Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Stable Climate is a Fundamental Right and a Massive Economic Opportunity

By Ed Jewell, Energy Fellow
Photo Credit: C-SPAN. James Inhofe talking nonsense.

Youth plaintiffs from Oregon have filed a lawsuit against the United States government in the District Court of Oregon alleging that the federal government’s failure to take meaningful action on climate change violates a fundamental right held by the plaintiffs that is protected by the U.S. Constitution. Last November, youth plaintiffs survived a motion to dismiss, and Juliana v. United States of America is now scheduled to go to trial in either late 2017 or in 2018 (barring any successful delay tactics on behalf of the federal government). 

For more background on the case, see this Charged Debate post from February 7, 2017 in which I provide an overview of the parties and the plaintiffs’ legal theories.

The plaintiffs in Juliana allege that the right to a stable climate is an unenumerated fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution. Because the federal government helped cause the danger created by an unstable climate, they allege that the government has an affirmative duty to restore the climate to a stable condition.

The Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment provides, “No person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Plaintiffs in Juliana argue that the federal government has violated this Constitutional guarantee through the leasing, permitting, subsidizing, and promoting of fossil fuel development at home and abroad. The direct result of these activities is the combustion of fossil fuels, which inevitably results in the release of greenhouse gases. The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere leads to an altered climate system with property, health, and livelihood impacts on plaintiffs. Therefore, the plaintiffs assert, the government’s direct actions have helped to create the harm imposed upon plaintiffs’ liberty and property interests without satisfying the requirements of due process.

An “unenumerated fundamental right” is a right that is not explicitly written in the Constitution but is nonetheless protected by the Constitution. In McDonald v. City of Chicago, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it is proper for the courts to recognize an unenumerated fundamental right if it is either: 1) deeply rooted in the history and tradition of the U.S., or 2) fundamental to our nation’s scheme of ordered liberty. Judge Aiken, the District Court of Oregon judge hearing Juliana, wrote, “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”

The right to privacy is an example of another unenumerated fundamental right protected by the Constitution, under which numerous more specific rights are protected. The U.S. Supreme Court rested its decisions in Roe v. Wade (articulating a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion), as well as its decision in Griswold v. Connecticut (upholding the right to purchase contraception regardless of marital status), and its recent decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (articulating the right to marry the person of one’s choosing, even if that person is of the same sex) under the right to privacy. While the right to choose, the right to purchase contraception, and the right to same-sex marriage are not explicitly protected by the Constitution, they are all protected under the umbrella of an unenumerated right to privacy.

The proper relationship between the judiciary and the political branches is a key theme in Juliana. On the one hand, it is the judiciary’s duty to interpret and declare the law. On the other hand, the Constitution allocates policymaking authority to the political branches. Because the courts do not write laws, judges exercise caution before pronouncing an unenumerated fundamental right. However, certain terms in the Constitution, such as the word “liberty” in the Due Process Clause, are undeniably vague and require interpretation by the courts. As the Court recently stated in Obergefell v. Hodges, “[t]he identification and protection of fundamental rights is an enduring part of the judicial duty to interpret the Constitution.” Thus, Juliana hinges on the question of whether the government’s failure to take meaningful action on climate change has crossed the threshold from mere policy decision to constitutional violation.

Judge Aiken was careful to limit her holding in her Order on defendants’ motion to dismiss to recognizing that a “climate system capable of sustaining human life” is a fundamental right. In so limiting her holding, Judge Aiken took care to ensure that the judiciary is properly fulfilling its Constitutionally prescribed role as a check on the political branches, but is not straying into policymaking. Judge Aiken did not state that there is a Constitutional right to a climate system as it existed before the industrial revolution, or to a pristine environment totally devoid of human impact. To make such a declaration would be to make a policy determination that environmental purity is more important than other policy objectives. Instead, Judge Aiken held, “In this opinion, this Court simply holds that where a complaint alleges governmental action is affirmatively and substantially damaging the climate system in a way that will cause human deaths, shorten human lifespans, result in widespread damage to property, threaten human food sources, and dramatically alter the planet’s ecosystem, it states a claim for a due process violation.” Seems fair.

