New York’s Public Power Bill Could Be a Model for the Rest of the Country

A large section of Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Midtown neighborhoods are seen in darkness from above during a major power outage on July 13, 2019 in New York City.

A large section of Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Midtown neighborhoods are seen in darkness from above during a major power outage on July 13, 2019 in New York City.
Photo: Scott Heins (Getty Images)

Two years ago, New York enshrined the most ambitious statewide climate targets in the country. The legislation, called the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, requires the state to completely decarbonize its electric grid by 2040 and reduce emissions from all sectors by 85% within the following decade.

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A bill that’s currently gaining support in the New York legislature could set the state back on track to meet its goals. (The path has been bumpy, particularly because the state legislators haven’t come up with a payment plan for the CLCPA.) It hinges on the idea that the best way to decarbonize the state’s energy system is to make it publicly owned and democratically controlled. A new report from the policy tank climate + community project shared exclusively with Earther lays out exactly how it works, and shows that it could be a model for the rest of the country.

“As long as energy is treated as a commodity like any other, poor people, workers, and communities of color will suffer,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York, who is a champion of the legislation. “Our energy and power systems must be accountable to the public so that we can build an equitable future, in New York and nationwide, free of corporate exploitation.”

The measure, called the New York State Build Public Renewables Act, has dozens of co-sponsors and is supported by the Public Power Coalition, which is led by Democratic Socialists of America chapters and local environmental justice organizations. It would essentially create a public option for electricity. To do so, it would expand the New York Power Authority, empowering it to build out utility-scale renewable energy generation and transmission infrastructure and requiring it to supply only renewable power.

NYPA is the largest state-owned energy provider in the U.S. It currently owns and operates one-third of New York’s high voltage power lines and provides up to 25% of the state’s electricity, the majority of which comes from hydropower.

Under the bill, NYPA would be required to fully decarbonize its existing energy infrastructure, decommissioning its fossil fuel plants by 2025 while rapidly increasing the state’s renewable energy generation. (The report proposes that the entity would have the right of first refusal for all renewable energy projects greater than 25 megawatts in the state.)

In addition to supplying power directly to customers who choose to opt-in, NYPA would also have to ensure that all publicly owned buildings—to which it is the sole provider of energy—run on 100% clean power by 2025.

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As it does all this, it would also be required to adhere to strict labor standards and unionization for all its projects, and also to partner with worker-owned cooperatives and small businesses owned by members of disadvantaged communities to procure necessary equipment and appliances. The law would also forbid the entity from shutting off power for unpaid bills.

That NYPA is publicly owned and operated is important for two reasons. For one, as a state entity, it’s directly governable, unlike investor-owned utilities.

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“We want to embark on an energy transition that is simultaneously rapid, equitable, and thorough. We want the energy system to be fully decarbonized, we want it to be maximally equitable, and we also want it to happen in less than 10 years,” said Thea Riofrancos, an associate professor of political science at Providence College and co-author of the new report. “In the private sector, the way to do that is to create incentives for investments and to regulate. With the public sector, it’s much more direct. You can ensure it happens.”

Unlike investor-owned utilities, which are required to make money for their shareholders, NYPA also has no profit motive. That would make it easier to ensure that the utility bills of low-income households stay low and that communities see the benefits of an energy transition.

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“With NYPA, they don’t have always to go the cheapest option or choose actions that will make the most money,” said Johanna Bozuwa, co-manager of the climate and energy program at the Democracy Collaborative and co-author of the report. “They are held to the standard of the public interest. That means that, for instance, instead of putting transmission through a place that may be cheapest but might have pretty significant environmental impacts, we can actually shift that framework because it’s not a profit motive that we’re going for.”

To ensure that it operates in an equitable manner, the report suggests that the law could come with a number of measures to boost democratic control. The authors suggest the state could create a multi-stakeholder board with seats for longtime environmental justice leaders or labor organizers who have a say in NYPA’s actions. They also propose that NYPA create community engagement hubs where residents can learn about new renewable energy plans and work opportunities and provide input on where new energy projects are sited.

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The report estimates that the comprehensive proposals would create up to 51,000 jobs—including 16,000 permanent ones—and between $48.6 billion and $93.5 billion of additional economic activity. It could also serve as a model for the rest of the country.

In the state of Nebraska, for instance, the electricity sector consists entirely of public power districts, publicly owned utilities, and energy cooperatives. The state could implement a similarly ambitious timeline to move the grid to 100% renewables. The federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority, which sells energy to 150 companies as well as utilities, could also take up a similar project.

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If the bill passes and is successful, Bozuwa also said it could help show that the U.S. needs more public entities to control electricity—and that there’s no reason we can’t create them.

“We could see, for instance, federal money going to states so that they could set one up themselves so that they can build out public renewable energy in their states, bring down the cost, make it accountable to the people, and bring down energy poverty at the same time,” she said. “It’s exciting to think of how we could take NYPA as this state-based entity, take the principles that guide it, put it through a rapid energy transition, and use the federal level to unleash similar types of entities across the U.S.”

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The Biden administration could use the New York bill’s model, Riofrancos added, to ensure that it meets the goals it has set since taking the White House, including the promise to decarbonize the grid by 2035 and ensure “40% of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments” meet the needs of communities who have borne the worst brunt of the climate crisis and pollution.

“By using a public institution … you can directly ensure that projects and jobs are sited in the places that deserve them most, where working class and racialized communities have been the most impacted by not only the climate crisis but also the pandemic and economic recession,” said Riofrancos.

