‘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

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

China’s Grid Architect Proposes a “Made in China” Upgrade to North America’s Power System

Transmission lines in the United States and Canada require approval from every state and province traversed, and that political fragmentation hinders deployment of long power links of the type connecting vast swaths of territory in regions such as China, India, and Brazil. As a result, few studies detail how technologies that efficiently move power over thousands of kilometers, such as ultrahigh-voltage direct current (UHV DC) systems, might perform in North America. Earlier this week, the Beijing-based Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization (GEIDCO) stepped in to fill that gap, outlining an ambitious upgrade for North America’s grids.

GEIDCO’s plan promises to greatly shrink North America’s carbon footprint, but its boldest prescriptions represent technical and economic optimizations that run counter to political interests and recent trends. “Thinking out of the box is how you solve complicated, difficult problems,” said former Southern California Edison CEO Ted Craver in response to the plan. But GEIDCO’s approach, he said, raises concerns about energy sovereignty that could prove difficult to settle. As Craver put it: “There’s theory and then there’s practice.”

The proposed North American transmission scheme was unveiled on Tuesday at an international transmission forum in Vancouver, Canada, by Liu Zhenya, the former State Grid Corp. of China chairman who launched GEIDCO in 2016. While at State Grid, Liu championed the development of the world’s first 800- and 1,100-kilovolt UHV DC lines and the first 1,000-kV, UHV AC transmission. State Grid has deployed them to create a brawny hybrid AC-DC electricity system that taps far-flung energy resources to power China’s densely-populated and industrialized seaboard.

Through GEIDCO, Liu is proselytizing for UHV deployment worldwide. At the Vancouver meeting, Liu warned of “unimaginable damage to mankind” if greenhouse gas emissions continued at their current pace. He argued that beefy grids moving power across and between continents are a prerequisite for accessing and sharing the world’s best wind, solar, and hydropower resources, and thus dialing-down fossil fuel consumption. Continue reading “China’s Grid Architect Proposes a “Made in China” Upgrade to North America’s Power System”

LA Times: On fire, soot, death and disinformation

An LA Times op-ed by statistician David Fairley and myself …

For nearly two weeks last November, smoke from the Camp fire drained 150 miles down the Central Valley and out toward the sea, engulfing Sacramento and the whole Bay Area. San Francisco looked — and breathed — like New Delhi, the world’s most polluted city. Miles away in the mountain town of Paradise, the fast-moving conflagration killed 85 people — making the Camp fire the deadliest wildfire in state history. But pollution research suggests that once heart attacks and respiratory-related deaths are factored in, its soot was even more deadly than its flames. Based on earlier pollution studies, we project that soot from the Camp fire caused about 100 premature deaths just in the San Francisco Bay Area and hundreds more hospitalizations and emergency room visits than normal.

Continue reading “LA Times: On fire, soot, death and disinformation”

Swarm Electrification in Bangladesh

Bangladesh hosts the world’s largest collection of off-grid solar energy systems. Rooftop panels and batteries electrify over 4 million households and businesses there. Dhaka-based startup ME SOLshare believes it has the technology to link these systems and foster a solar energy-sharing economy. If the company succeeds, home systems will morph into village minigrids, offering wider access to more power at lower cost. Continue reading “Swarm Electrification in Bangladesh”

Scientists Get Political on Climate

It’s moving day at the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia on a sunny summer morning in Victoria, Canada, and climate scientist-turned politician Andrew Weaver is battling to retain an expansive leather sofa for his new basement office. Just a few weeks earlier, in May 2017, thousands of people in and around Victoria cast their votes for the British Columbia Green Party, which Weaver leads, growing the caucus from his one lonely seat to three. The wide sofa, he explains, will be crucial during long nights of debate and voting. “This is the one you can sleep on. And we need that.” Three seats in an 87-seat legislature might sound modest, but it’s enough to make Weaver — a professor at the University of Victoria — into a political kingmaker. The incumbent Liberal Party and the opposition New Democratic Party each garnered fewer than half of the seats, giving Weaver’s Green Party the balance of power. Weaver exercised his new-found influence in the weeks after the election to remove Christy Clark, the Liberal premier of British Columbia, who had championed fossil fuels, and to install a new government under climate-friendly terms. Now US researchers are daring to dream that they too can follow in Weaver’s footsteps, and tilt the political balance. … READ ON AT NATURE.COM