If plaintiffs ultimately succeed on their claim that there is a fundamental right to a stable climate capable of sustaining human life, the judiciary’s authority to constrain and direct the actions of the executive and legislative branches will be tested to its full extent. Additionally, the judicial system’s ability to act expeditiously and require remedial action of the political branches on a timeframe that is meaningful in relation to the scientific imperatives of quick and decisive action on climate change is uncertain. Without all three branches of government pulling together in the same direction, the U.S. Constitutional system favors maintenance of the status quo over quick and decisive action.

Juliana is an important and interesting case that is pushing the conversation on climate change and potentially reframing the issue from one of partisan bickering to one of Constitutional proportions, but climate change mitigation will require the political branches to cooperate. While Juliana seeks to compel the judiciary to hold the political branches to account, this alone is not enough.

The viability and benefits of a transition to a clean energy economy must be broadly recognized in order for climate change to be mitigated in a meaningful manner. On an optimistic note, solar energy already provides more jobs than the coal, oil, and gas industries combined. Additionally, because of the disbursed nature of renewable resources, renewable energy development has inherent potential to benefit landowners in rural districts, potentially providing more disbursed vested interests and greater overall political viability than a moral call to action on climate change.

Juliana is a powerful component of the transition to a sustainable economy because it brings to light the regrettable reluctance of the political branches to fulfill their obligations to the American people to maintain the conditions necessary for ordered liberty to prevail. Juliana alone, however, is not sufficient to achieve a stable climate system. To successfully mitigate climate change, more people must experience the economic benefits of renewable energy, political pressure must be increased, technological development must continue, state and local governments must fill the void in the absence of federal leadership, and private companies must lead the way until sense returns to the political branches.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Transmission 101: Exploring the Hidden Currents

By Joni Sliger, Energy Fellow
"Photoshop art created from two NREL-Image Gallery photos of
sunset view of electrical power towers combined with wind machines."
Credit: NREL and Raymond David (Photo Illustration)

Hailed as the world’s largest machine, our nation’s transmission and distribution infrastructure is a critical component of our electricity system. These power lines carry electricity from every electric power plant to every electricity consumer. Investing in this infrastructure is necessary for the transition to a clean energy future. This blog series explores the issues surrounding transmission, both nationally and in the Pacific Northwest, and considers various options for meeting our transmission needs in the 21st century. This first post offers a basic introduction to transmission in the United States.

What is Transmission?

Transmission, in the electricity world, refers to the flow of electricity from its generation source, like a power plant or a wind farm, to a local substation, typically over long distances. The infrastructure that carries this electricity is the transmission system. At the substation, the transmission system connects to the distribution system, which carries electricity on to consumers. One may view a map of the nearly 200,000 circuit miles of transmission lines in the U.S. on the Energy Information Administration’s U.S. Energy Mapping System.

As electricity travels on a power line, some of it is lost due to inefficiencies in the system. For example, power lines may unintentionally produce heat, which uses up some of the electricity on the line. Heat losses are a common problem: consider the remarkably inefficient incandescent light bulb, which loses 90% of the electricity it draws to unintentionally producing heat. The energy lost in transmission or distribution is called a ‘line loss.’

In the U.S., 5 to 6% of the electricity generated is lost due to line losses nationally. Inside Energy provides an interactive graphic of the line losses in each state; Wyoming loses the least power at only 2.2%, while Idaho loses the most at 13.3%. Losses vary depending on whether a state has more transmission lines or more distribution lines. Transmission lines travel farther distances than distribution lines, but they have fewer line losses, because they operate at a higher voltage. High-voltage lines can carry more electricity to consumers, ensuring more sales. However, the voltage is too high for household use, so transformers reduce the voltage at the substation and along the distribution system.

To sum up, transmission and distribution lines carry power from a generating source to a user. Transmission lines carry power farther distances but are more efficient, because they operate at a higher voltage than distribution lines.

What are the Problems with Transmission?