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Through the power of the public sector, the U.S. has achieved massive energy goals quickly before. During the New Deal, for instance, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Rural Electric Cooperative system.

“It actually was able to bring lights on within 10 years,” said Bozuwa. “So we don’t need to create sticks and carrots for the private energy sector. We’re saying to the private sector, we’re going to outflank you, we’re going to make sure we transition the public sector faster than you ever would.”

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Utility-Funded Propaganda Book for Kids Calls Natural Gas an ‘Invisible Friend’

The fossil fuel industry has dug its claws in deep into the American education system. So, too, have utilities.

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Kids in Massachusetts received propaganda from a local utility extolling the virtues of natural gas. On Twitter last week, Cambridge, Massachusetts resident Gleb Bahmutov shared photos of two different booklets he said his son brought home from elementary school that were produced by Eversource Energy. The pictures Bahmutov posted show activities in the booklets (one of which is titled “Natural Gas: Your Invisible Friend”) that encourage kids to identify appliances in the house that are powered by natural gas and complete a simple maze leading from gas stores underground to homes and factories. According to Bahmutov, the booklets contained no mention of climate change.

“Eversource is not a company that should be publishing activity books,” Bahmutov later told the AP. “It sounds like propaganda, and I was born in the Soviet Union, so I don’t use that term lightly.”

A URL on the front cover of the booklets directs readers to go to a website, E-Smart Kids, run by utility Xcel Energy and produced by Culver Company, which also published the booklets Bahmutov posted. While Eversource’s specific page on the E-Smart Kids site is no longer online, a Wayback Machine capture of the site shows many of the same features still active on the main page, including a game called Pipewinder where kids can build a pipeline.

“We regularly provide our customers with important natural gas safety information, and these books were developed to help raise awareness about the importance of natural gas safety at home and provide other information about natural gas,” Eversource said in a statement in response to several questions about the booklets’ existence in tandem with the utility’s clean energy goals and if they’d ever produced a similar booklet about renewable energy or climate change. “We recognize and agree that these materials can be improved and do not plan to distribute any more until they are updated. Moving forward, we will work to include climate change information in future educational materials, as well as continue to provide important natural gas safety tips.”

The oil and gas industry has been working since the 1940s to push its propaganda on American schoolchildren, and the practice is still alive and well throughout the country. In 2017, a Koch Brothers-affiliated network mailed hundreds of thousands of copies of a book called “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming” to educators in various states. Looking through the Culver Media catalog at their other offerings, however, still kind of feels like a fever dream. Many of the books available for kids—which utilities can order and brand with their logo for distribution—are safety-themed, but some of those seem to still contain promotional material about just how great natural gas is. Sprinkled throughout are some books with vague environmental messages (“Teach children in grades 2-3 the importance of keeping our environment clean by recycling, planting trees and other plants and flowers to clean the air, and never littering,” one description reads), but only three booklets seem to directly address climate change or renewable energy.

Eversource is New England’s largest utility, and if the name sounds familiar, it’s because they got themselves into a bit of hot water last week after a slideshow panicking over the future of the natural gas industry produced by a coalition it once spearheaded was leaked to E&E News. The utility—which has made its clean energy goals a large part of its recent public-facing image, but also paid $1.1 billion to acquire a natural gas company last year—told E&E News that “the company does not and will not support any efforts that conflict with the company moving our gas business toward a cleaner energy future for our customers.”

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The natural gas industry is on the defensive as electrification campaigns grow across the country and gas bans become more commonplace. Utilities that are heavily invested in gas are also in trouble as grow in market share and the politics shift toward them. It’s important to keep an eye out even in places you might not expect—like a kids’ backpack or desk—to see what they’ll try to spin next.

The Weird, Unholy Alliance of Tucker Carlson and Environmentalists

Illustration for article titled The Weird, Unholy Alliance of Tucker Carlson and Environmentalists

Photo: Richard Drew (AP)

Tucker Carlson has used his platform to, among other things, undermine climate science and lie about renewable energy. Yet last week, he put out an impassioned plea to save the Maine woods, claiming that “real environmentalists” should oppose a power line connecting Quebec hydropower to the U.S. Bizarrely, he and the Sierra Club are on the same page.

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The segment and the alignment with traditional environmental groups paint a picture of how complex renewable energy projects can be for local communities—and what the upcoming culture war over renewables might look like.

The project that attracted Carlson’s wrath is a proposed 145-mile (233-kilometer) transmission line owned by local power company Central Maine Power that is intended to connect hydropower produced in Canada to the grid in Massachusetts, all in the service of helping the state meet its ambitious climate goals. Construction began in February despite numerous legal challenges from green groups and a bitter public relations war that has dragged on for years in the state.

The tone of Carlson’s segment is over-the-top dramatic, often in an unintentionally funny way. Most of it is set over a soundtrack of racing violins or pounding drums. At one point, the camera zooms in on an animal skull below footage of powerlines, as if to suggest instant death from coming into contact with a transmission line—which, in case you need reminding, are pretty normal pieces of the energy grid. The segment also seems tailor-made to appeal to people in the region. One of the interviewees is filmed in what looks like a woodland lodge bar that prominently displays a bottle of Allen’s Coffee Brandy and a can of Moxie—two drinks produced in Maine and beloved by Mainers—on the bar next to him in the shot. Another says that “there is no doubt Tom Brady is the GOAT” in a seemingly completely unrelated aside during his interview.

