‘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. 

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.

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”

The Hot Mess of Hawaii’s Renewable Power Push

My first contribution to award-winning Hakai Magazine, which covers coastal science, ecology and communities

Moloka‘i is a bastion of sanity and understatement at the center of the Hawaiian archipelago. Just 40 kilometers of open water away from O‘ahu, the island is a far cry from Honolulu’s hectic tiki bars and tourists, universities, cargo yards, and warships. On Moloka‘i, agriculture and subsistence hunting and fishing still sustain many of the 7,500 or so residents, and visitors are few. Those tourists who do make the hop over rank mailing a coconut home as their top experience.

On the surface, nothing about this bucolic place suggests it as the central hub around which a cleaner, high-tech electrical future might be built. Yet the island could serve as a model for Hawai‘i as the state navigates transitioning its entire power supply to renewable sources.

Honolulu-based Hawaiian Electric, the investor-owned utility that controls Moloka‘i’s grid, must meet a mandate from the state legislature to convert the five island grids it operates to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. No utility on Earth knows for sure how to accomplish that yet. Pushing Moloka‘i there first and fast, Hawaiian Electric decided, would provide insight and inspiration.

Hawaiian Electric’s idea was to get Moloka’i off diesel generation by 2020. Alas, it is little closer to shutting down the diesels three years later. Can a small Hawaiian island and its utility get along well enough to teach the rest of the world how to get off fossil-fueled electricity?

Read the story or listen to the audio version at HakaiMagazine.com