With almost 200,000 miles of transmission lines in the U.S., one may be surprised to hear that a lack of transmission capacity is a major constraint to bringing renewable energy sources online. Unfortunately, our current transmission system suffers significant limitations.

Time plays two roles in affecting transmission systems. First, the passage of time decreases the efficiency of transmission systems. Over time, transmission lines suffer physical wear and tear and become less efficient. Additionally, new technologies are discovered, so the lines become outdated. Most transmission lines in the U.S. are based on 1950s technology. Replacing these lines and associated infrastructure with newer technologies is often referred to as ‘modernizing the grid.’

Second, time affects the demands on the transmission system. In the U.S., electricity must be kept operating at 60 Hertz, the frequency of choice for our systems. Grid operators constantly monitor the system to ensure its frequency is stable. If the frequency changes too much, the system crashes, causing brownouts or blackouts. As consumers draw power off the grid, electricity must be available to replace it, so that operators can balance the grid. If more electricity is available than consumers need, producers have to throw it away. Advances in energy storage technologies, like modern battery systems, may soon enable producers to save this excess energy and avoid the use of ‘peaking plants.’ Peaking plants operate only when demand is at a high, even if only for a few hours or days a year; with such limited use, the construction of peaking plants is very expensive relative to the energy they produce. Without energy storage, the transmission system cannot take advantage of changes in energy demands.

Transmission lines can only carry so much electricity at one time. Their capacity varies with the age and efficiency of the technology of the line; newer lines can operate at higher voltages, which allows them to carry more power, while suffering fewer line losses, as noted above. With only a limited amount of capacity available, generators have to compete to get their electricity to the market for sale. A congested transmission system, where too little transmission capacity is available, creates a bottleneck that constrains electricity from getting to where it is needed. Financing the deployment of new sources requires access to a market, so bottlenecks are a significant impediment to possible development.

Where transmission lines are located affects whether generators face a bottleneck or not. Unfortunately, most transmission lines are currently located far away from the best sites for renewable energy development. As my colleague, Amy Schlusser blogged previously, we primarily built our transmission system to carry power from large, fossil fuel-fired power plants to power-hungry urban centers. In rural areas, where the potential to develop renewable energy is often greatest, there is often a lack of available transmission or capacity. In short, our transmission lines are built in the wrong places for a future powered by renewable sources.

To bring more renewable energy sources online, the most obvious solution is to build more transmission lines. This is extremely expensive and faces challenges in siting. Concerns include conflicts with local private property owners (and NIMBYism) as well as conflicts with other needs, such as environmental regulations to preserve wilderness and protect wildlife, such as sage-grouse. Other options exist though, such as more distributed generation and offshore energy development, as I’ll discuss later on in this series. Before discussing possible solutions, however, this series will next look deeper in how the transmission system operates, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, and explore open-access transmission policies, pancaked rates, balancing areas, and more. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

An EPA Adversary Now Helms the Agency

By Ed Jewell, Energy Fellow

Photo Credit:
Last week, Scott Pruitt was confirmed as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, largely along party lines and despite the impending release of emails ordered by an Oklahoma court regarding Mr. Pruitt’s contacts with the oil and gas industry (because who cares about a few emails?). Unsurprisingly, given President Trump’s overtures to the fossil fuel industry during his campaign and early days in office, his selection of Mr. Pruitt represents a bigly gift for the oil and gas industry.

Scott Pruitt Is More Concerned With Protecting the Oil and Gas Industry Than Protecting the Environment

Unlike some of President Trump’s other nominees for cabinet positions, Mr. Pruitt is familiar with the work of the agency that he has been nominated to lead. In his previous job as the Attorney General (AG) of Oklahoma, Mr. Pruitt sued the EPA over a dozen times in efforts to block implementation of rules to protect clean air and water.