“The whole state of Maine will become an ugly place” with the project, one of the interviewees tells Carlson.

While this dramatic production may seem funny, it also paints a picture of how aggressive opposition to new renewable energy projects can be even though many are relatively innocuous pieces of infrastructure in the grand scheme of things—and are necessary to avert catastrophic climate change. And yet—I can’t believe I’m saying this—tone aside, Carlson does a not-terrible job of laying out some of the facts of the case. He describes the environmental issues with the proposed corridor, including how it endangers what’s among the most robust natural habitat for the trout in the U.S., as well as the failure to consult with local communities. He even technically gives the emissions calculations of the project a (very small) sliver of airtime: The segment addresses the facts that cutting down trees eliminates their ability to sequester carbon and that the reservoirs that form behind hydropower dams emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

These issues are key reasons why environmental groups have opposed the transmission project as well, including that the project wouldn’t reduce overall emissions but rather just ship clean power that would’ve been used elsewhere to Massachusetts.

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“This is a shell game,” said Sue Ely, a staff attorney at Natural Resources Council of Maine. “It’s not renewable energy, it doesn’t help Maine’s renewable energy industry, and it’s very damaging to Maine’s environment.”

NRCM filed a lawsuit last fall with the Sierra Club challenging the federal government’s environmental impact review of the project. Indeed, what’s riled up most local opposition—and what Carlson’s report focused on—is the project’s proposal to clear 53 miles (85 kilometers) of new transmission corridor in Maine’s North Woods, a 3.5 million acre chunk of wildland that borders Canada. The North Woods is the biggest undeveloped forest in the eastern U.S., and makes up more the half the state itself. It’s also a big economic driver for a state that’s been struggling in the post-industrial era, with a thriving timber industry and thousands of visitors each year. Tourism is an enormous sector of Maine’s economy; rafting, snowmobiling, and camping are all prominent sources of revenue in the North Woods that would be negatively impacted by visible power lines.

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“There are tons of transmission corridors in the state, but CMP snaked this line right in between the protected areas,” said Ely. “They slalomed through it.”

A spokesperson for Clean Energy Matters, the CMP-owned lobbying organization for the project, said in an email that these claims “were presented to and ultimately rejected by the Maine Public Utilities Commission and Massachusetts regulators.” (The group also said in a statement to the Bangor Daily News that CMP wasn’t allowed to participate in the Carlson segment, and that producers used stock footage and “false descriptions” of the project.)

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Even before Carlson—who owns a home in Maine and has even broadcast his show from the state—showed up with his cameras, there was plenty of mudslinging around the corridor project to be had on both sides. Clean Energy Matters has spent nearly $20 million in advertising on a pro-corridor campaign. Both groups like NRCM and the Sierra Club as well as Carlson in his segment repeatedly refer to CMP as “foreign-owned” (CMP is owned by Connecticut-based Avangrid, which, in turn, is owned by the Spanish energy giant Iberdrola)—a term that’s been used in other energy fights to stoke xenophobic fears and images of foreigner stealing American jobs.

The spokesperson for Clean Energy Matters pointed out in an email to Earther that some opposition efforts to the corridor project “are funded by three corporations with oil, natural gas, and nuclear generating stations in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.” Those companies are Calpine, Vistra, and NextEra, which have poured their own millions into advertising campaigns against the project. Clean Energy Matters has also attacked NRCM for what it says are ties to natural gas groups after NRCM got a donation from an anti-corridor group with murky funders.

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“It’s so vicious,” Ely said of the fight. “It really hardens people.”

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And, like many local fights, the actual issues at hand—lowering greenhouse gas emissions and figuring out how to best fit renewables into the local landscape—seem to be getting lost in the brawl. Caratunk, a 68-person town along the proposed transmission line’s route, had been working with NextEra on installing a proposed 150-megawatt solar farm. The chair of Caratunk’s selectboard said in a 2018 letter to the Maine Public Utilities Commission that the CMP corridor project would prevent the development of this project and potentially other local renewables projects in the area. The selectboard chair appeared in the Carlson segment as a voice of local opposition, with no mention of the alternative solar project. While there’s a chance the selectboard chair didn’t bring up the project with producers, it’s not out of the question to think that Carlson’s team didn’t want to spotlight how opponents of the “green energy scam,” as they called the CMP project, might be in favor of other renewable energy ventures in Maine.

The brook trout in the North Woods—or the lobster in the Gulf of Maine or any of the state’s other ecosystems for that matter—can’t hang on much longer if our planet keeps baking at the rate it’s going. Weighed out on a cosmic scale, if cutting 53 miles through a pristine section of woods could help an enormous energy-using state keep its emissions down, it might be worth it, despite the big local tradeoffs. That seems to be the attitude of some conservation and environment groups in the state who have begrudgingly signaled their support—or, at least, the end to their opposition—for the project in recent weeks.

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I asked Ely about this challenge. If the CMP project was bringing a completely uncontested source of renewable power into New England—or, perhaps, if a transmission line through the North Woods could be connected to a renewable project that serves Maine and creates renewable energy jobs in the state—would the green groups be so opposed? She sighed.

“I have felt really fortunate in this fight that I have not had to answer that question—it’s a really good question,” she said. “In Maine, if we really want to do what our governor says—reach net zero by 2045, reduce our emissions by 80% by 2050—it’s going to require this massive buildout of renewable energy resources and a massive electrification of everything we can possibly electrify. We need to grow our grid somewhere in the ballpark of three times, and that is going to require building these massive transmission structures. And this anti-transmission line fervor is really going to hinder our ability to reach our clean energy goals.”

