For a link to the publication, click here.
For a direct link to the publication in Nature, click here.
For a link to the publication, click here.
For a direct link to the publication in Nature, click here.
Deborah Sunter, Ph.D., spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow with the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in the Postdoctoral Research Award Program. Sunter’s research explored and expanded a modeling platform designed to help evaluate and meet the United States’ growing energy demands. Her research and contributions have been recognized in the global scientific community.
For the original, click here.
Sixty-six percent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050, according to the United Nations 2014 World Urbanization Prospects report. In the United States, more than 80% of the population already lives in urban areas. The consensus affirms that increased urbanization is the future. As global urbanization and population growth expand, so does energy consumption.
Energy security requires an understanding of future energy demands and the environments from which the demands originate. Global population growth and rapid urbanization are being tracked, but climate change throws in the wild card of uncertainty. Urban energy systems are vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather, including storms, flooding and sea-level rise. Urban areas must be resilient to handle these changing conditions if they are to remain sustainable and continue to grow.
Mechanical engineer Deborah Sunter, Ph.D., is one of many scientists who have researched the very complex issue of energy security.
“Every day is an adventure with new challenges, new collaborations and new ideas,” said Sunter.
Sunter received a postdoctoral appointment in the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at the University of California, Berkeley. Her appointment to the Postdoctoral Research Award Program was funded by the Solar Energy Technologies Office of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Research Participation Program.
The prestigious postdoctoral research award supports scientific research in energy efficiency and renewable energy by attracting scientists and engineers to pursue breakthrough technologies in energy research.
Sunter spent her two-year appointment at RAEL exploring the SWITCH (Solar and Wind Energy Integrated with Transmission and Conventional Sources) modeling platform. SWITCH is used to examine cost-effective investment decisions for meeting electricity demand, with an emphasis on integrating renewable energy into the electrical grid. Created as an investment planning tool, the model explores the cost and feasibility of future energy initiatives while simultaneously ensuring that current energy demands are met and policy goals are reached at the lowest cost possible. SWITCH meets this objective by making a series of optimized decisions. For example, all power plants have an expected lifetime. When a power plant reaches the end of its life expectancy, SWITCH examines whether it is more cost-effective to upgrade the existing power plant or to retire the power plant and build a new one. SWITCH can determine which type of power plants should be built and where these plants should be located with the goal to produce low-cost energy systems that meet reliability, performance and environmental quality standards.
SWITCH was originally designed and produced by Daniel Kammen, Ph.D., and his team at the Energy and Resources Group of the University of California, Berkeley. Kammen served as Sunter’s mentor throughout the program. Since producing the initial papers in 2012, Kammen and a series of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows have expanded the toolkit significantly, and SWITCH continues to undergo improvements at RAEL. RAEL is an interdisciplinary laboratory founded by Kammen in 1999; it seeks to advance renewable and appropriate energy through technology innovation and policy implementation.
Sunter’s appointment and access to SWITCH allowed her to research the role of technology innovation and policy in reducing emissions, improving efficiency and supplying more renewable energy to the U.S. electrical grid. During her time, Sunter expanded the SWITCH model, originally designed for the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, to encompass the entire continental United States. Sunter helped to convert SWITCH from an older programming language to Python to increase accessibility to the scientific community. She also partnered with private companies to add new emerging technologies to the program’s repertoire, such as Google Project Sunroof and CalWave Power Technologies.
Sunter’s accomplishments during her postdoctoral experience are numerous. Sunter published many works with her colleagues during her appointment, most notably a high-impact article with Kammen in the journal Science. The article on urban energy systems has received much attention in the scientific community. Sunter also credits her postdoctoral experience for expanding her research horizons.
“Beyond the core research project, I have been able to learn a new subject area, data science, and engage with the greater scientific community in ways that I had not done before,” said Sunter.
Sunter used her newly learned skills to win a data science hackathon in solar energy as well as organize a successful forum on data science for sustainability. Sunter has been invited to speak on her research at more than a dozen scientific engagements, and she was selected to be on a team of international authors for a book on inclusive green growth metrics. Throughout her appointment, she shared her expertise with undergraduates at the lab.
“I have been able to do more during this research experience than I possibly could have imagined. It opened doors I didn’t realize I had access to,” Sunter said. “This has been one of the most professionally rewarding experiences of my life. I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity.”
Immediately following the completion of the program, Sunter became a research fellow at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science. Most recently, she has accepted a position as a professor at Tufts University in the Department of Mechanical Engineering for the fall of 2018.
