Trumping Trump on Climate Change

Posted on July 25, 2017 by Dan Esty

President Donald Trump’s decision to back away from the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan and other policies to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in fulfillment of America’s commitment to the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement might be seen as bad news for the global environment.  And it is.  But the news is not quite as bad as many fear.  Even if the President’s actions slow progress toward the U.S. “nationally determined contribution” to the emissions reduction goals of the Paris Agreement – a cut of 26-28 percent by 2030 – that will not stop the overall downward trend in GHG emissions for several important reasons. 

First, American Presidents have limited executive authority, meaning that a number of the climate change policies put in place by President Obama cannot be reversed with a stroke of President Trump’s pen.  Second, the shift away from coal as America’s electricity generation fuel of choice will continue – driven by prior regulatory requirements and the economics of the energy marketplace.  Third, many critical decisions that shape the carbon footprint of a society are made not by presidents and prime ministers but by mayors, governors (or other sub-national elected officials), and corporate leaders.

President Trump’s March 28 Executive Order directs his EPA Administrator to “review” the prior administration’s Clean Power Plan and “as soon as practicable, suspend, revise, or rescind” it.  But this is not a simple process.  The Clean Power Plan represents a regulatory strategy for implementing a Clean Air Act obligation to control emissions from any air pollutant found to “endanger public health and public welfare.”  The Supreme Court confirmed in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007) that this obligation is not discretionary with regard to greenhouse gas emissions. 

Thus, the Trump EPA can change the strategy for responding to greenhouse gases but cannot walk away from its obligation to control them unless it reverses the “endangerment” finding issued by former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in 2009.  To undo this prior conclusion, current EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt would need to establish a new scientific foundation that would justify a different policy conclusion.  Given the overwhelming scientific consensus that the build-up of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere threatens to produce various harmful effects – including sea level rise, increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes and other windstorms, changed rainfall patterns, as well as more frequent droughts, floods, and forest fires – such an effort would be quickly challenged in any number of courts and almost certainly overturned.  Indeed, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that the build-up of GHG emissions in the atmosphere is a problem, a “non-endangerment” conclusion would be an almost paradigmatic example of an “arbitrary and capricious” regulatory action.  EPA will, therefore, almost certainly choose to revise the Clean Power Plan rather than dump it altogether. 

In introducing his climate change executive order, President Trump promised that his actions would bring back American coal production and power generation.  No such thing will happen.  Hundreds of U.S. coal-fired power plants have been shut down in the past decade – most in response to the Obama Administration’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.  These plants will not be reopening.

Not only have coal-burning power plants been the target of numerous regulatory restrictions, they also now face stiff competition from cleaner-burning and cheaper natural gas power generation as well as rapidly expanding renewable power production.  Nothing President Trump has done will reverse these trends.  Indeed, given the momentum toward a clean energy future and the prospects that a future president will redirect the Trump climate change policies and restore the U.S. commitment to lower greenhouse gas emissions, no utility is going to invest in new coal-fired power plants, and many power generators will proceed with planned retirements of existing coal units.  Simply put, the President’s shifting of gears on climate change policy does not over-ride the broader economic logic for movement toward cleaner and cheaper energy options.

In the face of the President’s disinterest in the Paris Agreement in particular and his hostility toward environmental regulation more broadly, leadership and political support for climate change action in the United States has shifted out of Washington.  Of particular note, more than 200 mayors, 10 governors, and nearly 1700 business leaders have formed a coalition called America’s Pledge that aims to ensure that the U.S. emissions reduction commitment is fulfilled.  Led by California Governor Jerry Brown and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the participants in America’s Pledge are pushing forward with climate action plans at the city, state, and corporate scales. 

Some of these leaders, moreover, have expressed interest in formally “signing” the 2015 Paris Agreement if the United States ends up withdrawing.  While there are constitutional limits to what sub-national jurisdictions can do in the international realm, legal work is underway to find a mechanism that would allow these mayors, governors, and CEOs to make a commitment to the goals of the Paris Agreement “to the full extent of their authority.”

The breadth and depth of these non-federal-government climate change initiatives means that American greenhouse gas emissions will continue to decrease regardless of what energy policies the Trump Administration puts forward.  In fact, one of the critical features of the climate change strategy that the world community agreed upon in Paris in 2015 was a shift from a top-down approach that relied upon national government actions to a bottom-up game plan for emissions reductions that called upon a much wider array of actors to join the effort to promote energy efficiency and a shift toward renewable power.

As it turns out, presidents and prime ministers don’t have that much say over the day-to-day decisions that determine the carbon footprints of their societies.  Mayors, governors, and CEOs are really the ones who make the critical choices about transportation options, housing and development patterns, product and production strategies, technology and infrastructure investments, and other decisions that determine the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions.

Thus, while President Trump can take the United States out of a leadership role in the global effort to combat climate change, he will not be able to reverse the domestic momentum for action on climate change.  His policies may slow the pace of U.S. emissions reductions, but movement toward a decarbonized energy future will continue.

The Latest Executive Order: Any Kind of Consistency Is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds

Posted on March 31, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

Make no mistake, the Executive Order signed by President Trump at EPA yesterday is a big deal.  Time will tell whether the Administration’s U-turn on the Obama rules currently in litigation, such as the Clean Power Plan and the rule on fracking on federal lands will make any difference to judicial review of those rules.  There are plenty of states and NGOs ready to step into EPA’s and BLM’s shoes to defend those rules.

Regardless, though, it’s important.  Social cost of carbon?  Poof.  Gone.  Climate Action Plan?  Gone.  Consideration of climate change in environmental impact reviews?  Gone.