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It’s that fervor Carlson seems intent on stoking, though based on his past body of work, it’s for reasons likely less in line with those of local environmental group.

“This corridor is more than an energy project—it’s an attack against rural America and the people who live there,” Carlson said in his segment. That is, of course, untrue, but he’s setting the stage for his audience to view all renewable energy projects with skepticism and as an attack on the environment. If conversations around renewable projects can’t stay honest—and if big companies that plan to profit off the energy transition don’t start thinking about the local impacts of what they’re doing—there will be plenty of fodder for the culture war to come.

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Could the World Ever Run Entirely on Renewable Energy?

Illustration: Benjamin Currie/Gizmodo

Giz AsksGiz AsksIn this Gizmodo series, we ask questions about everything and get answers from a variety of experts.

This week’s question—could the world ever run entirely on renewable energy?—is shadowed by a much larger one: Namely, will politicians and powerful forces of delay like Big Oil ever allow the world to run entirely on renewable energy? For the most part, we have put that larger question aside for this installment; the experts below are interested primarily in whether it’s feasible.

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To not switch to renewables in the very near future would, we know, summon a host of awful consequences. Unchecked carbon emissions would make vast swaths of the planet uninhabitable by century’s end; survivors of the heat-apocalypse would spend their days fortifying little hutments, or surgically excising mold from rotten squirrel meat. This is not the future we want—which is why planning for a renewable transition, and ensuring we bring it off, is so important. Hard as it might be, it’s worth setting aside your doomy visions of the future to consider, for a moment, what we can actually achieve. For this week’s Giz Asks, we’ve assembled a panel of experts to discuss whether the world could ever run entirely on renewable energy—and what it would take to get there.


Mark Z. Jacobson

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program, Stanford University, and the author of 100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything

My team and I have been studying whether the world can run entirely on clean renewable energy since about 2008, and we’ve concluded, in over a dozen studies, that it is absolutely possible. And when I say clean renewable energy, I mean just wind and water and solar power—onshore and offshore wind, solar panels on rooftops, concentrated solar power, geothermal power, etc. We don’t include biomass or bioenergy or any type of biofuel, because it’s not clean—you burn it, and it usually takes up large amounts of land. We also don’t include fossil fuels, or carbon capture, or direct air capture, or nuclear power, as we consider all of these things to have opportunity costs. We’ve done calculations in 143 countries representing 99.7% of all emissions worldwide, and we’ve found that it is possible to power all of these countries with just wind, water and solar, plus storage electricity, heat storage, cold storage and hydrogen storage. The idea, really, is to electrify everything, and to combine the electricity with wind, water and solar.

There are four major energy sectors: electricity, transportation, buildings, and industry. For transportation, we’d go with electrical vehicles, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. For buildings, all heating and cooling would be done with electric heat pumps; water heating would be done with electric heat pumps; stoves would be induction cooktops. It turns out that when you do this, you reduce power demand worldwide by about 57%, because of the efficiency of electricity over combustion. When you electrify everything, you reduce demand, but you’re also eliminating all of the energy that goes into mining, transporting, and refining fossil fuels and uranium, which make up 12% of all energy worldwide. You end up eliminating up to 7 million air pollution deaths per year that are linked to fossil fuel and biofuel combustion; you eliminate the emissions associated with global warming; and you provide energy security and stability. Because you’re using 57% less energy, your costs go down at least 57%, but in fact go down much more, because wind and solar, the cheapest forms of electricity today, are half the cost of gas. Cost per energy unit, accordingly, goes down by over 60%. And that’s not to mention money saved on health costs and climate costs. Factoring that in, expenditure goes down about 90% compared with business as usual, which is mostly fossil fuels.

The bottom line is that we’re confident that, with current technologies, we can transition the world to solve these problems. It does take political will, but it’s feasible pretty much everywhere and is already starting to happen—61 countries now have 100% renewable; energy laws; 13 states in the U.S. have laws or executive orders; 180 U.S. cities and 300 worldwide have laws. It’s a growing movement. A lot more needs to be done, but the public is behind it. We have popular support for costs coming down through renewables.

Emily Grubert

Assistant Professor of Environmental Engineering, Construction and Infrastructure Systems Engineering, and Sustainable Communities, Georgia Tech

I think the answer is yes, but we have to design the systems to make that possible. Right now, we don’t have a system that’s designed to be fully renewable energy, so we often see weaknesses in that system, because we haven’t had to assume that it’s purely renewable. But we can absolutely design systems that will allow us to run full renewable energy.

At some level, if you really think about human existence historically, we were running on renewable energy for a very long time. The question is: What do we want from our energy systems? Mostly, we have to think about how the supply and demand sides of an energy system fit together, and then we need to think carefully about some of the parameters we want our system to deliver. What should it look like in terms of reliability? What should it look like in terms of cost? What should it look like in terms of environmental characteristics? You probably can’t always get the lowest possible cost for the highest possible social/environmental standards, or the highest possible reliability standards, so there can be some tradeoffs—but that’s true of the fossil-based system as well.

