Forty-five years ago at the nascent Solar Energy Research Institute in Golden, Colorado, where I worked on the non-technical side, part of our mission was to come up with ideas or scrutinize others’ ideas for making solar and wind a major factor in U.S. energy production. That was a time when solar cells still cost more than $30 a watt to manufacture instead of the $.20 a watt they do today. Electricity-generating solar panels made up of these early cells weren’t very efficient. But in those days of oil embargoes and environmentalists’ hopes for a switch to less polluting energy, scientists, engineers, and policy thinkers were investigating a wide range of what at the time seemed, even to us at the institute, pretty outlandish possibilities.
For instance, officials from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) showed up at SERI wondering whether solar could power the launch of a few hundred MX ICBMs. To keep the Soviets from knowing where these weapons were situated at any particular time, they were to be constantly moved among a few thousand sheltered launchpads scattered throughout the Nevada and Utah desert. The missiles couldn’t be securely powered from the electrical grid, which might be knocked out in an attack. The Pentagon’s suggested solution: install solar at each of these launchpads. But this was a no-go from the outset. Solar and battery technology then just weren’t up to the task.
Another idea was to line America’s highway rights-of-way with solar panels. That looked good on paper … until the economics were included. Far too expensive with far too little return in solar electricity, with immense requirements for new transmission lines. The idea, a dream really, never even made it into a SERI white paper.
Fast-forward nearly half a century and using highway easements to host solar farms isn’t viewed as outlandish, but rather obvious. In well-designed projects, roadside solar economics work just fine using panels crafted by 50 years of technical advances. The Federal Highway Administration, which prohibited outside infrastructure in easements until 1989, issued new guidance in 2021 to state transportation departments to encourage use of these rights-of-way for solar installations. Even before the guidance, a handful of states had taken modest steps to make roadside solar a reality. Wisconsin was the pioneer. In 2003, it passed legislation that produced a regulatory framework that has allowed construction of 26 roadside transmission projects with hundreds of miles of high-voltage power lines. But few other states have followed suit.
Usually ahead in such matters, California has left a lot of roadside renewable energy potential untapped. However, if, as expected, Gov. Gavin Newsom signs SB 49, California could be the next state to exploit this potential. This would boost the state’s aggressive efforts to reach 100% renewable electricity by 2045. It would make at least some siting of new transmission lines a lot politically easier.
Both houses of the California legislature passed SB 49 unanimously last month. Introduced by State Sen. Josh Becker—who is my district’s senator—it calls on state agencies to study the potential for solar energy, battery storage, and transmission infrastructure in state-owned highway rights-of-way. Deadline for completion of the study is the end of 2025. The bill also sets up a framework under which corporate or other entities can build and operate these installations.
The Ray, which advocates a nationwide meshing of transportation and solar energy production transmission, conducted the Environment California Research & Policy Center’s report, “Solar power alongside California’s highways.” It found that roadside solar on 4,800 acres in just three counties could generate electricity for more than 270,000 homes if covered in solar panels.
And that could be just the beginning. The Ray Solar Highway Project: Assessment of solar potential installed in ROWs across the United States conducted by the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas, Austin, looked at potential across the contiguous 48 states. It found large amounts of vacant roadside land near exits along the nation’s interstate highways are suitable for solar energy development. These, the researchers calculated, could generate 36 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity annually, worth $4 billion, and enough to charge 12 million electric passenger vehicles.
Besides the obvious gains in clean energy production, building roadside solar would rarely collide with the local opposition that can kill or cause expensive delays in utility-scale installations on farm land or ecologically delicate public lands. With roadside solar, no easements must be negotiated and purchased, and environmental concerns are far less or nil compared with other potential sites.
Since it got rolling two-and-a-half years ago, The newsroom Canary Media—set up by the sustainability think tank RMI, formerly the Rocky Mountain Institute—has done an excellent job in explaining how the world is decarbonizing. Last week, Canary’s Director of News and Special Projects Jeff St. John took a deep dive into roadside solar. One of his interviewees was Randy Satterfield, executive director of the NextGen Highways initiative, a nonprofit group that’s been working with states and utilities to expand the use of highways for transmission development:
NextGen Highways grew out of an effort in Minnesota to review and adapt state policies to allow utilities and grid operators to consider highways as an alternative route for new transmission projects. It expanded to a national coalition this year after winning funding from the Bill Gates—founded Breakthrough Energy, and it is now working with a dozen states, [Satterfield] said.