Mr. Pruitt was also instrumental in building a network of Republican AG offices dedicated to fighting EPA efforts under the Obama administration. As chairman of the Rule of Law Defense Fund, Mr. Pruitt and his cohorts sought to slow or thwart implementation of major environmental and public health programs such as the Cross State Air Pollution Rule, Clean Air Mercury Rule, EPA’s update to its national ambient air quality standards for ground-level ozone (smog), the Clean Power Plan, and others. Co-litigants with Mr. Pruitt in these suits against the EPA included the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, National Mining Association, Murray Energy, Peabody Energy, Southern Company, American Petroleum Institute, and other representatives of some of the most polluting industries on Earth.

Mr. Pruitt’s actions show greater concern for the interests of the oil and gas industry than for public health and the environment. The New York Times has described Mr. Pruitt’s relationship with oil and gas industry executives as an “unprecedented, secretive alliance.” In 13 out of the 14 challenges to federal environmental regulations that Mr. Pruitt was part of, energy companies that had contributed money to Mr. Pruitt or to Pruitt-affiliated political campaign committees were co-parties. Additionally, Mr. Pruitt copy-and-pasted a letter (with minor, unsubstantial alterations) from an oil and gas company onto Oklahoma AG letterhead, and sent the letter to the EPA representing it as the work of the AG’s office, thereby using the seal of his public office to lend an imprimatur of public interest to the arguments of the oil and gas industry.

One of the core tenets of Mr. Pruitt’s regulatory philosophy is that environmental regulation should be left to the states. However, under his direction, the Oklahoma AG's office cut its environmental enforcement division and redirected resources into a newly created federalism division. Thus, Mr. Pruitt’s actions demonstrate his beliefs that not only should environmental regulation be left to the states (calling into question why he is in charge of the EPA) but that states should then abdicate responsibility for environmental protection as well (calling into question why he is in public service).

Pruitt’s EPA Will Face Legal Roadblocks to Rolling Back Most Obama Era Regulations

While Mr. Pruitt was effective at organizing opposition to the Obama administration’s regulatory efforts, his challenges often failed in court. Courts upheld numerous EPA rules challenged by Mr. Pruitt and his coalition, making them more impervious to challenge from within the agency.

Furthermore, judicial review of administrative actions constrains the ability of the EPA Administrator to make or reverse policies adopted by previous administrations, particularly policies that have already gone into effect. Familiar doctrines such as Chevron deference and arbitrary and capricious review provide outer limits on the Administrator’s discretion. Agencies may be entitled to substantial deference from the courts, but agency actions are far from unfettered.

It is quite common for incoming EPA administrators to take different positions on matters within the agency’s jurisdiction than outgoing administrators. While the agency is allowed considerable latitude in its policy positions, it still must be able to adequately explain why it is changing course and must point to substantial evidence in the record to support its decision. It is not simply enough for the agency to say that there is a new administration in town and so now the agency is going to rescind previous rules. Perhaps most illustrative of this principle is the G.W. Bush administration’s failed efforts to undo the Clinton administration’s Roadless Rule for certain areas of the nation’s national forests.

Therefore, most of the Obama administration’s environmental regulations—which were amply supported by scientific evidence and in many cases have already been upheld against legal challenges (many of them from Mr. Pruitt)—will be tough for Pruitt to undo. Particularly given that numerous federal environmental statutes, existing regulations, and the best available science all contradict his lasseiz faire dressed up as federalism viewpoint.

The early days of the Trump administration are not indicative of an administration that is predisposed to the thoughtful, deliberative process required to compile the necessary administrative record to withstand judicial scrutiny. Additionally, the administration’s actions to undermine the EPA’s work, including efforts to slash the agency’s funding and impugn the role of science in policy making, will likely work against the administration’s anti-regulatory rulemaking efforts by opening the actions to judicial challenges.

