Trump Dumps Climate Science and Innovation in 2018 Budget Blueprint

NASA’s telescope on DSCOVR snapped a solar eclipse over South America in February

Al Gore didn’t really claim to invent the Internet in 1999, but he did champion a NASA mission that installed a deep space webcam pointed at Earth in 2015. And yesterday President Trump put a bullseye on that mission. Or, rather, on part of it. Trump’s 2018 budget blueprint asks Congress to defund the Earth-facing instruments on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). Its sensors tracking magnetic storms emanating from the Sun would keep doing their jobs.

Selectively deep-sixing well-functioning instruments on a satellite 1.5 million kilometers from Earth is one of the stranger entries in President Trump’s first pass at a budget request. But it fits a pattern: Throughout the document programs aimed at comprehending or addressing climate change take deep cuts, even where there is no obvious fiscal justification.

“The budget targets almost anything that is related to climate,” observes David M. Hart, who directs the Center for Science and Technology Policy at George Mason University, near Washington, D.C.

Asked about climate change cuts at a press briefing yesterday, Trump Administration budget director Mick Mulvaney stated categorically: “We’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money.” Whether the proposals come to pass, say Hart and other experts, will depend on Congress, and on how much political capital Trump and his administration gain or lose fighting on other issues such as immigration and health care in the months ahead.

Trump’s budget officials swung hardest at the Environmental Protection Agency, verifying earlier leaks that he would ask for a 31 percent slash in funding from its anticipated budget for fiscal 2017 (which ends 1 October). Many programs would lose ground under the proposed $2.6 billion reduction. Those targeted for elimination include the Clean Power Plan, which regulates CO2 emissions from power plants, EPA’s climate change research and partnership programs, and the Energy Star product labelling program—“the most successful voluntary energy efficiency movement in history,” according to its website.

Cuts proposed for the Department of Energy, meanwhile, are deeper than expected and disproportionately hit programs designed to carry energy innovations across the so-called valley of death between basic research and commercialization. Trump’s blueprint would nearly eliminate the department’s applied science offices with a $2 billion reduction, andit zeroes out its tech incubator, Advanced Projects Research Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). ARPA-E had $291 million for fiscal 2016.

The Washington-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) warned in a statement yesterday that these and other proposed cuts to Federal research and development would, if enacted, “signal the end of the American century as a global innovation leader.”

George Mason University’s Hart, who is also a senior fellow with the foundation, sees an ideological take on the innovation process driving Trump’s cuts. Hart has documented close alignment between the president’s proposals and a budget plan issued by the Heritage Foundation. Heritage, a conservative Washington think tank, argues for a sharp division between government-funded lab research and proprietary corporate-funded product development.

“A more realistic view is that you have a continuum of projects. There’s a broad middle where the benefits are shared and thus the investment should be shared,” says Hart. Bridging that middle ground is critical in today’s power sector, he argues, because deregulation has dried up the cash that once fuelled its cooperative R&D body. “The Electric Power Research Institute still exists, but it’s a shadow of its former self,” says Hart.

Venture capital attracted by ARPA-E-backed energy technologies, meanwhile, shows that DOE’s efforts appear to be paying off.

NASA looks like a budget survivor at first glance—Trump’s blueprint would shave just 1 percent off the agency’s $19 billion 2016 top line and only 5 percent off of its $1.9 billion Earth sciences budget. “That is much less than the Earth science community feared,” says Marcia Smith, president of Arlington, Va.-based consultancy Space and Technology Policy Group and editor of SpacePolicyOnline.com.

Nevertheless, some of the Earth science cuts are potentially pernicious, and all target efforts to understand climate. In addition to 2018 spending cuts, three planned NASA Earth science missions would be scrubbed in addition to the blinding of DSCOVR’s Earth-facing sensors.

In three of the four cases, Trump would forego real benefits to gain minimal budgetary relief. For example, Smith figures NASA might save about $1 million by downgrading DSCOVR. Yet it measures Earth’s albedo, which is a “critical parameter for climate” according to Harvard University atmospheric chemist Steven Wofsy. Its measurements incorporate the scattering of sunlight by clouds and aerosols, which is “a tricky thing to calculate” says Wofsy.