I think we will eventually get there, and that we need to be very thoughtful about how we push ourselves in that direction. What we need is a shared social understanding of what our overall priorities are. Is that ‘we need to avoid climate change?’ Is it ‘we need to actually make sure that we’re providing safe energy systems to ourselves?’ But in terms of what happens on the ground, I think a lot of this comes down to regulators, national standards, international agreements, that sort of thing.

Sarah Johnston

Assistant Professor, Agriculture and Applied Economics, University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose research interests include industrial organization and energy and environmental economics

Yes, but we will still need some technological advancement to get there. We already have the technology to cost-effectively produce massive amounts of electricity from renewable resources. Yet, we currently do not have much ability to store this electricity for times when it is not sunny or windy. Current battery storage systems are improving, but can only provide electricity for hours, not days. So I think technological advancement in terms of storage will be key. Another option is to figure out how to economically transform electricity from renewables into other forms of energy that can be stored. We can use electrolysis to convert it into hydrogen, but this is still expensive, so that’s another margin on which technological progress could help. Looking at the progress in the last 20 years, I am optimistic that we will get there.

I think another interesting question is, should 100% be the goal? A key principle of economics is increasing marginal costs. In transitioning away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy, we will (hopefully) make the lowest cost changes first. Currently, this means transitioning electricity generation from fossil fuel sources to renewables. Next, it might mean replacing gas-powered vehicles with electric vehicles. As we are using fossil fuels less and less, the actions we must take to replace them with renewables will get more costly. For example, to replace natural gas heat with electric heat for homes in cold climates, we would have to pay to retrofit tens of millions of homes with electric heat pump systems that currently cost far more to purchase and install than a natural gas furnace. So while the impact on climate change of going from 99% renewable energy to 100% renewable energy may be similar to the impact of going from 50% to 51%, the incremental cost could be orders of magnitude greater. I think this logic makes it important not to get too fixated on 100% targets.

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Steven Davis

Professor of Earth System Science, University of California, Irvine

Yes, it’s possible we’ll meet all our energy demands with renewable sources, but there are still some techno-economic challenges if the share of variable sources like wind and solar gets really high, like say >80%. That’s because those sources keep their own schedules that don’t always align with the timing of our demands, and we haven’t figured out a sufficiently cheap and scalable way of storing really large quantities of energy. Other renewable sources of energy like hydroelectricity, geothermal, or biomass may help, but often face their own, different challenges of sustainability. I therefore think making renewable fuels could be a key to affording an all-renewable energy system. For example, some of our recent work shows that even though current technologies for converting renewable electricity to fuel and back are expensive, they’d already make an otherwise-all-solar-and-wind electricity system cheaper.

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Brian Kahn contributed reporting for this story.

Do you have a burning question for Giz Asks? Email us at tipbox@gizmodo.com.

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Jack and Elon Are Promoting Bitcoin on Earth Day for Some Reason (It Makes Them Richer)

Feel the clean bitcoin energy.

Feel the clean bitcoin energy.
Photo: Tobias Schwarz/AFP (Getty Images)

Earth Day is prime time for brands and people to promote their pre-existing products to the masses, swaddled up in a green package. So perhaps it’s no surprise that area shaman Jack Dorsey and meme enthusiast Elon Musk are pumping bitcoin, a cryptocurrency both men hold and that their respective companies invest heavily in, as environmentally friendly.

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Dorsey’s firm Square released a white paper on Wednesday (technically not Earth Day, but hey, it’s Earth Week now) in conjunction with ARK Invest “to argue for bitcoin as a key driver of renewable energy’s future.” Dorsey quote retweeted it, Musk replied with an endorsement, and the uncritical hype cycle was on. Cathie Wood, the CEO of ARK Invest who I have been informed is into a book supposedly penned by Jesus via auto writing, also hopped on the hype train by quote retweeting Dorsey. Choo choo!

The paper’s argument is that bitcoin mining uses a lot of energy, yes, but that’s good for renewable adoptions, actually. The paper points to a concept in the energy sector known as the “duck curve” where energy demand peaks in the mornings and especially evenings when people are home while renewable generation tends to peak during the day when the sun is shining. The resulting lines look like a duck.

The mismatch in supply and demand means battery storage is a primary solution to ensuring a world that runs on 100% renewable energy can keep up with demand. Batteries, of course, cost money. Their costs are falling and will keep falling tremendously this decade. But the white paper argues the world will never possibly be able to install enough batteries and keep costs low. The solution is, of course, bitcoin mining with rigs nibbling on what the paper somewhat grossly refers to as “whatever remains of the ‘duck’s belly.’” Basically, ARK Invest and Square are saying miners should pick over the carcass of the energy system and generate bitcoin revenue for operators.

Of course, there are a few rubs with this grisly plan. The first caveat the paper notes is that “it wouldn’t be entirely green from day one.” Indeed, renewables only power about a quarter of the grid globally (and the majority of that is hydropower, a source that doesn’t need much in the way of battery storage). So the idea of installing more mining rigs—which are designed to run 24/7 since going down means no profit—now just means they’d continue to be a huge source of emissions by using fossil fuel-generated power.

That also points to a fallacy around them scooping up excess power in the day and then just shutting off for the night. The whole point of running a mining rig is to make money. The best way to make money is to be permanently switched on trying to mine bitcoin. The idea that miners would somehow just nibble at the “duck’s belly” (ew, again, I’m sorry) and be content is not borne out by data.

