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“I think of 100% [renewables] as a bit of a red herring. If you want 100%, it should be 100% zero carbon electricity. Climate change is the existential threat and I don’t want to waste time arguing about what’s renewable or not. You have to get the carbon out of the energy system as quickly as possible.”

— California Governor Jerry Brown, quoted in CleanTechnica

New York Passes Green New Deal with Aggressive Targets.

New York’s Senate has passed its own version of the Green New Deal (see below), a climate bill that will set the most aggressive clean energy target in the country, more than triple the state’s solar capacity and unleash wind power off the coast. The legislation codifies New York’s goal of getting all of its electricity from emission-free sources by 2040, putting the state ahead of all others that have set clean-energy standards — even progressive California, which has targeted 100% clean power by 2045. It also calls for an 85% reduction in economy-wide emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. In promoting the plan during a recent radio program, Governor Andrew Cuomo called it “the most aggressive in the country.”

Exactly how New York will pull off such an ambitious plan remains to be seen.  The bill would boost the amount of solar power in New York to 6 gigawatts by 2025 from about 1.7 gigawatts currently. It also calls for 9 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2035, up from 0 gigawatts, since none of the state’s electricity currently comes from offshore wind. New York has already passed landmark legislation calling for Zero Emission Credits to protect its nuclear power plants from being undercut by price fluctuations from natural gas, which have caused disruptive volatility in the price of energy, especially around harsh weather.  Utility executives across the U.S. have warned that a 100% green grid is impossible using current technologies. In this respect, New York may be setting itself up to become the test-bed for the roll-out of advanced clean energy technologies, such as Advanced Nuclear power.

California passed SB 100, requiring 100% clean energy by 2045. Yet California’s existing policies still prioritize adding renewables over reducing emissions.

Governor Brown obviously gets it but tragically couldn’t do what was right. Whether it was too politically costly to go against the grain of what the environmental lobby supported (adding renewable energy) or what the fossil fuel lobby supported (adding renewable energy because it paves the way for massive increases in the use of natural gas), or, as some suspect, because it helped Brown’s own personal financial interests, Jerry Brown allowed California to pursue misguided energy goals under its Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) until the very last quarter of his administration, when he signed SB 100 into law.

SB100, when fully implemented, will convert California’s RPS into a Clean Energy Standard, as we have long advocated. While it still kowtows to environmentalists’ demands for increases in the total amount of energy generated by renewables, SB100 goes much further and refocuses on the goal of attaining 100% zero emissions and opens the door to achieving that with all available technologies, including other “zero-carbon resources” such as nuclear.  Unfortunately, the regulatory mandates controlling the CPUC have not begun to catch up with SB100 and there is no coordinated legislative effort yet visible working to reverse the antinuclear mandates implemented under Gov. Brown that doomed California’s last single largest single source of clean energy, Diablo Canyon. If regulators truly cared about achieving 100% clean energy, they would at least postpone the premature closure of this important clean energy source and waste of this enormous investment by the people of California.  Unfortunately, the early closure of Diablo Canyon is an outcome greatly sought and anticipated by both the fossil fuel lobby and the environmental lobby, which both care more about the lucrative market share opened up by this demise, than the loss of that reliable 24×7 source of clean electrons for ratepayers.

California, progressive and environmentally concerned, nevertheless is hostage to the powerful business lobbies that benefit from “means” policies that mandate specific technologies (in this case renewables) rather than directing utilities to achieve the desired zero-carbon “ends” and allow them to select their choice of technologies. They do this because not to would mean that the reliable and more cost-effective clean energy sources, like nuclear, would prevail. Additionally, the enormous flaws in the way the RPS has been structured, which allows utilities to build natural gas peaker plants, satisfies the growth requirements of the fossil fuel industry, which views natural gas as its future growth. Because of the unholy alliance between renewable advocates and natural gas advocates (which is the fossil fuel industry) California slips behind the progress now being made in other states like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois, which are protecting their nuclear generation and investments from both the ill-conceived “100% renewables” mantra and the maneuverings of the fossil fuel industry.

National Energy & Climate Policies

The 2018 midterm elections brought a new Democratic majority to Congress. This majority is anxious to get to work on legislating solutions to our energy and climate crisis. Notably, freshman Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, from New York’s 14th district, has called for a Green New Deal and she has released a proposal for a rule change to create a brand new Select Committee on a Green New Deal, which committee would then be empowered to draft a plan that would transform our economy and society at the scale needed to stop the climate crisis.  Importantly, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez has kept an open mind about nuclear’s role in effort to clean energy.

“I don’t take a strong anti- or pro-position on it,” the New York Democrat said about nuclear energy in an interview late last week. Her Green New Deal resolution, which calls for “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy” to meet 100 percent of U.S. power needs in the next 10 years, “leaves the door open on nuclear so that we can have that conversation,” she said.”