Smith adds that, in her personal opinion, Gore was right about DSCOVR’s unique, full-disc image of the Earth (and the Moon orbiting it): “It is useful to remind people just how fragile the Earth is.” Given the “tiny amount of money” at stake, Smith says that cut “has to count as a political issue, not a money issue.”

Another targeted mission, a follow-on to the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) that launched in 2014, awaits a 2018 launch. It was assembled from earlier missions’ spare parts and can be cheaply launched since it is destined for the International Space Station.

NASA.CLARREO.Pathfinder.ISS.intercalibrationsunandmoon

NASA illustration of its satellite-calibrating CLARREO Pathfinder mission

Whereas the existing OCO-2 scans CO2 emissions across the globe every 16 days, OCO-3 is promises high-precision measurement of regional carbon sources and sinks. One obvious application, he says, is fact-checking greenhouse gas reports. “It could really be powerful … to assess the emissions in China or in India where you can’t trust the numbers,” says Wofsy.

Then there is the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) mission, whose first iteration is, like OCO-3, to be bolted on to the ISS. CLARREO Pathfinder packs a finely calibrated spectrometer designed to cross-calibrate optical sensors on the entire fleet of U.S. and international Earth observing satellites, thus improving their accuracy 5-10 fold. “It would make sure that what they’re saying about climate is correct,” says University of Colorado senior scientist Michael King, who chairs the U.S. National Research Council’s Committee on Earth Science and Applications from Space.

King says better satellite data should, in turn, boost confidence in climate models, whose findings have been questioned by President Trump and top Administration officials, including EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “There are uncertainties in climate models. Improving their accuracy should be in everybody’s best interest,” says King.

Wofsy also worries about unspecified reductions in Earth science research grants, which he calls the “seed corn” for future satellites.

Whether any of these attacks on climate science and action come to pass is ultimately up to Congress, and the reaction yesterday was weak even among Trump’s fellow Republicans. Smith notes that Rodney Felinghuysen, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, responded with the dry reminder that Congress holds “the power of the purse.”

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, meanwhile, called Trump’s budget “dead on arrival” over its proposed deep cuts to the State Department. And Democrats also issued blistering rejections.

Bill Foster, a physicist representing metropolitan Chicago, said in a statement: “It is hard to overstate how much damage this budget will do to our ability to remain at the forefront of innovation and problem solving.”

How much of the blueprint survives Congress is linked to how the Trump Administration’s credibility and popularity evolves in the months ahead, according to Hart and other budget watchers. “It may depend on how much clout the administration really has, [and] whether they’re deemed to be worth listening to.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the future of energy, climate, and the smart grid

The Natural Gas Accounting Gap

Last month the U.S. EPA admitted it was way off in its estimate of how much methane producers leak into the atmosphere in the process of wresting natural gas from the ground and piping it across the continent. It’s a big deal since methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and likely responsible for a substantial fraction of the climate change we’re already experiencing. And it’s been a long time coming. For many years now methane measurements by airplanes and satellites have strongly suggested that methane emissions from the oil and gas patch could be double what EPA figures captured.

Today the online earth observation pub Earthzine has my take on an unusual research project that helped convince EPA — and the industry — to change their tune on methane emissions. Take me to the article…

How the Paris Climate Deal Happened and Why It Matters

One month after the terror attacks that traumatized Paris, the city has produced a climate agreement that is being hailed as a massive expression of hope. On Monday the U.K. Guardian dubbed the Paris Agreement, “the world’s greatest diplomatic success.” Distant observers may be tempted to discount such effusive language as hyperbole, yet there are reasons to be optimistic that last weekend’s climate deal finally sets the world on course towards decisive mutual action against global climate change.

The birthing process clearly sets Paris apart from earlier efforts at global climate action, such as the Kyoto Protocol crafted in 1997. Only last-minute intervention by then U.S. Vice President Al Gore clinched a deal at Kyoto Continue reading

Paris Climate Talks Facing Growing Carbon Emissions and Credibility Gaps

Credit: Peter Fairley

EN GARDE! Paris treaty pledges are still too rich, and contain some iffy ingredients

Three weeks before the start of the Paris climate talks, negotiators working to craft an international agreement to curb rising global greenhouse gas emissions are staring into a wide gulf between what countries are willing to do and what they need to do. Most countries have stepped up with pledges to meaningfully cut carbon emissions or to at least slow the growth of emission totals between 2020 and 2030. However, national commitments for the Paris talks still fall short of what’s needed to prevent the average global temperature in 2100 from being any more than 2 degrees Celsius warmer than at the start of this century—the international community’s consensus benchmark for climate impact.