The Postdoctoral Research Award Program is funded by the Solar Energy Technologies Office of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Research Participation Program. The program is administered through DOE’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.
KQED Newsroom, May 10, 2019
Go to the 17:45 mark to watch the climate change segment: click here
Or, here is the link:
For the original Washington Post, story, click here.
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — At the end of a cul-de-sac called Fresh Way, two bright green structures the size of shipping containers gleam in the warm sunlight, quietly sucking from the air the carbon dioxide that is warming the planet.
One structure houses computer monitors and controls. Atop the other, large fans draw air through slabs made of honeycomb-style ceramic cubes. The cubes hold proprietary chemicals that act like sponges, absorbing carbon dioxide at room temperature. Every 15 minutes, the slabs rotate and the cubes are heated, releasing a stream of 99 percent pure carbon dioxide into a shiny steel pipe.
This is Global Thermostat, one of just three companies at the leading edge of the hunt for ways of skimming carbon dioxide from the air. It is a tiny step, but a hopeful one, toward reducing global warming. Amid a steady drumbeat of grim news about climate change, more and more people are captivated by the idea that a feasible process can help offset decades of damage to the atmosphere.
Some big deep-pocketed corporations — including oil companies — are looking, too. They are lured not so much by the virtues of fighting climate change but by the prospects of making money. Though long a prohibitively expensive technology, carbon capture has become a tantalizing possibility thanks to technological advances — and new generous government incentives.
There’s little time to spare. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has written that any hope to meet the 2 degree Celsius goal for global warming “will require measures to reduce emissions, including the further deployment of existing and new technologies.”
For a decade, the three companies — Carbon Engineering, Climeworks and Global Thermostat — have experimented with technologies such as the shape and chemical makeup of the spongelike membranes in an effort to reduce the towering cost of capturing carbon dioxide directly from thin air.
Now their work is poised to move beyond the lab tables and prototypes.
“Our business plan is to show that cleaning the atmosphere is a profitable activity,” said Graciela Chichilnisky, a Columbia University economics professor and one of the co-founders of Global Thermostat who estimates that CO2 could become a trillion dollar market.
Over the past several years, the firms have vied to make technological progress. The cost of carbon capture has fallen from $600 a ton to as low as $100 a ton — and lower if a cheap or free source of heat or energy is available.
Federal subsidies are just as important. New U.S. federal tax credits provide as much as $50 for every ton of carbon dioxide captured and stored underground in well-sealed geological formations.
Oil companies can use the credits to pay for turning captured carbon dioxide into transportation fuels, essentially recycling the CO2. That would help Big Oil meet California regulations requiring lower amounts of carbon in motor fuels.
And the oil giants can also claim a $35-a-ton credit for enhanced oil recovery — injecting carbon dioxide into the ground to increase well pressure and boost oil production in old fields like the Permian Basin in west Texas. Oil companies currently extract natural carbon dioxide from natural reservoirs before pumping it back into the ground.
The federal tax credits, known as 45Q credits, were slipped into the 2018 federal budget in the wee hours of Feb. 9, 2018, after a nine-hour government shutdown. It attracted support from both parties, with leading roles played by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., whose state relies heavily on oil, gas and coal production, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who has spoken almost weekly on the Senate floor about the urgency of climate change and the danger of burning fossil fuels.
One reason they agree: It’s politically more appealing to give away money through a tax credit than it is to impose a carbon tax that takes money away. A carbon tax is levied on the carbon content of hydrocarbon fuels such as coal, oil or natural gas that emit carbon dioxide and it raises prices for products such as gasoline or electricity.
Environmentalists are divided on the tax credits. Most want to bury captured carbon dioxide in geological formations underground rather than using it to produce more fossil fuels.
“We concluded that it was not possible to square it with our work to end fossil fuel subsidies,” said David Hawkins, director of climate policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which stayed neutral on the measure.
But of the 65 million tons of carbon dioxide that is pumped underground in the United States every year, about 60 million tons is for enhanced oil recovery, said Sally Benson, co-director of Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy. And demand is growing.
Whitehouse said “at this point, the only revenue proposition for carbon capture is enhanced oil recovery.”
“As angry and frustrated I am at the behavior of these companies,” he said, “if that’s what it takes to save the planet I’m willing to make that investment.”
And Republican senators joined in the name of “innovation,” and seemed unbothered that by putting a price on the credits they were flouting the Trump administration’s effort to stymie any form of carbon tax.