We have started a MoveOn petition to urge Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and all of the signatories to be open to including nuclear energy.  If you agree, please sign our petition. called “We need a Green New Deal focused on achieving 100% Clean Energy and Zero Emissions” directed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Ocasion-Cortez and all of the signatories of the Green New Deal to urge them to focus on “100% Clean Energy.”   You can see how many people have signed on here.

Carbon Tax & Dividend Legislation

The freshmen majority in Congress has also been working hard on legislation that directly regulates carbon emissions. In January, Rep. Ted Deutsch introduced HR 763, the Energy Innovation & Carbon Dividend Act with six co-sponsor, which imposes a fee on the carbon content of fuels, including crude oil, natural gas, coal, or any other product derived from those fuels that will be used so as to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The bill has 48 co-sponsors as of June, 2019.

The fee is imposed on the producers or importers of the fuels and is equal to the greenhouse gas content of the fuel multiplied by the carbon fee rate. The rate begins at $15 in 2019, increases by $10 each year, and is subject to further adjustments based on the progress in meeting specified emissions reduction targets. The bill also imposes a specified fee on fluorinated greenhouse gases.  The bill also includes:

  • exemptions for fuels used for agricultural or non-emitting purposes,
  • exemptions for fuels used by the Armed Forces,
  • rebates for facilities that capture and sequester carbon dioxide, and
  • border adjustment provisions that require certain fees or refunds for carbon-intensive products that are exported or imported.

The fees collected are to be deposited into a Carbon Dividend Trust Fund and used for administrative expenses and dividend payments to U.S. citizens or lawful residents. The fees must be decommissioned when emissions levels and monthly dividend payments fall below specified levels.  The bill also suspends certain regulations that limit greenhouse gas emissions. The suspensions expire if the emissions targets established by this bill are not reached after a specified time period.

Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a non-profit environmental group, was founded to create the political will for climate solutions like the Carbon Fee & Dividend act, by enabling individual breakthroughs in the exercise of personal and political power.  This group is leading the charge to get this bill passed by Congress.

Federal Energy Policies

The Trump Administration, such as it is, has no climate policy and no forward-looking energy policy and seems entirely beholden to fossil fuel donor interests as it works feverishly to roll back key environmental protections implemented by Obama relating to toxic pollutants and carbon emissions from coal and other forms of fossil fuel generation. With help from Republicans in Congress, Trump has targeted environmental rules deemed burdensome by the fossil fuel industry and other big businesses.  A New York Times analysis, based on research from Harvard Law School, Columbia Law School and other sources, finds 83 environmental rules and regulations on the way out under Mr. Trump.

California’s leadership on RPS . . . boosted natural gas growth

When California implemented its Renewable Portfolio Standard in 2002, requiring utilities to produce 50 percent of their retail electricity from clean, renewable sources by 2030, it was considered ground-breaking.  At least thirty states followed California’s lead and implemented some variety of an RPS, requiring utilities to source some portion of their energy from renewables.  In the aftermath, however, the U.S. has seen the biggest gas boom in fracking of shale gas, as a critical flaw in the RPS spurred huge increases in demand for natural gas by utilities, since gas was the only way utilities could keep the lights on when using intermittent energy from wind and solar.

Billions were spent by fossil fuel investors to meet this demand and the amount of gas production skyrocketed, bringing the cost of gas down.  Cheap gas—a by-product of the defective RPS—has nevertheless helped to reduce the U.S.’s carbon emissions, not because of the notional increases in renewables, but rather because cheap gas eliminated demand for coal. The irony of the RPS is that while renewables have not been able to close fossil fuel plants, they have caused the dirtiest fossil energy—coal—to be replaced by gas, which is marginally better.   According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), natural gas’s share of U.S. electricity generation has risen from 21% to 35% during the past decade while coal’s share has dropped from 48% to under 30%. Cheap natural gas has also helped keep energy prices from rising as high as they might have, even though rate-payers are now paying for both renewables and gas plants.

Natural gas releases about 60% of the carbon emissions of coal and almost none of the other noxious and radioactive toxins associated with coal burning.  Yet natural gas—aka methane—is estimated to be 80 to 100 times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide, and is one of the worst of the greenhouse gases.  Studies have shown that when the climate benefits that result from switching from coal to gas are combined with the detriments of natural gas leakages from wells, pipelines or storage units, the net result can eliminate any of the climate benefits of that switch.

Missteps in achieving effective Clean Energy Standards

We have used the atmosphere as a dumping ground for waste emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels for more than a century and a half. Now we need to both urgently stop adding more waste emissions and begin to reduce the amount that is already up there, trapping heat and impacting climate.  California’s first efforts to address emissions from energy, the  Renewable Portfolio Standard, did not succeed in reducing emissions for the state. Its historic environmental leadership may well have led 30 states, Germany, Japan and other nations astray in their efforts to reduce emissions.  In the years since California implemented AB32, its landmark Global Warming Solutions Act, deployment of renewables has resulted in a boom in natural gas use around the world and reductions in nuclear power. Fortunately, the evidence of this misstep has mounted and most groups are now moving away from the “means” focused RPS to an “ends” focused Clean Energy Standard. This is a small victory in the climate fight, even though globally, we have failed to reduce total emissions ever. This failure means that we are in as deep a hole on climate as ever before, which each year adding substantially to our emissions deficit.

