Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia

I live in Cascadia, a land of hydropower, mossy forests and clearcuts, increasing human diversity and megafires. We think, on the whole, that we’re green, and our leaders think we’re leading the fight against climate change. Alas despite big promises over a decade ago and countless initiatives since, fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions keep growing across Washington, Oregon and British Columbia.

"Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia" and "Investigate West" in gold and dark gray font next to a digital illustration of a mountain against a yellow half-circle.

This year I’m drilling down on what it will take to turn Cascadia’s climate picture around — for my region to get real about moving beyond carbon energy. In January my reporting for Seattle-based nonprofit journalism studio InvestigateWest launched a year-long collaborative project exploring Cascadia’s capacity to slash carbon emissions over the coming decades.

Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia profiles the people, policies and firms that can transform the region’s economy and restore its scorched and beetle-infested forests. It’s an ambitious project, and nearly unique in its cross-border frame.

To deliver on the ambition we recruited a team of nonprofit journalism superstars, including Grist.org, The Tyee, Seattle-based Crosscut, and Jefferson Public Radio — the NPR affiliate for southwest Oregon and northwest California. The Associated Press wire carries our series to news outlets across the United States. And we’re already a LONGFORM selection.

Pat Bradley / springshoeanimation.com. Full credits at 1:30

‘It just goes into a black hole’

In August my exposé in The Atlantic detailed the Trump administration takedown of a clean energy study. Since then I have been working hard to document how deep the political interference goes at the U.S. Department of Energy. The answer is DEEP.

My story for InvestigateWest and Grist shows that political interference is a pervasive practice targeting research funded by the DOE’s efficiency and renewables office. In all, Trump appointees have blocked reports for more than 40 clean energy studies, according to emails and documents I obtained as well as interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees at the Department of Energy and its national labs.

“There are dozens of reports languishing right now that can’t be published,” said Stephen Capanna, a former director of strategic analysis for the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy — the office that Simmons runs — who quit in frustration in April 2019. “This is a systemic issue.”

Bottling up and slow-walking studies violates the Energy Department’s scientific integrity policy and is already harming efforts to fight climate change, according to energy and policy experts, because Energy Department reports drive investment decisions. Entrepreneurs worry that the agency’s practices under the current White House will ultimately hurt growth prospects for U.S.-developed technology.

The meddling is also fuelling an energy science brain drain. Not only because research is held up. But because scientists have no idea why their work is disappearing. They, and the research they’re waiting to publish, are simply left dangling. “There’s no feedback,” said one national lab researcher. “It just goes into a black hole.” 

Illustration: Amelia Bates / Grist

Read the story at Grist or InvestigateWest

A sad tale for federal science. A potent lift for this science journalist.

Passed w/ the Clean Energy & Jobs Act

Response to my August 20, 2020 investigation for The Atlantic and InvestigateWest has been moving, humbling and, at times, overwhelming. We took a deep dive into censorship of clean energy research by Trump officials at the U.S. Department of Energy, and it struck a chord. Especially our inside story of the impact on federal researchers doing their best science. The suppression of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s grid modernization study is a dark tale, but the positive feedback provides a much-needed boost to this journalist during these dark times for the press.

The ripples are still moving, but already include …

Plus a tweetstorm on Twitter. Tweeters include a U.S. Senator, a Cousteau, and globally-recognized researchers such as climate scientist Ken Caldeira, former World Bank energy analysis chief Morgan Bazilian, and US-Canadian applied physics superstar David Keith.

Twitter also delivered several limericks by #energytwitter experts, and a #FreeSeams movement led by Joseph Majkut, the Princeton-trained climatologist who directs climate policy for the Niskanen Center, a Washington, DC-based thinktank.

The best feedback of all are the messages from federal scientists at the national labs and at DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, who have suffered in silence under the Trump administration’s anti-science regime and finally feel heard.

Oh, and word from insiders that the Department of Energy is moving to release the Seams study.

Stayed tuned: Followup investigation in preparation. And #FreeSeams!

The Atlantic: Who Killed the Supergrid?

On August 14, 2018, Joshua Novacheck, a 30-year-old research engineer for the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, was presenting the most important study of his nascent career. He couldn’t have known it yet, but things were about to go very wrong.

At a gathering of experts and policy makers in Lawrence, Kansas, Novacheck was sharing the results of the Interconnections Seam Study, better known as Seams. The Seams study demonstrated that stronger connections between the U.S. power system’s massive eastern and western power grids would accelerate the growth of wind and solar energy—hugely reducing American reliance on coal, the fuel contributing the most to climate change, and saving consumers billions. It was an elegant solution to a complicated problem.