Highway rights of way offer “the greatest bang for the buck” for transmission projects, Satterfield said, because they avoid the painstaking work of securing permission and permits to cross land under the control of hundreds of individual public and private landowners. “We could be giving utilities and transmission developers the tools to develop highway rights of way now.”
Avoiding some of that “painstaking work” can pay off in other ways too, said Satterfield, previously an executive at transmission developer American Transmission Co. “We would spend three to five years on public engagement, routing, and siting before giving an application to the regulator” for a major new transmission line, he said. But in Wisconsin, siting projects on existing highway easements is “effectively truncating that timeline down to a year or a year and a half.”
And there’s more. Tom Stone at TTI reports:
“On day one of these projects, state DOTs [departments of transportation] win,” said Laura Rogers, director of strategic partnerships at The Ray. “State DOTs have a lot of options when structuring ROW renewable energy projects. Depending on their priorities and goals, state DOTs can own the renewable energy system and use or sell the clean energy generated, or they can work with a solar developer who owns the system and collect a land fee, while at the same time transferring land maintenance obligations to that developer. Where available, the state DOTs can also retain solar renewable energy credits that they can use to meet greenhouse gas reduction or renewable energy generation goals, or they can sell the credits and keep the revenue,” Rogers added. “No matter how they decide to structure the deal, state DOTs win on all fronts by optimizing underutilized land to generate clean renewable energy that benefits their communities, the environment, and their budgets.”
The climate wins too.
Back in July, Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, president of COP28, the climate summit being held in Dubai starting November 30, called on governments of all 194 parties signatory to the Paris Agreement on climate, to update their nationally determined contribution (NDC) of reduced greenhouse gas emissions. None has done so.
Under the agreement, each nation is supposed to update its NDC every five years. But activists have pushed to make these updates more frequent.
Matteo Civillini at Climate Home News writes:
Tom Evans, a policy advisor at E3G, says it was always “quite unlikely” countries would submit updated NDCs before Cop28. “I don’t think there are tonnes of appetite among governments to revise their targets so often,” he told Climate Home News. “It’s challenging politically because these aren’t light decisions, and it’s challenging technically as it takes time with lots of modelling to do them properly.”
Current NDCs are short of what is needed. If countries meet their 2030 emission targets in full, global heating could only be limited to 2.4-2.6C this century, according to the UN Emissions Gap report. Emissions need to decline by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its latest report.
NDCs are an integral part of the “ratchet mechanism” built into the agreement: each climate plan should be stronger and more ambitious than the one that is replacing.
Sultan al-Jaber not only will preside over COP28, he is also Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology of the United Arab Emirates and CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), Abu Dhabi being one of seven emirates of the UAE. Interestingly enough, the UAE is one of the very few nations that updated its NDC this year, but it still comes nowhere near aligning with the 1.5°C goal.
You can read more about al-Jaber’s hawkish climate declarations and ADNOC’s backward-looking fossil fuel investments in last week’s Earth Matters: Slick talk from the fox in the COP28 henhouse.
The Inside Story of How Wall Street Fleeced GM Autoworkers and Taxpayers by Les Leopold at Common Dreams. The story starts back in 2008, when the auto industry was going bankrupt due to the financial crisis that Wall Street’s reckless gambling had caused. Six million workers lost their jobs in six months through no fault of their own. The federal government intervened with a massive bailout, eventually loaning the companies more than $81 billion. To reorganize the industry, the government wanted more financial expertise. So where did it turn? To Wall Street! The financial foxes were hired to overhaul the hen house. The bailout’s net cost to U.S. taxpayers was $11. 2 billion, while autoworkers absorbed $11 billion in reduced labor costs. In exchange for the survival of their jobs, workers were saddled with a bitter decade-long wage freeze, the elimination of long-held cost-of-living adjustments, and reduced wages and benefits for new hires. This led to a 19.3 percent loss of real wages (after accounting for inflation) from 2008 to 2022). The UAW’s current request for a sizable wage increase is to make up for more than a decade of lost ground.