Then there’s the issue mining supposedly solves. The idea that there are only two options—mine bitcoin or let the energy go to waste—is laughable. Once a bitcoin mining operation uses energy, that’s it. It’s gone. Rigs can’t magically spit it back out on the grid. Installing more batteries is one possible solution. So, too, is putting the energy generated to other uses. Why isn’t Dorsey hype on making cement or renewable hydrogen, technologies that have more widespread beneficial uses than bitcoin such as “building stuff?” Or what about charging EVs midday, energy that could actually be put back on the grid in the evening if needed to meet demand?

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The most comical part of this is Dorsey’s statement that “#bitcoin incentivizes renewable energy.” Bitcoin does absolutely nothing of the sort. If it did, the network would be migrating to places with the cleanest energy already. What bitcoin incentivizes is massive energy use, of any form, at the lowest cost possible. That’s why it’s shown up in coal-friendly provinces of China and in Iran after sanctions left that country with a glut of oil to burn. That’s why the mining network’s energy footprint is equivalent to the entire Netherlands, according to cryptocurrency monitoring site Digiconomist.

Look, I get it. Musk and Dorsey love bitcoin. It’s cool, it made them richer! Congrats to them and the owners of bitcoin and the people who love mining and all that. Maybe bitcoin bulls are right and it will one day be the currency the world runs on! But to try and pretend it’s anything other than a financially lucrative endeavor at this point, let alone one that could some lead to a clean energy revolution, is laughable.

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What incentivizes renewable energy are regulations that wind down the fossil fuel industry and public investments that help drop the cost of renewables and battery storage even further. The idea that bitcoin alone is the solution is akin to the NRA saying the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. This is not that hard, people.

Anyways, happy Earth Day or whatever.

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Jack Dorsey Claims Bitcoin ‘Incentivizes Renewable Energy’ Despite All Evidence to the Contrary

Feel the clean bitcoin energy.

Feel the clean bitcoin energy.
Photo: Greg Nash/Pool (AP)

Earth Day is prime time for brands and people to promote their pre-existing products to the masses, swaddled up in a green package. So perhaps it’s no surprise that area shaman Jack Dorsey and meme enthusiast Elon Musk are pumping bitcoin, a cryptocurrency both men hold and that their respective companies invest heavily in, as environmentally friendly.

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Dorsey’s firm Square released a white paper on Wednesday (technically not Earth Day, but hey, it’s Earth Week now) in conjunction with ARK Invest “to argue for bitcoin as a key driver of renewable energy’s future.” Dorsey quote retweeted it, Musk replied with an endorsement, and the uncritical hype cycle was on. Cathie Wood, the CEO of ARK Invest who I have been informed is into a book supposedly penned by Jesus via auto writing, also hopped on the hype train by quote retweeting Dorsey. Choo choo!

The paper’s argument is that bitcoin mining uses a lot of energy, yes, but that’s good for renewable adoptions, actually. The paper points to a concept in the energy sector known as the “duck curve” where energy demand peaks in the mornings and especially evenings when people are home while renewable generation tends to peak during the day when the sun is shining. The resulting lines look like a duck.

The mismatch in supply and demand means battery storage is a primary solution to ensuring a world that runs on 100% renewable energy can keep up with demand. Batteries, of course, cost money. Their costs are falling and will keep falling tremendously this decade. But the white paper argues the world will never possibly be able to install enough batteries and keep costs low. The solution is, of course, bitcoin mining with rigs nibbling on what the paper somewhat grossly refers to as “whatever remains of the ‘duck’s belly.’” Basically, ARK Invest and Square are saying miners should pick over the carcass of the energy system and generate bitcoin revenue for operators.

Of course, there are a few rubs with this grisly plan. The first caveat the paper notes is that “it wouldn’t be entirely green from day one.” Indeed, renewables only power about a quarter of the grid globally (and the majority of that is hydropower, a source that doesn’t need much in the way of battery storage). So the idea of installing more mining rigs—which are designed to run 24/7 since going down means no profit—now just means they’d continue to be a huge source of emissions by using fossil fuel-generated power.

That also points to a fallacy around them scooping up excess power in the day and then just shutting off for the night. The whole point of running a mining rig is to make money. The best way to make money is to be permanently switched on trying to mine bitcoin. The idea that miners would somehow just nibble at the “duck’s belly” (ew, again, I’m sorry) and be content is not borne out by data.

Then there’s the issue mining supposedly solves. The idea that there are only two options—mine bitcoin or let the energy go to waste—is laughable. Once a bitcoin mining operation uses energy, that’s it. It’s gone. Rigs can’t magically spit it back out on the grid. Installing more batteries is one possible solution. So, too, is putting the energy generated to other uses. Why isn’t Dorsey hype on making cement or renewable hydrogen, technologies that have more widespread beneficial uses than bitcoin such as “building stuff?” Or what about charging EVs midday, energy that could actually be put back on the grid in the evening if needed to meet demand?

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The most comical part of this is Dorsey’s statement that “#bitcoin incentivizes renewable energy.” Bitcoin does absolutely nothing of the sort. If it did, the network would be migrating to places with the cleanest energy already. What bitcoin incentivizes is massive energy use, of any form, at the lowest cost possible. That’s why it’s shown up in coal-friendly provinces of China and in Iran after sanctions left that country with a glut of oil to burn. That’s why the mining network’s energy footprint is equivalent to the entire Netherlands, according to cryptocurrency monitoring site Digiconomist.