We already know all this, though.  I’d like to focus on a few details concerning the EO that might have gone unnoticed.

  • The order states that development of domestic natural resources “is essential to ensuring the Nation’s geopolitical security.”  I found this statement interesting in light of the recent statements by Secretary of Defense Mattis, who very clearly stated that climate change is real and is itself an important security risk.
  • The order states that environmental regulations should provide “greater benefit than cost.”  I found this statement somewhat odd, given that the President’s prior EO known as the 2-for-1 order, essentially requires agencies to ignore the benefits of regulations and focus solely on the costs that they impose.
  • Similarly, the Order requires agencies, in “monetizing the value of changes in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from regulations,” ensure that their analyses are consistent with OMB Circular A-4, issued in 2003.  The Order states that Circular A-4 embodies “best practices for conducting regulatory cost-benefit analysis.”

I’d be interested in knowing if a single one of the authors or peer reviewers of Circular A-4 have anything nice to say about the 2-for-1 Order?

Energy Storage and Transforming The Grid in New York

Posted on March 21, 2017 by Virginia C. Robbins

For those who support national and international climate change initiatives like the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Agreement, the news out of Washington is gut-wrenching.  Disengaging from these initiatives is harmful on geo-political, economic, and moral grounds.  Despite these expected actions by the current administration, there is good news in the renewables sector:  battery storage technology has the potential to be a strong contender in the fight against climate change. 

In October 2015, a leak at the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility outside Los Angeles caused it to shut down.  The leak reduced fuel supplies for area power plants.  In response, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) mandated mitigation measures, including the expedited procurement of about 100 megawatts (MW) of local energy storage resources in the Southern California Edison (SCE) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDGE) service territories.  Renewable and other types of energy stored during the day would be available when electricity demand increased in the evening, thereby avoiding the need for increased fossil fuel generation to serve that peak need. 

The CPUC order directed utilities in Southern California to identify storage projects that could be sited, constructed, and put into operation providing electricity to the grid in only a few months.  Within 6 months after the CPUC issued its order, two battery storage facilities were completed.  SDGE contracted for the installation of two energy storage projects totaling 37.5 MW.  The larger 30 MW project in Escondido is said to be the biggest lithium ion battery storage facility in service on a utility grid in the world and is capable of serving 20,000 customers for four hours.  Also, Tesla completed a battery storage facility for SCE at the Mira Loma substation capable of powering about 15,000 homes for four hours.

These California energy storage projects are providing valuable “lessons learned” about the efficiency of battery technology, its benefits and limitations.  For example, building on these lessons, New York has established aggressive goals for meeting its electricity needs through renewable sources.  New York’s Governor Cuomo established a goal for 50 percent of the state’s electric needs to be met by renewable sources by 2030.  The strategy is to transform New York’s electric industry by building a cleaner, more resilient and affordable energy system through investment in clean technologies like solar, wind and energy efficiency.  And because wind and solar sources cannot always generate power during times of high electricity demand, energy storage must be a key component of the state’s energy future and more needs to be done for system operators to understand it and to develop the business models that will work.      

In October 2016, the New York Department of Public Service issued a Staff Report and Recommendations in the Value of Distributed Energy Resources Proceeding.  The goal of the proceeding is to develop accurate pricing for clean distributed energy resources (DERs) that reflects the actual value created by technologies that produce power outside of the utility grid (e.g., fuel cells, microturbines, and photovoltaics) and technologies that produce power or store power (e.g., batteries and flywheels) as well as demand-side measures.

The staff report supports including projects that pair any energy storage technology with an eligible generation facility to receive compensation under a proposed tariff.  The report also identifies a utility-driven demonstration project supporting solar-plus-storage.  Consolidated Edison Company of New York is currently pursuing a demonstration project that combines multiple solar plus storage systems to improve grid resiliency and provide a dispatchable “virtual power plant” that Con Edison can control and rely on in real time.  Con Edison is also pursuing grid-scale energy storage through a request for information seeking to demonstrate how large-scale utility storage can improve company operations, and establish how a singular type of energy storage can offer multiple kinds of value.   

Also, at its March 9, 2017 session, New York’s Public Service Commission (PSC) enacted a new compensation structure to value DERs installed in New York.  The order establishes compensation values for the first time in New York for energy storage (battery) systems when combined with certain types of DERs.  In addition, the PSC directed the state’s utilities to significantly increase the scope and speed of their energy storage endeavors.  By the end of 2018, each utility must have deployed and begun operating energy storage projects at no fewer than two separate distribution substations or feeders.  The Commission tasked the utilities with striving to perform at least two types of grid functions with the deployed energy resources, for example, increasing hosting capacity and peak load reduction.  The Commission stated that these actions are both feasible and necessary to promote timely development of a modern grid capable of managing DERs.   

These developments promise good outcomes for the deployment of energy storage, for environmental protection and for consumers.  They may also play a role in the planned shutdown (by 2021) of the Indian Point nuclear power facility, that has the capacity to generate more than 2000 MW of electricity and that serves about 25% of the energy needs of New York City and Westchester.  At a recent legislative hearing on the Indian Point shutdown, state officials discussed making up for the lost energy by efficiency programs and by encouraging opportunities for renewable, non-polluting sources like solar, wind and hydropower.  Their focus on renewables bodes well for further investment in energy storage as a component of reliable service using a resilient distribution system.  The battery storage “lessons learned” in Southern California in resolving the gas leak crisis may be valuable to New York State in planning for the shutdown of Indian Point.