Decolonization Is Critical for Puerto Rico to Achieve Representation in Climate Negotiations by Juan Declet-Barreto at the Union of Concerned Scientists. As the climate crisis worsens globally and disproportionately affects small island developing states such Puerto Rico, the colonial reality prevents awareness and discussion of Puerto Rico’s vulnerability to climate change in the context of the United Nations’ climate change negotiations, the Conference of Parties (COP). As a Caribbean island nation, Puerto Rico faces specific vulnerabilities and climate exposures distinct from those of the rest of the United States, but our representatives are prevented from holding decision-making power to address climate change vulnerability, adaptation, and resilience in the regional contexts of the Caribbean and Latin America. Puerto Rico-serving organizations based in the US are actively advocating for Puerto Rico to have a seat at the table of climate negotiations. The Puerto Rican Alliance (PRÁ) is one such organization. PRÁ is a national advocacy organization building bridges between Puerto Rico and its diaspora, connecting policy and decision-makers with the needs on the ground in Puerto Rico, and advocating for decolonization and self-sufficiency.
No, the Government Isn’t Coming for Your Burger—but Maybe It Should Be by Noah J. Gordon, acting co-director of the Sustainability, Climate, and Geopolitics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A key goal of climate policy is to regulate and eventually phase out polluting infrastructure, like coal-fired power plants, and replace dirty machines, like gas-powered cars, with cleaner alternatives. Dozens of nations have pledged to stop burning coal for power, while the EU and several U.S. states will effectively ban the sale of combustion engine cars in the mid-2030s. In the agricultural sector, though, governments are not phasing out the polluting machines or the infrastructure that keeps belching out emissions. They are not phasing out cows and pigs, or demanding farms close down. But a rare few policymakers in countries around the world are taking some steps to curb the numbers of livestock. And by looking at these exceptions to the trend, we can understand what it would look like if governments made a real effort to stop people bringing home quite as much bacon.
The EPA Ignored the Endangered Species Act for 50 Years. That’s Changing, But Is Time Running Out? by Lisa Held at Civil Eats. The agency admits that it has almost entirely failed to evaluate how pesticides affect at-risk animals and plants. Under the Biden administration, it is finally changing course, but the new approach could have unintended consequences. In fact, last year, the EPA acknowledged that over the past five decades, it has effectively ignored its responsibility to evaluate pesticides’ impacts on at-risk plants and animals in more than 95% of cases. Now, due to new leadership and a string of court decisions forcing its hand, the agency says it will reverse course as it reviews new pesticides. At the same time, it has begun tackling a backlog of evaluations so long that it could take several more decades to catch up. “We’re finding out that pesticides are posing a major risk to endangered species, and they have been ever since they were approved,” says Nathan Donley, the Environmental Health Science Director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The problem is that the safeguards now being put in place ... should have been put in place 50, 40, 30 years ago.”
The Green Revolution is a warning, not a blueprint for feeding a hungry planet by Glenn Davis Stone. Floods, heat waves and other weather extremes are making agriculture increasingly precarious, especially in the Global South. The war in Ukraine is also a factor. Russia is blockading Ukrainian grain exports, and fertilizer prices have surged because of trade sanctions on Russia, the world’s leading fertilizer exporter. Amid these challenges, some organizations are renewing calls for a second Green Revolution, echoing the introduction in the 1960s and 1970s of supposedly high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice into developing countries, along with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Those efforts centered on India and other Asian countries; today, advocates focus on sub-Saharan Africa, where the original Green Revolution regime never took hold. But anyone concerned with food production should be careful what they wish for. In recent years, a wave of new analysis has spurred a critical rethinking of what Green Revolution-style farming really means for food supplies and self-sufficiency. As I explain in my book, “The Agricultural Dilemma: How Not to Feed the World,” the Green Revolution does hold lessons for food production today—but not the ones that are commonly heard. Events in India show why.
EPA promises to look under the hood of CAFO operations by Dave Dickey at Investigate Midwest. Finally. At long last the Environmental Protection Agency has recognized that maybe, just maybe, environmental groups have a point that concentrated animal feeding operations — CAFOs — are a significant source of water pollutants, if not closely managed and monitored. But the genesis of the CAFO fight dates back even further to a 2003 EPA rule requiring animal feeding operations that discharge manure, litter, or process wastewater to waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) to apply for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. Both environmentalists and CAFOs sued. Ultimately in 2005, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against environmental petitioners’ challenge to a CAFO rule exempting agricultural storm water discharges. Fed up with EPA inaction on the CAFO permitting petitions, environmental groups filed yet another lawsuit in October 2022 demanding EPA respond to the petitions and draft stronger CAFO rules. This past April, EPA and Food and Water Watch announced an agreement approved by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that EPA will at long last provide some answers to CAFO concerns.