Look, I get it. Musk and Dorsey love bitcoin. It’s cool, it made them richer! Congrats to them and the owners of bitcoin and the people who love mining and all that. Maybe bitcoin bulls are right and it will one day be the currency the world runs on! But to try and pretend it’s anything other than a financially lucrative endeavor at this point, let alone one that could some lead to a clean energy revolution, is laughable.

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What incentivizes renewable energy are regulations that wind down the fossil fuel industry and public investments that help drop the cost of renewables and battery storage even further. The idea that bitcoin alone is the solution is akin to the NRA saying the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. This is not that hard, people.

Anyways, happy Earth Day or whatever.

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Big Oil Is a Big Loser (of Money, But Also Life)

The Fearless Girl statue stands in front of the New York Stock Exchange in New York’s Financial District.

The Fearless Girl statue stands in front of the New York Stock Exchange in New York’s Financial District.
Photo: Mary Altaffer (AP)

If you’re looking to start an investment portfolio, you may want to steer clear of fossil fuels. A report released Tuesday from Carbon Tracker, a financial think tank, shows the losses for oil stocks have been piling up.

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Over the past 10 years, the report finds, the share value of fossil fuel companies and companies tied with their production dropped by $123 billion. This isn’t just market volatility, the report says: This sector underperformed a key world financial index by more than 50% when compared to MSCI All Country World Index, a key world financial index. In other words, if an investor had bought only fossil fuel stocks over the past decade, they would have gotten 52% less of a return on their investment than their peers with more varied portfolios.

Yet according to the report, investors can’t keep their mitts off fossil fuels despite those companies being a losing investment. The fossil fuel industry sold around $640 billion in equity to global investors during that time, the report finds, including 2,360 stock exchange transactions managed by almost 450 investment banks. This number dwarfs the amount of renewable energy investments. Over that same time period, there were only $56 billion worth of issuances made in the renewable energy sector—less than a tenth of the investment made in fossil fuels.

Why on Earth do investors keep returning to fossil fuel investments if they are so unprofitable? That’s a “good question with no easy answer,” the report’s lead author, Henrik Jeppesen, told Earther in an email. Fossil fuel stocks have done really well in the past, Jeppesen said—they outperformed the market from 1995 until 2008—and many investors are skittish of missing out on another boom period. Financial FOMO is real apparently.

“I still meet investors who use this argument, and many trustees around have long memories,” Jeppesen said.

Some also think that we may be using fossil fuels for a while—especially with regards to plastics—so they “continue to see potential in the sector,” Jeppesen said.

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The flip side of the coin is that investments in renewable energy are making bank. Renewable energy stocks, the report finds, outperformed that same world index by 54% over the same period of time, gaining $77 billion in value. That position has been strengthening over time.

“We have seen a lot [of] big technological developments and breakthroughs across renewable energy and clean technologies in recent years,” Jeppesen said, noting that renewable companies have become even more competitive in the last few years compared to the earlier part of the decade. “In general, renewable energy companies are typically smaller and younger companies focused on technology development, which is a lot less capital intensive [than] companies using expensive extractive equipment to search for [and] produce oil, gas, and coal.”

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The world’s financial system seems to be waking up to the fact that the fossil fuel industry is a losing bet. Since 2016, the report finds, an “increasing number” of fossil fuel share transactions have come from investors who already hold those shares—and who are looking to reduce or sell out their investments. “This may be a signal of declining confidence in the outlook for fossil fuels by insiders,” the report notes.

Reforming our financial system is actually a key part of the Paris Agreement, which says that “finance flows” should be “consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.” This goal is listed right at the top of the Agreement, along with holding world temperatures “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). But until recently, there’s been little discussion or attention paid to how to reform the global financial system, especially compared to how much we’ve paid attention to the temperature target in the agreement.

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The report comes as big banks, investment firms, and other financial institutions are making increasing noise about how they’re working to fix the climate crisis. But just because financial actors are all of a sudden acting concerned about climate doesn’t mean that they’re ready to take their foot off the fossil fuel gas just yet. A separate report released this year from the Rainforest Action Network found that in the last year alone, global banks have provided $750 billion in debt financing to fossil fuel companies. And, as we discussed last week, as a lot of the world’s most powerful financial institutions make promises to reach “net zero” or other kinds of climate commitments, many of those plans are actually pretty toothless if you look closely.

The financial sector is a place where untangling the PR spin on climate from a company’s actions and investments is going to be increasingly important, something the report underscores. BlackRock, for instance, has made a concerted effort making a name for itself as a leader in the “net-zero economy.” But the firm is still the world’s largest shareholder of fossil fuel holdings, the report finds, with $149 billion in shares of these companies as of December. And Wells Fargo, which this month became the latest big bank to make a net zero commitment, was the biggest fossil fuel transaction advisor over the past decade of the 10 big investment banks surveyed. In comparison, only 1% of the transactions in its hands were with renewable companies.

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Consumers looking to discern fact from fiction and hold financial actors accountable would do well to “follow the money,” Jeppesen said.

Biden Announces Plan to Jumpstart an Honest to God Offshore Wind Industry in the U.S.

Illustration for article titled Biden Announces Plan to Jumpstart an Honest to God Offshore Wind Industry in the U.S.

Photo: Don Emmert (Getty Images)

The Biden administration today announced a plan to get our flailing offshore wind industry off the ground—namely, increasing the nation’s number of operational offshore wind farms to more than one. As the announcement points out, it’s enough to power 10 million homes. The administration expects that the plan will add about 77,000 jobs between the industry and surrounding communities.