Given the current legal structure, Mr. Pruitt's office faces impediments to fulfilling its agenda. Which goes a long way in explaining Steve Bannon's recent statements that efforts are underway to dismantle the regulatory state. So long as Americans continue to push back on the unconstitutional overreach of the Trump administration, and prevent wholesale change of our system of government, the environmental regulations that have protected U.S. water quality, air quality, and public health will likely still be in place when the American political system regains its senses. Just keep pushing back. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The U.S. Constitution, the Public Trust Doctrine, and the Right to a Stable Climate

By Ed Jewell, Energy Fellow
Image Credit: Our Children's Trust

Amid an onslaught of foreboding news for U.S. democracyhuman and civil rights, and the environment, a small beacon of hope shines out of the District Court of Oregon. On November 10, 2016, plaintiffs in the case of Juliana v. United States won another important, if preliminary, battle in the fight to maintain an atmosphere capable of sustaining the ecological systems of the planet. Plaintiffs survived a motion to dismiss, and the case is scheduled to go to trial in summer or early fall 2017.

Throughout the coming weeks, I will discuss in greater detail the arguments put forth by the plaintiffs and provide analyses on the legal merits of their claims. For now, I would like to simply introduce the parties, provide a brief description of the claims at issue, and alert readers to the possibility that not everything is going poorly

The Parties

Plaintiffs in the case are a group of youths and environmentally-focused youth organizations. Dr. James Hansen, former Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is also a named plaintiff as guardian for his granddaughter and future generations. Plaintiffs are represented by lawyers affiliated with the nonprofit organization Our Children’s Trust. Our Children’s Trust has filed numerous lawsuits in state courts across the U.S. and internationally alleging a right to a stable climate under various legal theories, including state constitutional claims, administrative law claims, federal constitutional claims, and the public trust doctrine.

Defendants in Juliana are the President of the United States and numerous federal agencies, namely the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The American Petroleum Institute, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the National Association of Manufacturers have also intervened in the suit on behalf of the government.

The Legal Theories 

Plaintiffs allege that the U.S. government has known for over fifty years that extreme CO2 pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels is likely to destabilize the global atmosphere and that the federal government has nonetheless continued to allow and encourage the exploitation of fossil fuels. Plaintiffs allege that defendants have willfully ignored the impending harm of climate change and have substantially caused or contributed to the increase in atmospheric CO2 through the permitting, authorizing, and subsidizing of fossil fuel extraction and consumption.

Plaintiffs assert four legal causes of action in Juliana, three of which are constitutional, and one of which is pre-constitutional. The first argument is that the U.S. government has violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment by authorizing, permitting, and subsidizing the extraction, consumption, and export of fossil fuels, which contributes to the destabilization of the global climate. Plaintiffs allege that the right to a stable climate is protected by substantive Due Process jurisprudence because a stable climate is implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.

Related to the claim of an unenumerated fundamental right under the Due Process clause, plaintiffs assert a violation of the Ninth Amendment. The Ninth Amendment states that the enumeration of specific rights "shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." Thus, plaintiffs argue that even though the right to a stable climate does not appear in the text of the Constitution, case law establishing a substantive Due Process cause of action against the federal government under the Fifth Amendment, and the text of the Ninth Amendment, do not foreclose courts from recognizing a stable climate as a fundamental right protected by the Constitution. 

Plaintiffs’ third constitutional argument alleges that defendants have violated the principle of equal protection. Under this claim, plaintiffs assert that the youth petitioners and future generations are a protected class of people that need extraordinary protection from the political process due to an immutable characteristic. The immutable characteristic asserted is not merely their age, but the fact that an entire generation (and many more after that) will not be able to reverse the damage of climate change caused by present decision makers. The claim for protection for posterity is based on the Founders’ concern for intergenerational equity, as illustrated by the preamble to the Constitution, which announces the intention of the document to, in part, “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and Posterity”. 

Petitioners' fourth legal claim is based on the Public Trust Doctrine. The Public Trust Doctrine is an ancient common law doctrine that has been incorporated into U.S. jurisprudence through a long string of judicial decisions dating back centuries. The doctrine can be traced from Roman law to English common law to American common law. The Public Trust Doctrine requires the government to prevent "substantial impairment" of vital natural resources for the benefit of present and future generations. In Juliana, plaintiffs must convince the court that the Public Trust Doctrine applies to the federal government, and not just state governments. Additionally, plaintiffs must convince the court that the Public Trust Doctrine protects the atmosphere, or alternatively, that damage to sea shores from ocean level rise and ocean acidification is a cognizable claim under the Public Trust Doctrine. 