The Radicalization of Climate Activism by Chuck Collins at Yes! magazine. The divestment movement has inspired thousands of institutions to pledge to move more than $40.5 trillion out of fossil fuel investments while “revoking the social license” of the industry. One coalition is calling for U.S. lawmakers to establish a climate tribunal to investigate the role of the fossil fuel industry in fomenting denial and delay in responding to the climate crisis. But it is hard to imagine the current oil-soaked Congress acting on such an idea. I am not surprised that a growing number of people have given up on our political system as a path for making change. Instead, they focus on private sector responses or social movement interventions in blocking new fossil fuel infrastructure—such as Standing Rock and the Valve Turners. Other forms of disruptive direct action, such as efforts by Extinction Rebellion and Climate Defiance, are critical in drawing attention to the urgency of the fight. But ultimately, in the absence of radical, system-wide solutions, these efforts can only serve as delay tactics. What we need is a bold “just transition” program that ends fossil fuels as soon as possible. This should include a declaration of a federal climate emergency; an immediate moratorium on all new fossil fuel infrastructure; an immediate elimination of all fossil fuel subsidies; and a public/government takeover and rapid phaseout of the fossil fuel sector while using its superprofits to fund the transition.
HALF A DOZEN OTHER THINGS TO READ (OR LISTEN TO)
USFWS Is Creating a Frozen Library of Biodiversity to Help Endangered Species by Kiley Price at Inside Climate News. The world’s wildlife are facing a barrage of threats caused by climate change, from the loss of suitable habitat to dwindling food supplies. As a result, endangered species across the U.S. are edging closer to extinction at alarming rates—and if they disappear, critical genetic information could vanish with them. In a new initiative announced on Tuesday, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is working with the nonprofit Revive & Restore and other partners to create a “genetic library” of the country’s endangered species—before it’s too late. Through a process called biobanking, FWS field staff are gathering biological samples such as blood, tissues and reproductive cells from animals to be cryogenically preserved at extremely low temperatures (at least -256 degrees Fahrenheit) and stored at a USDA facility in Colorado. The samples will also be genetically sequenced and this information will be uploaded to a publicly available database called GenBank, where researchers can study them and compare their genomes to other members of their species.
Q&A: How the Wolves’ Return Enhances Biodiversity. Jenni Doering at “Living on Earth”—public radio’s environmental news magazine—conducts an interview with Amaroq Weiss, senior wolf advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. In Yellowstone National Park, the reintroduction of the gray wolf in the 1990s has helped reduce an exploding elk population, which in turn helped save plants along streams and rivers, which provide habitat for migrating birds, building materials for beavers, and dam ponds for fish and frogs.
DOERING: So why are wolves so important to ecosystems?
WEISS: Wolves are what scientists refer to as apex predators or top level predators and in part, that means they don’t have a predator who preys on them. Only humans do, we are their only predator. But it also means that they have an outsized effect on all of nature on the ecosystem. And the way they have that effect is by their own biology and behavior, how they hunt, what they hunt, where they hunt. So, for instance, some of the best studies to first identify this for wolves came out of Yellowstone National Park. Because with the reintroduction of wolves there, scientists were able to start studying these wolves, right from baseline, right from the wolves setting foot on the ground. And because that’s such a long, revered park it already had a tremendous historical record and documentation of what the park had looked like before wolves were wiped out there.And so what they were able to see in Yellowstone National Park is that in the absence of wolves, first of all, the elk population exploded to the point where they were over browsing so much of the vegetation that other species also depend on. Having wolves back allowed a completely different relationship to come back into being. Wolves’ presence caused elk to once again become weary and stop just standing around, browsing down all of the willow and aspen for instance, which are really important plants that grow along creeks and rivers.