“People now understand the need for addressing climate change,” Carbon Engineering’s chief executive Steve Oldham said in an interview after testifying before a Senate committee. “When you don’t have a solution, it’s a scary thought.”
“We’re trying to get the message out that there is a solution here,” he added, “and it is not forcing everybody to buy a new car or stop taking airplanes.”
Oldham himself is a sign that carbon capture is closer to becoming a business. He only recently took the helm at the 10-year-old Carbon Engineering, which has built a prototype on a scenic spot near an old lumber town about 30 miles north of Vancouver. Oldham wasn’t an expert on carbon capture, but he had worked at a big Canadian tech company raising money from government and commercial sources for complex projects such as large satellites and robotics.
Carbon Engineering “has been R&D focused,” Oldham said. “Now, they need a different skill set.”
The Squamish, British Columbia-based firm’s early investors included Bill Gates. And Carbon Engineering recently raised $68 million with investments from tar sands financier and Calgary Flames co-owner Murray Edwards, Occidental Petroleum’s Low Carbon Ventures, Chevron Technology Ventures, and BHP, an international mining and resources giant.
Oldham said the firm will use the money to design a full-size commercial plant and that it has already identified fives sites in the United States and two in Canada.
Drawing on research at the University of Calgary and Carnegie Mellon University, Carbon Engineering converts carbon dioxide into transportation fuels. It does that by combining CO2 with hydrogen — creating a carbon neutral cycle. That could help oil companies meet California’s requirement to reduce the carbon intensity of motor fuels by 20 percent by 2030.
Harvard University engineering and public policy professor David Keith, acting chief scientist and a board member at Carbon Engineering, estimated in a paper last year that using current know-how and existing components, the company could capture carbon dioxide at $94 to $232 a ton. Even if Carbon Engineering’s technique is expensive, it might still be cheaper than alternative methods of meeting the California standards.
In addition, by producing fuel, Carbon Engineering could make air travel carbon neutral without having to turn to biofuels or electrification that would be difficult to use in aircraft.
“It gives you choices,” Oldham said.
Climeworks, based in Switzerland, was founded by two engineering graduate students, Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher. It became the first company to extract CO2 from the air and sell it to a commercial customer, albeit on a tiny scale. It sells about 900 tons a year — the equivalent of emissions from 200 cars — to a commercial greenhouse near Zurich that grows vegetables. The company has erected a vertical array of 18 fans, each the size of a full-grown adult that helps speed the capture process. The CO2 increases the greenhouse’s crop yields by 20 to 30 percent.
Climeworks has also forged an agreement to sell carbon dioxide to Coca-Cola HBC in Switzerland for sparkling drinks. Economics could drive future decisions. Last year Europe suffered carbon dioxide shortages when some British fertilizer plants that produce CO2 as a byproduct unexpectedly closed down for maintenance and Coke’s CO2 supplies were threatened.
Like Global Thermostat, Climeworks traps CO2 simply by exposing a filter to air. The filter contains amines, a derivative of ammonia. Once the filter is saturated, it is heated with steam past the boiling point of 100 degrees Celsius, hot enough to free the carbon dioxide so it can be pumped into pipes or storage tanks. Currently, the Climeworks uses free waste heat from a local incinerator, reducing its costs.
Global Thermostat has a somewhat different model than the other two.
The company is the brainchild of two Columbia University professors: Chichilnisky, an economist and mathematician who took part in the 1990s climate conference in Kyoto, and Peter Eisenberger, an applied physicist who has worked at Bell Laboratories, Exxon, Princeton and now Columbia University. With his flyaway hair, he bears a passing resemblance to Dr. Emmett Brown from the film “Back to the Future.”
“When Peter and Graciela first talked about this, people thought it was crazy,” said Miles Sakwa-Novak, the plant’s young engineer. He says that Carbon Engineering essentially takes two mature processes and combines them in a new way, but that Global Thermostat is developing something new.
“We literally farm the sky,” Chichilnisky says in a company video.
The company’s early investors included the Canadian tycoon Edgar Bronfman and the utility NRG, one of the biggest U.S. emitters.
The company’s process uses devices called monoliths that look like sponges to maximize surface area. That area is covered with amines, the nitrogen based chemical that naturally absorbs carbon dioxide from the air. The monoliths are similar to those used in catalytic converters and Chichilnisky says that the manufacturer Corning has provided key materials.
