Blog Posts

Fresh evidence that our clean energy future could be a long time coming

The question isn’t a new one, but two news items from the past week crystallize the issue in a manner that isn’t always quite so vivid. The question, specifically: Where does the clean energy hype end and the clean energy reality begin?

Consider: The U.S. Energy Information Administration, in its Dec. 5 “Today in Energy” posting, examined the significant growth in electricity generation from natural gas-powered plants over the past decade in the southern United States. More precisely, natural gas generation climbed to 42 percent of total power generation in the South in 2016 from 25 percent of total generation a decade earlier, according to EIA. That corresponds with the region’s decline in coal-fired power generation to 29 percent from 50 percent over the past 10 years.

Leapfrog the Atlantic, per a GreenTech Media article published earlier today, and we find this question posed in the headline: “If Renewables Aren’t Growing Fast Enough to Replace Nuclear, What Are Europe’s Options?” Reporter Jason Deign posits that while Europe has a number of options to meet its 2050 decarbonization goals, “the pathways are getting slimmer.” Reductions in carbon emissions have been slow despite the expansion of renewables, and they will be increasingly difficult to achieve as nuclear energy facilities are retired (principally in Germany), “since renewables have much lower capacity factors than the nukes they are often replacing,” the article states.

Back to the United States and the EIA report, which strikes me as relevant because it documents the extent to which electricity generation lost in the South by retired coal-fired and nuclear power plants has been replaced largely by natural gas plants. EIA notes that, “New installed capacity in the region came primarily from natural gas and wind, with an additional 47.0 GW and 25.6 GW installed, respectively, between 2006 and 2017.” Again, wind’s lower capacity factors mean that actual electricity production has come overwhelmingly from natural gas facilities.

Only a few states in the South have a renewable portfolio standard mandating increased production levels. Unquestionably, as EIA verifies, renewable energy generation is growing nonetheless. But as the GreenTech Media article makes plain, even Europe grapples with the fact that the clean energy dream is a long way from being realized, and the path forward remains murky.

December 11, 2017

When Do Climate Change Precautions Get Distorted into Wealth Redistribution?

So here’s a question: When does action to mitigate the potential impacts of climate change cross the line from being a prudent precaution to brazen redistribution of wealth?

In the eyes of some, the answer is simple: From the get-go. The threat of climate change is overhyped; the United Nations bureaucrats organizing international conferences are riding a gravy train; and the leaders of  (pick your countries) are doing their utmost to squeeze untold billions of dollars out of the United States.

Conversely, in the eyes of others, climate change has a near-religious fervor. We can never do enough fast enough to save the planet from a thermal-induced apocalypse.

For those whose belief system falls somewhere between these two extremes, the question posed above may be worth pondering. I ask after reading a commentary in the Nov. 26 Washington Post headlined, “A climate policy that grows the economy.” The co-authors of the commentary, small businessmen in the nation’s capital, advocate enactment of the Climate and Community Reinvestment Act by the D.C. Council “as soon as possible.” As the writers explain it, the measure would “require fossil-fuel companies doing business in the District to pay a fee for every ton of carbon dioxide they put into the atmosphere. The policy would then rebate the overwhelming share of the collected revenue — hundreds of millions of dollars — to D.C. households and small businesses such as ours.”

Early in the article, the writers express their empathy and concern for the people and communities affected by this year’s hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas. “(W)e wonder: How can D.C. businesses and residents do our part to address our climate crisis?” Their answer, at least in part: Pass the Climate and Community Reinvestment Act. Now.

I have no doubt in the world that the compassion and concern expressed for those whose lives have been devastated, if not lost, is heartfelt. I share it and can’t imagine how anyone could feel otherwise.

At the same time, I have to wonder why, then, the revenue from the desired legislation would not go directly to communities already affected and/or most threatened by hurricanes and climate change? The authors cite an economic study that finds the “fee-and-rebate” policy would “rais(e) the incomes of most Washington residents, especially the poor and middle class … (L)ow-income residents would receive $4 in rebate payments for every $1 they pay in energy ‘taxes.’ ”

Hence my question: If the revenues generated are going to “most Washington residents,” even those in the middle class, would the District be taking a prudent precaution, or would it simply be redistributing wealth?