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It’s a giant leap forward from our current state, with a concrete plan for swift action, but we’ll still be far off from realizing our potential to derive a substantial portion of electricity.

The plan aims to generate 30 gigawatts of energy by 2030, increasing the offshore wind output thousand-fold; but comparatively, in 2020, the U.S. had the capacity to generate 1,117 gigawatts from all sources annually. The plan would save us 78 million metric tons of CO2 emissions, which is a small dent in our annual average release of over 5 billion metric tons of energy-related carbon dioxide.

Last year, when Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) proposed a bill aiming for 25 gigawatts of offshore wind farms, Earther’s Dharna Noor acknowledged that the bill was ambitious for this country, but still left us far behind Europe. At Biden’s rate, in ten years, the whole of the U.S. would still only be producing about three-quarters of the offshore-wind-generated energy as the UK alone. The Department of Energy has reported that the U.S. has over 30 offshore wind projects in development, though the UK already has 40. And if Boris Johnson’s pledge is fulfilled, offshore wind will generate enough to power every home in the UK by 2030.

The administration has designated a new wind energy area in the New York Bight, a section of the Atlantic ocean extending inland near New Jersey and Long Island (areas where certain NIMBYs haven’t taken kindly to blights on their view). The Biden administration has also prompted a speedup for approval of a wind farm off Martha’s Vineyard.

Granted, it took decades for Europe to build up its vast wind network, which currently produces 80% of the world’s offshore wind energy (85 gigawatts) and employs over 210,000 people. The Biden administration’s plan anticipates playing catch-up, injecting $3 billion in loans into the industry, $230 million to ready ports, $8 million for research and development projects, and urging the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to speed along a review of 16 construction plans. That last portion is a reversal from the Trump era; a report from the Center for American Progress found that, during the pandemic, the DOI gave oil and gas companies rent breaks on public lands while slapping wind and solar with bills.

So nice to get the show on the road, a road plausibly filled with way more electric vehicles. On Twitter, Bill McKibben pointed out that the U.S. still trails the EU’s offshore wind capacity, “badly,” but added that the Biden plan “looks like the start of something big.”

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Iowa’s Former Nuclear Plant Could Soon Be a Solar Farm

More solar for Iowa.

More solar for Iowa.
Photo: Elise Amendola (AP)

Last summer, powerful winds from a derecho took Iowa’s only nuclear power plant out of commission. Because it was already slated for closure just two months later, the facility’s owners decided not to bring it back online, and it’s been sitting idle since last August. But there’s a plan to breathe new life into the Duane Arnold nuclear plant, resurrecting it as a massive renewable energy project.

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NextEra Energy first announced the plans to construct a $700 million solar farm where the nuclear plant once stood in a meeting with nearby landowners last week. While the eastern Iowa nuclear plant generated 619 megawatts of power—almost 8% of the state’s power generation and enough to power 600,000 homes—the new solar project would produce 690 megawatts and also be home to 60 megawatts of battery storage, allowing unused energy to be captured when demand is lower. The firm says it could also create about $41.6 million in tax revenue and result in $50 million in payments to the landowners where it is built. Building it would also create up to 300 construction jobs.

NextEra wants to move quickly on this. The company plans to negotiate leases for the 3,500-acre proposal with landowners this coming summer and begin construction by winter 2022. If it can win necessary local and state permits, the project could begin operating by the end of 2023.

The company first announced plans to retire the nuclear power plant in 2019, telling the local paper the Gazette that it no longer fit the needs of Iowa’s energy portfolio. Compared with other nuclear reactors, the plant was generating energy inefficiently; other similar plants of its size tend to generate between 200 and 300 more megawatts of power, “so our costs are spread across fewer megawatts,” its director told the outlet.

The plans to close the plant weren’t agreeable to everyone, and raised eternal questions about whether or not nuclear power should be considered a clean energy source. Though nuclear power is itself carbon-free, the material used to generate energy, uranium, is not renewable and has historically been extracted in ways that disproportionately hurt disadvantaged communities. The process of generating power from nukes also creates toxic nuclear waste. In the 1990s, exposure to waste from the Duane Arnold plant was linked to increased rates of cancer. And though inspectors deemed it safe more recently, the derecho still managed to do damage last year. It has also continually been falling into disrepair, and nuclear plants are notoriously difficult to fix.

Replacing it with a solar farm would mitigate much of the toxic waste generation and risk of a public health disaster (pretty sure we’re not going to see a solar spill or meltdown anytime soon). And Iowa has a pretty good track record on renewables, becoming something of a leader in the Midwest. In 1983, it became the first state to pass a Renewable Portfolio Standard to set clean energy goals. According to federal data, the state currently obtains 42% of its energy from its 5,100 wind turbines, which is the highest wind power share for any state. Iowa is also home to six grid-connected solar farms that produce 110 megawatts of energy, and has 850 more megawatts already under construction. Last year, the capital of Des Moines became the first city in the state to pass a resolution to reach 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035.

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But the state still has a ways to go to completely decarbonize its electricity sector. A 2020 analysis from the Iowa Environment Council suggests that the state would still need a minimum of 5,000 megawatts of solar power to provide provide 100% carbon-free electricity to all state residents. If the new solar farm produces more energy than the old plant did, that could bring the state that much closer to getting off oil and gas. And if it can produce energy more efficiently than its nuclear predecessor, that could translate to savings on Iowans’ energy bills, which is something everyone can get behind.