The next step — prying the carbon dioxide loose — is harder and more expensive. Yet Global Thermostat only needs to heat up its amine cells to 80 degrees Celsius, less than what it takes to boil a cup of tea, lower than its competitors and thus relatively cheaper.
This is the dark secret of virtually all carbon capture techniques: They tend to use large amounts of energy, which adds to carbon emissions and costs. Some say they can be combined with solar installations. So far, Carbon Engineering has tapped into cheap Canadian hydro power.
Many analysts wonder why the direct air capture companies don’t place their devices near the exhaust of a natural gas or coal plant. Chichilnisky explains that sometimes lower concentrations work better, just as gasoline in a combustion engine needs oxygen. She said that their process requires less energy and works best at concentrations found in the air at 400 parts per million, 300 times more diffuse than in power plant smokestacks.
The compact size of the Global Thermostat project could be part of its appeal, Chichilnisky says. Companies with modest CO2 needs — such as soft drink bottlers or oil field service firms — can move Global Thermostat’s equipment to a site without having to worry about building pipelines. Global Thermostat is already in talks with a soft drink maker and a major oil company.
Chichilnisky is optimistic about Global Thermostat, but she’s worried carbon capture will be too little too late. “The real problem with climate change is time,” she says.
Time and scale. The carbon capture enterprises are minuscule compared to the global crisis.
In 2018, mankind pumped about 37.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the air. One of Global Thermostat’s container size units would capture just 4,000 tons; to offset all global emissions would take 9 million of the units.
Climeworks says it can manufacture 100 to 150 CO2 collectors a year, each one capable of sucking up the emissions of 250 cars. A unit with six Climeworks filters would fit in a shipping container. In order to meet its goal of capturing 1 percent of growing global emissions, Climeworks would need to fill up 750,000 shipping containers.
Arguing that is doable, Climeworks notes that it is equal to the number of shipping containers that pass through Shanghai harbor every two weeks.
Carbon Engineering is planning on much bigger projects, each costing close to $600 million, about the same as a coal-fired power plant. Oldham estimates that it would take 5,000 of his company’s plants to offset U.S. carbon emissions — 5.3 gigatons — at a cost of $3 trillion. That’s why, he says, “the real answer is a combination” or cutting emissions and building carbon capture.
What that means, Chichilnisky says, is that the fight to reduce emissions must continue. The danger of progress on carbon capture is that people will see it as a reason to relax their efforts.
Until now, carbon capture has been a bad bet financially. Since 2010, the Energy Department spent about $1.1 billion to help nine carbon capture and storage demonstration projects, the General Accountability Office said in a report. Private industry chipped in $610 million. But most found the cost way too high and abandoned the projects; only one power plant was still active at the end of 2017, GAO said.
Many coal companies see the federal carbon credits as a new lease on their lives. “The coal lobby was always in our office” seeking credits, said a former Energy Department official from the Obama administration who spoke on the condition of anonymity. But, he said, “carbon capture and storage makes coal more expensive, not less.”
Dan Kammen, professor of energy and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, says that carbon capture is diverting attention from cheaper and more scalable ways to taking carbon dioxide out of the air.
“The prices [of carbon capture] would have to fall a huge amount for it to be part of our near-term portfolio, meaning 2050 or sooner,” Kammen says. Carbon capture from the air “can be an arrow in the quiver,” he says. But he adds that changing land use and forestry, using known techniques for taking CO2 from the air and storing it, “would be the best investment in carbon capture today.”
“I recommend the boring Charlie Brown strategy,” he says. “When is the best day to plant a tree? Yesterday. Second best? Today.”
New carbon capture technology is “the shiny new object on the table,” he says, but “with the 30-year clock more than ticking we have to scale up technology. We absolutely need to invest in carbon capture because we will have to do a good deal more of it.”
The jury’s still out, but the evidence is in.
Diego Aguilar-Canabal, Editor in Chief, The Bay City Beacon
For the original article, click here.
People are dying on the streets of San Francisco: in tents, on crosswalks, and on bikes. While not alike in circumstance nor cause, these tragedies share one similarity: they are entirely preventable deaths, with complementary policies available to prevent them. Quite simply, they involve less horizontal space for cars, and more vertical space for homes. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors doesn’t seem to care.