Democrats in Congress have recently cited NREL’s work to argue for billions in grid upgrades and sweeping policy changes. But a study like Seams was politically dangerous territory for a federally funded lab while coal-industry advocates—and climate-change deniers—reign in the White House. The Trump administration has a long history of protecting coal companies, and unfortunately for Novacheck, a representative was sitting in the audience…

This investigative feature, a co-production for The Atlantic and Seattle-based nonprofit journalism studio InvestigateWest, has been over 18 months in the making. I had the story at the outset, but I needed documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act to back-up — and protect — my sources. 

UNDARK: Do High-rises Built from Wood Guarantee Climate Benefits?

Dual debuts in this critical investigation of cross-laminated timber — multi-ton panels built from lumber that are the hottest material in “sustainable” building. It’s my debut work for Seattle-based nonprofit reporting outfit InvestigateWest as well as my first article in MIT-based science magazine Undark, which co-published the finished product

Spoiler alert: CLT producers promote their building material as a climate solution because their giant wood panels can replace energy-intensive concrete and steel construction. My investigation reveals that the carbon accounting behind their claim is oversimplified, and too many journalists give short shrift to concerns from sustainable materials experts.

Take one study of CLT’s carbon footprint that VOX’s high-profile sustainability writer David Roberts called a “soup-to-nuts lifecycle analysis.” My look under the hood revealed a huge pile of nuts that’s left out: nearly all of the carbon flows into and out of forests harvested to supply CLT manufacturing plants with lumber. One of my expert sources calls that a “gaping hole” in the industry’s standard carbon-counting methodology. 

It’s a particularly egregious gap for CLT assembled from lumber from British Columbia, where timber firms remove far more carbon every year than BC’s fire and infestation-ravaged forests can regrow. 

Read it via InvestigateWest or Undark
Article republished by Grist and by NW nonprofit news outlet Crosscut

In Outbreaks Some Health Workers Bolt

My research-based contribution to the COVID-19 story and first byline with The Tyee, Vancouver’s award-winning digital news outlet…

The B.C. and Canadian governments’ pandemic response plans, last updated in 2018, anticipated that many health-care workers would be unavailable when most needed during the peak of a global pandemic. And not just because some would fall ill. As nurses and doctors in hard-hit hospitals in New York, Italy and Spain have attested in recent weeks, the pandemic fight is akin to war. Canada’s response plan writers knew from survey research and previous pandemics that many health-care workers — including nurses, doctors, cleaning staff and care-home workers — would quit the battlefield rather than risk their own lives or their families’ lives.

The risk they face is real. During the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto, 44 per cent of all infections were in health-care providers, three of whom died. The idea that many might march off the field during the COVID-19 pandemic was horrifyingly affirmed last month in Spain, when soldiers mobilized to support care homes found some were completely abandoned. Closer to home, a California nursing home was evacuated after its staff didn’t show up.

Read on at The Tyee

Scientific American: Solar And Wind Power Could Ignite A Hydrogen Energy Comeback

Hydrogen is flowing in pipes under the streets in Cappelle-la-Grande, helping to energize 100 homes in this northern France village. On a short side road adjacent to the town center, a new electrolyzer machine inside a small metal shed zaps water with electricity from wind and solar farms to create “renewable” hydrogen that is fed into the natural gas stream already flowing in the pipes. By displacing some of that fossil fuel, the hydrogen trims carbon emissions from the community’s furnaces, hot-water heaters and stove tops by up to 7 percent.

So begins my February 2020 feature article for Scientific American which explains why hydrogen energy — presumed dead after a round of hype and disillusion two decades ago — is roaring back. Renewable hydrogen is central to the European Commission’s vision for achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, for example, and a growing focus for the continent’s industrial giants. As of next year, all new turbines for power plants made in the European Union are supposed to ship ready to burn a hydrogen–natural gas blend, and the E.U.’s manufacturers claim the turbines will be certified for 100 percent hydrogen by 2030.

This time around it is the push to decarbonize the electric grid and heavy industry—rather than hope for fuel cell vehicles—that is driving interest in hydrogen. “Everyone in the energy-modeling community is thinking very seriously about deep decarbonization,” says Tom Brown, who leads an energy-system modeling group at Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Cities, states and nations are charting paths to reach nearly net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner, in large part by adopting low-carbon wind and solar electricity. Integrated energy models show that they’ll have a hard time keeping the lights on during periods of low wind and sunlight without hydrogen, and that hydrogen will pay for itself long before it solves that problem.