Juliana raises numerous other legal questions that courts have struggled to deal with in the context of climate change. Specifically, issues of standing (the right of plaintiffs to be in court), the political question doctrine (the ability of the court to decide the issue within the tripartite form of U.S. government), displacement (whether federal statutes such as the Clean Air Act swallow common law causes of action in the field of climate change), and remedy (what the court could order defendants to do if it found for plaintiffs) are all very much live issues in Juliana

In addition to the fascinating legal theories, the stark juxtaposition of the identities of parties, and the fierce urgency of acting on climate change, there is yet a bit more intrigue. Plaintiffs seek to depose Rex Tillerson, recently confirmed as the U.S. Secretary of State, in order to ascertain information relating to the relationship between the U.S. government and private fossil fuel companies. Attorneys for Intervenors and Defendants have both opposed the deposition of Mr. Tillerson. 

The role of the judiciary in the U.S. constitutional system is an intriguing theme in the uncertain political times that we find ourselves in. With an executive branch and a legislative branch living in a universe of alternative fact, it may fall on the courts to protect both our democratic and ecologic systems. Juliana going to trial means that climate science and climate policy will be aired out in public and judged within a framework of vetted facts applied to concepts of fundamental rights and fiduciary duties rather than merely within the realm of fake news and echo chambers. Such a prospect is highly encouraging in the current social, political, and ecological context and is very important for the development of the law in relation to climate change as well .

If you’re looking for something to be hopeful about, follow along over the coming weeks as I explore the legal theories that animate this case. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Oregon Prepares to Buoy Up Wave Energy

Credit: U.S. Department of Energy
By Joni Sliger, Energy Fellow

Oregon legislators may soon provide financial support to a wave energy test center planned off the coast of Newport, Oregon, known as the Pacific Marine Energy Center South Energy Test Site (or PMEC-SETS). After the legislature convenes this Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources will begin discussing SB 285, a bill to appropriate $4.6 million for the facility. State funding will (hopefully) supplement a promised grant from the U.S. Department of Energy of up to $40 million. Optimistically assuming that the federal grant (which is “subject to appropriations”) makes it through the Trump administration gauntlet, here’s what Oregon can expect from PMEC-SETS.

PMEC-SETS will be a deepwater test facility for utility-scale wave energy converters. In other words, it will provide the offshore infrastructure necessary for developers to test huge devices that aim to capture energy from ocean waves and transform it into electricity. As shown in the image above, the facility will include anchors off the coast to which wave energy converters can attach for tests; these anchors will connect to the onshore grid network via undersea transmission cables. The plan is for the facility to be fully operational by 2020. According to the DOE, the facility will be a world-class testing facility with the ability to accommodate up to 20 converters at a time and supply up to 20 MW of electricity to the grid. PMEC’s director Belinda Batten describes the testing as “the last step before commercialization” since testing enables developers to prove the seaworthiness and cost-competitiveness of their technologies. By providing a place for developers to test new wave technologies, PMEC-SETS will facilitate the development and growth of the wave energy industry.

As I noted in a previous post, wave energy is a very new technology, but it has huge potential. According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, wave energy could feasibly meet almost a third of the U.S.’s energy needs. Additionally, because over half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of a coastline, wave energy could be produced close to where it is consumed, reducing the need for additional transmission infrastructure. To obtain significant generation from wave power, however, more projects need to be deployed. Some projects and testing facilities exist, as shown in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Marine and Hydrokinetic Database's map, but not many: only three sites off the coast of Washington, Oregon, or California are currently testing wave electricity-generating projects, 2 of which are off Oregon’s coast.

