insists, once the technology is on the experience curve, it’s easier for future innovation to improve its performance than it would be for a whole new technology to replace it. As a result of lithium ion’s head start, new battery startups, Shelton points out, “have to work on 5-years-from-now price, not today’s price.”
As for Sadoway, he’s been at the game long enough to know that even the best-laid chemistries can go awry on the open market. But he can’t help but get carried away imagining what a big break might look like. Would GE possibly be interested enough in his update that they’d consider reviving the decommissioned Durathon? Will Ambri finally have a battery to challenge lithium ion on the open market?
He knows the odds are not tilted in his favor, but he is excited by the possibility. At the end of it all, he may be right back where he started.
“I’m glad it’s so complicated,” he reflects. “Otherwise, I’ll be out of the job.”