While solar and wind in themselves are zero-emission technologies, their dilute energy and intermittent generation have made them porous to penetration by gas.  What is needed are energy policies that support renewables without allowing gas to be the fuel that sops up the excess demand within the interstices of the highly occasional generation. This could be hydro, nuclear, geothermal, batteries, fossil fuels with carbon capture or other new technologies but we can no longer afford it to be an free ride for increasing gas burning.

Fortunately, California as well as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Washington and a range of other states including Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Arizona are starting to move away from the defective RPS to a Clean Energy Standard that targets getting to zero emissions by a set date.  These states have wisely changed their focus to value emission-free generation rather than just adding more renewable capacity.  In this context, Nuclear plants, which have long plant lives and fixed operating costs and are being valued for their clean energy generation (and the fact that they alone of all energy technologies cover the cost of managing all of their waste). Even in the tragic absence of federal leadership on valuing the externalized waste of fossil fuels, these states have recognized the enormous social costs of cheap, dirty energy that still dumps its waste into the atmosphere for free.  To prevent clean nuclear power from being unfairly treated, New York, New Jersey and Illinois have placed a value on the delivery of emission-free energy called a “Zero Emission Credit.”  This enables utilities to buy existing generation from nuclear power and get a tax break that makes up the difference between that fixed cost clean energy and the super-low dirty energy coming from gas plants. This is a good trend and it will help preserve most of our existing nuclear power plants and their clean energy, while also requiring that utilities cut back on burning fossil fuels but there are still plenty of fossil fuel and environmental advocates gunning to close nuclear power—our most powerful sources of clean energy—for the wrong reasons.

Politics, fossil fuel lobbying, misplaced confidence on renewables and antinuclear prejudice have all gotten in the way of achieving significant reductions in emissions but, after decades of missteps, we are finally beginning to move in the right direction.  We urge everyone who is concerned about climate to demand 100% clean energy—however we can get there—and avoid saying “100% renewables,” as this counterfeit focus does not achieve the goals that we need.  We believe the following energy policies are needed to help drive emissions down to zero as quickly as possible.

Driving electric grid emissions down to zero

The following are energy policy changes that will help states achieve true emissions reductions:

1. Change Renewable Portfolio Standards to Clean Energy Standards, which is inclusive of all zero-emission energies sources, and refocus state goals on achieving milestones towards zero net emissions, even if it means providing “zero-emission credits” to sources of clean generation, as New York State has done.

2. For existing Renewable Portfolio generation, require that all back-up generation also be provided by sources of reliable clean energy that also does not emit carbon or methane emissions.

3. Implement a Carbon Tax on all emissions, especially utility generation, so that utilities pay a penalty out of profits for the amount of carbon emissions and methane leaks released over specific limits set, so they are highly motivated to curb excess carbon emissions.

4. Restructure utility financial incentives to reward their success in meeting the zero net emissions goal as quickly as possible and remove compensation based upon any use or further build-outs of dirty energy.

5. Pass a Carbon Tax and use the proceeds to fund clean tech innovation to improve all forms of clean energy and clean technologies, help create clean jobs and bolster the U.S.’s competitive position in the global markets for advanced energy and grid security.

6. Hold fossil fuel companies to the same standard as Nuclear power and require them to cover the costs of storing and damage from their waste.  Since there has been more than a century without them being financially responsible for the CO2 emissions, consider assessing penalties from excess profits, to begin to accrue a fund that can cover the costs of removal of CO2 from the ocean and atmosphere.

7. Plan for the full phase out of fossil fuels entirely by implementing a future ban with progressive penalties on utilities that continue emitting CO2 after a reasonable transition period.

2019-06-19T13:16:42+00:00

About the Author:

Valerie Gardner
Valerie Gardner has focused on studying and developing meaningful ways for individuals to respond to climate change. She started by creating educational programs at schools, then moved to developing community environmental programs starting in 2007. By 2010, she began exploring how best to decrease fossil fuel and carbon emissions from investment portfolios and developed the Future Generation portfolio, a "post-carbon priced" portfolio strategy. Her search for alternative clean energy solutions led her to re-examine nuclear power. In 2016, she co-founded the Climate Coalition with a partner, a Sierra Club chapter president, who was afraid of coming out publicly in favor of nuclear power for fear of backlash by his environmental colleagues. The Climate Coalition is working to broaden acceptance among environmentalists for support of nuclear power in the fight against climate change.

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