What’s your opinion?

November 30, 2017

Donna Brazile’s new book on Clinton campaign carries lesson on influencing target audiences

Buried toward the end of last Sunday’s lengthy Washington Post article on Donna Brazile’s new book about the 2016 presidential election are a few cautionary paragraphs that business professionals in a variety of disciplines should heed. While persons working in communications, marketing, community relations and government relations will find the tale particularly relevant, others may find value as well.

“Brazile writes that Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook and his lieutenants were so obsessed with voter data and predictive analytics that they ‘missed the big picture,'” The Post reports. “They knew how to size up voters not by meeting them and finding out what they cared about, what moved their hearts and stirred their souls, but by analyzing their habits,” Brazile writes. “You might be able to persuade a handful of Real Simple magazine readers who drink gin and tonics to change their vote to Hillary, but you had not necessarily made them enthusiastic enough to want to get up off the couch and go to the polls.”

There’s no arguing that the era of Big Data is upon us. I won’t pretend to know a fraction of what I could or should about our improved abilities to gather information via the Internet of things to predict user behavior, identify emerging trends and otherwise confront societal challenges. Our economy and our lives increasingly will be shaped by practical applications manifested in this new era.

Nonetheless, as Donna Brazile’s critique suggests, one runs a risk in relying too heavily on data and failing to engage with people directly. Focus groups, mall intercepts and town hall meetings are but a few examples of methods that long have been employed with great benefit to conduct consumer research, test messages and materials, gauge attitudes and surface (and answer) lingering questions. As we adopt new tools in social media space — microtargeting advertisements, for example — we should be mindful to keep at the ready in our toolkits many of these proven practices to connect with audiences and stakeholders where (to Brazile’s point) they actually think and feel.

A relevant story from my own experience was a conversation with a social media practitioner about ways to advance policy goals with congressional staff. As a former congressional press secretary myself, I sought to make the point that supportive editorials (in national and local newspapers alike) are a useful means to advance policy goals in congressional offices. I was less than encouraged when the social media practitioner on this particular team replied that he didn’t read editorial pages. When I see Donna Brazile’s take on the data-focused aspects of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, I’m reminded of this conversation.

Good messages and initiatives don’t do much for you if you fail to effectively leverage the channels and means to get the attention of your target audience. At the same time, even the right channels aren’t likely to do much for you if your message doesn’t “move hearts” and “stir souls.” Now, executing both effectively …. THAT’s a formula for success.

November 10, 2017

Is It the Best of Times or the Worst of Times for Renewable Energy?

It seems an odd point at which to make this argument: David Roberts posits in a new commentary that renewable energy mandates aren’t getting the support they merit; truth be told, they should get more.

“Though they aren’t as sexy as perpetually-discussed-but-rarely-passed carbon taxes, and they are flawed and insufficient in a number of ways, RPSs have been the quiet workhorses of renewable energy deployment in the US,” Roberts states. “RPSs might not be the most cost-effective way to improve air quality, reduce carbon emissions, or stimulate the growth of clean-energy industries and jobs … but they are real, working, doing all three of those things, right now, cost-effectively.”

You can read his full arguments and the research on which he bases them for yourself. What catches my eye is the absence of any reference to nuclear energy. The headline to David’s piece characterizes renewable mandates as “the most effective clean energy policy,” despite the fact that nuclear energy for decades has been the nation’s largest source of carbon-free power. It remains so (at 60 percent of carbon-free power generation) even though its dominance has eased a bit over the past several years due to some reactor closings and the increased penetration of renewable technologies.

For those whose goal is clean energy, the question becomes, “What benefit is served by having renewable mandates that crowd out nuclear energy?” I delve into this in greater detail in an analysis I penned for RealClearEnergy a few months ago. For brevity here, I’ll note simply that the impending retirement of California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in the mid-2020s was triggered largely by the upward ratcheting of the state’s RPS. (Roberts happens to describe the California standard as “wildly ambitious.”) If continued ratcheting of existing RPSs occurs in other states, and additional states enact strict “renewable” mandates vs broader “clean energy” mandates that don’t make room for nuclear energy, how will we move forward rather than backward in clean energy space? Truth be told, we won’t.

October 23, 2017