Worse still, the national pledges employ a hodgepodge of accounting methods that include some significant loopholes that ignore important emissions such as leaking methane from U.S. oil and gas production and underreported coal emissions from China. How the promised emissions reductions will be verified post-Paris is “a big debate right now and it makes a massive difference in the numbers,” says Jennifer Morgan, global director for the climate program at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization. Continue reading

Hawaii Says ‘Aloha’ to a 100% Renewable Power Grid

Credit: Blue Planet Foundation

Credit: Blue Planet Foundation

Hawaii’s legislature voted yesterday to stake the state’s future on renewable energy. According to House Bill 623, the archipelago’s power grids must deliver 100 percent renewable electricity by the end of 2045. If the compromise bill is signed by the governor as expected, Hawaii will become the first U.S. state to set a date for the total decarbonization of its power supply.

Renewable energy has been booming since 2008 when the state set a goal of making renewables 40 percent of its power mix by 2030, and government and utility incentives ignited wind power and solar installations. By the end of 2013, renewable energy had jumped from 7.5 percent to 18 percent of the state’s capacity. HB623 seeks to extend and turbo-boost that trend, calling for 30 percent renewables in 2020 and 70 percent by 2030 en route to the final leap to 100 percent.

That last jump could be difficult, says Peter Crouch, a power grid simulation expert and dean of engineering at the University of Hawaii’s flagship Manoa campus. “Today I don’t know whether we can do it,” he says. Continue reading

EPA Coal Cuts Light Up Washington

A meeting at the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC’s) Washington headquarters yesterday lived up to expectations that it would be one of the most exciting sessions in the agency’s history. Buttoned up policy wonks, lobbyists, and power market experts showed up in droves—over 600 registered—to witness a discussion of what President Obama’s coal-cutting Clean Power Plan presaged for the U.S. power grid. The beltway crowd was joined by activists for and against fossil fuels—and extra security.

Inside proceedings, about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans’ impact on power grid reliability, protesters against fracking and liquid natural gas exports shouted “NATURAL GAS IS DIRTY” each time a speaker mentioned coal’s fossil fuel nemesis. Outside, the coal industry-backed American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity distributed both free hand-warmers and dark warnings that dumping coal-fired power would leave Americans “cold in the dark.”

As expected, state regulators and utility executives from coal-reliant states such as Arizona and Michigan hammered home the ‘Cold in the Dark’ message in their exchanges with FERC’s commissioners. Gerry Anderson, Chairman and CEO of Detroit-based utility DTE Energy, called the Clean Power Plan “the most fundamental transformation of our bulk power system that we’ve ever undertaken.”

EPA’s critics argue that the plan’s timing is unrealistic and its compliance options are inadequate. Anderson said Michigan will need to shut down, by 2020, roughly 40 percent of the coal-fired generation that currently provides half of the state’s power. That, he said, “borders on unachievable and would certainly be ill-advised from a reliability perspective.”

EPA’s top air pollution official, Janet McCabe, defended her agency’s record and its respect for the grid. “Over EPA’s long history developing Clean Air Act standards, the agency has consistently treated electric system reliability as absolutely critical. In more than 40 years, at no time has compliance with the Clean Air Act resulted in reliability problems,” said McCabe.

McCabe assured FERC that EPA had carefully crafted its plan to provide flexibility to states and utilities regarding how they cut emissions from coal-fired power generation, and how quickly they contribute to the rule’s overall goal of lowering power sector emissions by 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. (Michigan has state-verified energy conservation and renewable energy options to comply with EPA’s plans according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.)

McCabe said EPA is considering additional flexibility before it finalizes the rule, as early as June. EPA would consider, for example, specific proposals for a “reliability safety valve” to allow a coal plant to run longer than anticipated if delays in critical replacement projects—say, a natural gas pipeline or a transmission line delivering distant wind power—threatened grid security.