Oregon is particularly well-suited to leading wave energy development. The Oregon Wave Energy Trust describes Oregon as “uniquely positioned to be North America’s leader in ocean energy” because of the potential energy of the state’s coast plus the state’s nearby transmission system, transportation infrastructure, ready manufacturing and supply chain, and support from legislators and research institutions. If the new industry takes off, it could provide numerous jobs to Oregon’s communities in addition to the many other benefits of local renewable energy generation. To become a leader in wave energy, Oregon needs to enact SB 285 and support projects like PMEC-SETS.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Putting the Pedal to the Metal for Electric Vehicles in 2017

By Joni Sliger, Energy Fellow
Recharging a Toyota RAV4 electric vehicle
Credit: Warren Gretz / NREL

Vehicle electrification is vital to a clean energy future, and it is a process that may soon accelerate in Oregon. Improving Oregon’s transportation system broadly is one of Governor Kate Brown’s top four action items for this legislative session. Her legislative agenda notes that an improved transportation system is necessary as the “backbone of a thriving Oregon economy” and that it can help the state reach its greenhouse gas reduction goals (currently, to reduce emissions 10% below 1990 levels by 2020 and 75% below 1990 levels by 2050). Transportation is Oregon’s highest emitting sector, according to the Oregon Greenhouse Gas Inventory, and amounts for more than a third of all Oregon’s emissions. To combat climate change and meet Oregon’s greenhouse gas reduction goals, we need a cleaner transportation system; for that, we need vehicle electrification.

Some electric vehicles are present in Oregon, but the market has a lot of room for growth. According to a new online dashboard designed by the Center for Sustainable Energy for the Auto Alliance, Oregon ranks third in the nation for the state’s market share of light-duty electric vehicles, measured from 2013 to 2016. But this market share—the number of electric vehicles out of all vehicles in the state—is still only 1.5%. While the proportion of electric vehicles relative to all vehicles is higher only in Washington and California, the overwhelming majority of vehicles sold are not electric. Oregon has made more progress in deploying electric vehicles than most of the U.S.: for example, despite a relatively small population, Oregon ranks 10th in the nation for number of electric vehicles sold, with 10,825 electric vehicles sold in the state from 2011 to 2016. However, Oregon still needs to do more to electrify its transportation sector. 

One way to galvanize the market is through public investment. For example, the Mayor of Portland is one of four West Coast mayors working together to support the transition to electric vehicles. In a Request For Information (RFI) to auto manufacturers, the mayors announced their interest in obtaining or leasing up to 24,000 electric vehicles. The mayors propose to change city fleets to electric vehicles, hoping to lead by example by adopting electric vehicles. Additionally, they hope such high demand will help the young market transition to mass production, eventually resulting in lower prices for all consumers. The bid for the RFI is due March 1, so manufacturers still have time to submit proposals.

While we can hope for legislators to act this session to further support vehicle electrification, they have also taken action recently. Last session, Oregon legislators passed the Clean Electricity & Coal Transition Act. As my colleague, Andrea Lang Clifford, wrote last year, the new law requires the state’s utilities to propose EV charging infrastructure programs, which the PUC may approve if it finds the proposals to be prudent investments of ratepayers’ money. As Andrea noted, this is an incremental step, heavily dependent on the PUC’s views of prudency. While the utilities submitted their proposals in late December 2016, the PUC has yet to rule on them. Among the proposed actions are (1) pilot projects for new charging infrastructure (including charging stations five electric Tri-Met buses); (2) educational campaigns, including showcasing electric vehicles at car shows; (3) additional research into the technologies involved; and (4) a rate change for vehicle charging to incentivize the market switch. (You can read Pacific Power’s applications here and here; PGE’s here; and Idaho Power’s here). The PUC is set to have hearings on most of these applications in early February and decide whether the proposed actions are worth the cost to the ratepayers, so stay tuned to learn how the PUC rules on these proposals.

This year, Oregon legislators are ready to work on major transportation legislation. Hopefully, legislators will advance vehicle electrification and continue moving Oregon towards a clean energy future. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Trump-era Politics and the Audacity of Continuing to Hope

By Ed Jewell

Photo credit:
Tomorrow, January 20, 2017, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. What his election means for society at large is hard to guess, but objective signifiers—such as his cabinet nominations, his First 100 Days Plan, his written request to the Department of Energy to identify employees who had worked on climate initiatives, and the tenor of his campaign—foretell trouble ahead for social and environmental progress. But the ending of this story has not yet been written, and we as citizens have a major part to play in how the drama unfolds.