Around 40% of the workforce in global PV industry is female by Angela Skujins at PV Magazine. Global solar PV employment sat at 4.9 million in 2022, up from 4.3 million in 2021, according to the recently published Renewable Energy and Jobs Annual Review 2023 by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Among all renewable energy technologies – including hydro, wind and biogas – solar PV was the “fastest-growing” sector and accounted for over one-third of the total renewable energy workforce (13.7) million, the report claimed. Female representation in the solar industry was higher than any other renewable energy in 2022, with 40% of the workforce being female – twice as much as in wind, oil and gas sectors, the report claimed. However, women’s participation still falls “somewhat short” of the share of women employed in the overall economy. Women’s employment in the industry was “uneven”, with females mostly hired for administrative positions (58%) followed by science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (38%) and non-STEM technical positions (35%). Women accounted for only 30% of managerial jobs and only 17% of the total senior management.
Oilfield companies helped to craft Texas’ new waste rules for 2 years before the public got to see them by Emily Foxhall and Erin Douglas at The Texas Tribune. State regulators on Monday released their draft rules for what to do with all the hazardous oilfield waste that’s left over once a well is drilled. The announcement gives the public one month to comment on the new rules — while some industry representatives started giving input more than two years ago, documents and interviews show. Oilfield waste executives and consultants helped write the regulations beginning in 2021. Oil and gas business advocates also gave feedback to the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the industry. The effort was initiated by a commissioner who has investments in oilfield waste companies. Jim Wright, one of the agency’s three elected commissioners, ran for his seat with an eye on rewriting what’s known as Rule 8. Wright owns stock in several hazardous waste management companies in Texas, according to statements filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.
Another New England Offshore Wind PPA Cancelled by Steve Hanley at CleanTechnica. Avangrid and several Connecticut utilities have agreed to terminate a long term power purchase agreement for the 804-megawatt Park City Wind project that was planned off the coast of Massachusetts. Avangrid, a subsidiary of Spanish utility company Iberdrola, said on October 3 that economic conditions had made the project “unfinanceable.” Avangrid plans to rebid the project. The announcement is the latest sign of turbulent conditions for the U.S. offshore wind industry, according to Renewable Energy World. In July, Avangrid agreed to pay $48 million to pull out of a power purchase agreement (PPA) with Eversource Energy, National Grid, and Unitil for another offshore wind project, the 1,223 MW Commonwealth Wind located 20 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard. Rhode Island Energy, meanwhile, terminated its PPA with Ørsted and Eversource for the offshore wind farm Revolution Wind 2. The price of steel has been going up recently, which raises the cost of the offshore wind platforms, but perhaps the most important factor here is the dramatic rise in interest rates led by the Federal Reserve and followed by most banking regulators around the world.
‘They made a huge profit knowing they’d kill people’: US firms use tactics to avoid paying asbestos victims by Michael Sainato at The Guardian. Asbestos kills an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Americans every year. There are about 2,500 mesothelioma-related deaths annually. Before his retirement in 2009, Peter Bergrud was, for decades, a construction worker, laying cement, water, and sewage pipes in trenches around Seattle. In early 2018, he started having problems breathing, and became quickly out of breath. In February that year, he was diagnosed with two forms of mesothelioma, and told these types of cancer were only caused by asbestos exposure. Doctors told him and his family he would not survive surgery or chemotherapy. Bergrud sued and attorneys tracked the sourcing of his asbestos exposure to cement pipes primarily manufactured and sold by CertainTeed, a company owned by multi-billion-dollar construction conglomerate Saint-Gobain. But facing thousands of litigation claims, Saint-Gobain has engaged in the “Texas two-step” tactic that other large corporations including Johnson & Johnson, Georgia-Pacific, and Trane Technologies have also used. It involves offsetting liabilities into a corporate entity and filing for bankruptcy through the new firm, resulting in lawsuits to be suspended.
• Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Steers Clear of a Climate Agenda in His Bid to Fend Off a Mitch McConnell Protege • In Shipping, a Push to Slash Emissions by Harnessing the Wind • Climate change emerges as major driver of amphibian declines, new research finds • Microsoft Is Using a Hell of a Lot of Water to Flood the World With AI • In the shadow of a nuclear plant, Prairie Island tribal nation celebrates steps toward a green future • Non-native plants migrate north as climate change advances, study finds • Green hydrogen could reach economic viability through the co-production of valuable chemicals • Humans increasingly settling in high-risk flood zones, study warns