As it turned out, language codifying a reliability safety valve was on offer at yesterday’s meeting from Craig Glazer, VP for federal government policy at PJM Interconnection, the independent transmission grid operator for the Mid-Atlantic region. The language represents a consensus reached by regional system operators from across the country—one that is narrowly written and therefore unlikely to give coal interests much relief. “It can’t be a free pass,” said Glazer.

A loosely-constrained valve, explained Glazer, would undermine investment in alternatives to coal-fired power, especially for developers of clean energy technologies. “Nobody’s going to make those investments because they won’t know when the crunch time really comes. It makes it very hard for these new technologies to jump in,” said Glazer.

Clean energy advocates at the meeting, and officials from states that, like California, are on the leading edge of renewable energy development, discounted the idea that additional flexibility would be needed to protect the grid. They pushed back against reports of impending blackouts from some grid operators and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation(NERC). Those reports, they say, ignored or discounted evidence that alternative energy sources can deliver the essential grid services currently provided by conventional power plants.

NERC’s initial assessment, issued in November, foresees rolling blackouts and increased potential for “wide-scale, uncontrolled outages,” and NERC CEO Gerald Cauley says a more detailed study due out in April will identify reliability “hotspots” caused by EPA’s plan. At the FERC meeting, Cauley acknowledged that “the technology is out there allowing solar and wind to be contributors to grid reliability,” but he complained that regulators were not requiring them to do so. Cauley called on FERC to help make that happen.

Cleantech supporters, however, are calling on the government to ensure that NERC recognizes and incorporates renewable energy’s full capabilities when it issues projections of future grid operations. They got a boost from FERC Commissioner Norman Bay. The former chief of enforcement at FERC and Obama’s designee to become FERC’s next chairman in April, Bay pressed Cauley on the issue yesterday.

Bay asked Cauley how he was going to ensure that NERC is more transparent, and wondered whether NERC would make public the underlying assumptions and models it will use to craft future reports. Cauley responded by acknowledging that NERC relied on forecasts provided by utilities, and worked with utility experts to “get ideas on trends and conclusions” when crafting its reliability studies.

Cauley also acknowledged that they were not “entirely open and consensus based” the way NERC’s standards-development process was. And he demurred on how much more open the process could be, telling Bay, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

The challenge from Bay follows criticism leveled at NERC in a report issued last week by the Brattle Group, an energy analytics firm based in Boston. Brattle found that compliance with EPA’s plan was “unlikely to materially affect reliability.”

Brattle’s report concurred with renewables advocates who have argued that NERC got it wrong by focusing too much on the loss of coal-fired generation and too little on that which would replace it: “The changes required to comply with the CPP will not occur in a vacuum—rather, they will be met with careful consideration and a measured response by market regulators, operators, and participants. We find that in its review NERC fails to adequately account for the extent to which the potential reliability issues it raises are already being addressed or can be addressed through planning and operations processes as well as through technical advancements.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Will Shuttering Coal Plants Really Threaten the Grid?

Does President Obama’s plan to squelch carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants really threaten the stability of the grid? That politically-charged question is scheduled for a high-profile airing today at a meeting in Washington to be telecast live starting at 9 am ET from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Such “technical meetings” at FERC are usually pretty dry affairs. But this one could be unusually colorful, presenting starkly conflicting views of lower-carbon living, judging from written remarks submitted by panelists.

On one side are some state officials opposed to the EPA Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut U.S. power sector emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. Susan Bitter Smith, Arizona’s top public utilities regulator, argues that EPA’s plan is “seriously jeopardizing grid reliability.” Complying with it would, she writes, cause “irreparable disruption” to Arizona’s (coal-dependent) power system.

Environmental advocates and renewable energy interests will be hitting back, challenging the credibility of worrisome grid studies wielded by Bitter Smith and other EPA critics. Some come from organizations that are supposed to be neutral arbiters of grid operation, such as the standards-setting North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). Clean energy advocates see evidence of bias and fear-mongering in these studies, and they are asking FERC to step in to assure the transparency and neutrality of future analyses. Continue reading