What makes this moment so particularly harrowing—from a climate perspective—is the limited amount of time left to make the necessary and significant course correction in regards to how our economy is powered. The science is telling, the politics are bleak, and the window of opportunity to act is narrow.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump has claimed that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to make American manufacturing less competitive. He has appointed a man to head the E.P.A. who has been a wildly effective advocate for the oil and gas industry and who has suedthe Obama administration over its promulgation of Clean Air Act regulations more than a dozen times in his role as the attorney general of Oklahoma. He has appointed a career-long oilman with ExxonMobil—a company under investigation for misleading investors for decades on the science of climate change—with no diplomatic or public service experience to be the Secretary of State. He has appointed Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy, the same department that Rick Perry wanted to cut during his 2012 presidential campaign, but just couldn’t quite remember the name of. At the present point in time, the outlook for the natural systems that support our human civilization is a dreary outlook.

In addition to Donald Trump in the White House, the Republicans—a solid bloc of climate skeptics and deniers—will control the House and the Senate as well. And through obstinate refusal to carry out their constitutionally mandated duty to advise and consent on President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination, Republicans will have the ability to name at least one Supreme Court justice as well. Additionally, the map does not look particularly promising for Democrats to regain control of either the House or Senate in 2018. There don’t seem to be many checks and balances left for the Democrats, though the Senate filibuster and perhaps other parliamentarian maneuvers remain.

The last great check in our democratic system is the people. Donald Trump may have won the electoral college, but he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. The approval rating for his transition is at 40%. President Obama’s was more than double that at this point in 2008. Donald Trump and the Republicans do not have as strong of a mandate to enact their vision for America as they might portray, and the tension between President-elect Trump and establishment Republicans continues to simmer. There are fissures in the Republican edifice that can be seized upon by cognizant citizens to ensure that the integrity of our political and natural systems is maintained through the Trump presidency.

The urge to turn away from the American political system is strong right now. The long, contentious, devoid-of-fact election cycle we just went through was disillusioning. Our politics, and especially our elections, have become more spectacle than democracy. This “reality-tv-showification” of American politics offends basic sensibilities, and can be disheartening to those of us interested in the issues. But now is the time to lean in to the problem. To think more critically, write more persuasively, organize more effectively, and ask what we can each do to be a better citizen and ensure that we get a government that we deserve.

Through vigilance, persistence, and level headed yet vocal advocacy, it remains possible to avert the worst potential consequences of the 2016 election. It is possible that we will emerge from the coming years as a stronger society for the tribulations endured, a more compassionate society because of the lessons learned, and a society more thankful and cognizant of the opportunities in front of us to make a more perfect union. That is up to us.

President Obama has taken to quoting Justice Louis Brandeis recently in saying that “the most important political office is that of the private citizen.” At a time like this, when our ecological systems as well as our fundamental democratic institutions are threatened, the office of citizen takes on an even more exalted position. We the people got ourselves into this mess. We the people must get ourselves out of it.

We must ask ourselves, what are the redeeming qualities of our nation, and how do we accentuate those qualities? How do we each individually and collectively ensure that we take the actions necessary to maintain the functioning of our institutions and systems? How do we ensure that this episode in history does not define us, but instead that we are defined by our response to this episode?

This is a test of our society, of our political institutions, of our design of government, and of our people. We need to hold our representatives accountable and let them know that we are paying attention. We need to find common ground with those that disagree with us and ensure that reason and facts prevail.

Throughout the coming weeks and months, my blog posts will mostly focus on reasons to look on the bright side in regards to maintaining a stable climate and achieving a clean energy economy (because who needs more bad news, and additionally, there is a lot to be excited about) while not turning a blind eye to the challenges of Trump’s presidency.  But for now, it is important to simply take stock of what the election of Donald Trump means. It is a challenge, it is a test, and it is an opportunity. We the people must be ready to answer the bell.