People are dying in Mozambique and Malawi. Entire cities drowned in the floods from a historic cyclone. The polar ice caps are melting and the oceans are warming at unprecedented rates. Climate change is an impending geopolitical and ecological catastrophe. This, again, is entirely preventable: a necessary but insufficient component of that involves fewer cars and more homes in San Francisco and other urban centers in coastal California. Cities around the world need to drastically cut down on their carbon footprints. But City Hall doesn’t seem to care.
Words and Deeds
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently declared a Climate Emergency, and passed legislation reauthorizing an ongoing Shelter Crisis. But they continue to oppose policies that would reduce subsidized space for private car travel (a corporate giveaway if there ever was one), and add more space for housing. They do not seem to care that their fellow human beings are dying and will continue to die.
San Francisco is supposed to be a Transit First City. Such a policy has been on the books since the 1970s. Yet as recently as last year, Supervisors Ahsha Safaí and Aaron Peskin sought to restructure the city’s transportation bureaucracy to seize control over their parking and car traffic regulations. Supervisor Fewer has vocally opposed congestion pricing for single-occupancy vehicles and has been critical of Geary’s Bus Rapid Transit project—because evidently, the private takeover of public street space is fine if done by personal automobiles, but not by charter buses. The Board generally has been slow to take action on traffic safety, but quick to grandstand against factional rivals in both public and private sectors.
More damningly, a supermajority of the Board passed a resolution opposing State Sen. Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill 50, the most important state policy at the nexus of housing, transportation, and climate change.
The bill needs little introduction if you have followed California news lately. If passed, SB 50 would mandate higher densities around public transit, as well as high-performing schools and job centers, while exempting tenant-occupied housing (including single-family homes), requiring a minimum provision of affordable housing statewide, and deferring its implementation in low-income communities left vulnerable after decades of disinvestment and racial segregation. (Now take a deep breath.)
If you were to believe Supervisor Gordon Mar’s resolution opposing the bill, one might have the impression that the bill aims to throw renters to the wolves, replace fragile communities of once-affordable walk-up flats with towering infernos of five-story skyscrapers, and remake the City into a mere extension of Palo Alto and the Stanford campus. This doesn’t explain why affluent cities like Sunnyvale and Beverly Hills were among the first to oppose it.
“We should increase density, especially near transit, and we should update our zoning to allow this,” Supervisor Fewer said during the resolution’s Land Use Committee hearing. “The question isn’t whether we should build more housing or not—we must. It’s about what we build, how and for whom.” But so far, Fewer has made no proposals of the sort she said the City “should” pursue on density.
Their objections to SB 50 rest not only on a litany of oft-debunked falsehoods, but they are undermined by their utter silence on the state legislature’s many earnest efforts to protect vulnerable tenants and provide more subsidized affordable housing.
While some Supervisors such as Mar have made generally reactive gestures against local tech industry wealth, the Supervisors have otherwise been silent on state efforts to redistribute wealth. They appear to care more about continuing a partisan pissing match against the authors of SB 50 than supporting those same legislators’ efforts to enact progressive tax reform and fund affordable housing. Wiener himself has introduced an estate tax bill to counteract GOP-led regressive cuts in the federal tax code, while SB 50 coauthors Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and Asm. Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) have introduced a corporate tax hike for the same reason. Meanwhile, San Francisco assembly members and SB 50 coauthor Phil Ting has introduced a bill requiring local inventories of surplus public land to prioritize for affordable housing. Not a peep from the Supervisors about these bills.
San Francisco was one of the only two counties to narrowly approve the November 2018 rent control reform measure, Proposition 10. While Assembly Bill 36 presents a politically risky new effort to reform the state’s rent control prohibition, where are the Supervisors with their resolution to support it? Perhaps they are just too busy opposing SB 50. AB 1482, from San Francisco’s other Assemblymember David Chiu, could establish statewide emergency rent caps. Where is the Board’s resolution to support this bill? Or how about Asm. Rob Bonta’s AB 1481 to establish statewide just-cause eviction protections? Evidently, opposing SB 50 is more important.
These other bills would limit the legal power of landlords such as Fewer and Mar, while SB 50 could sharply reduce their market power. Their silence on the former, and their disingenuous grandstanding against the latter, is consistent.
The Board resolution’s half-truths and misrepresentations of the bill have been debunkedat length by the Senator and others. The truth doesn’t seem to be the Supervisors’ chief concern, though. It is important to note their hints at a deeper motivation: deciding who gets to live in San Francisco, and exercising the power to hand-pick their constituents.
Concern for Whom?
Local control over land use means that incumbents get to choose “for whom” the City opens its gates—and the historical record quite plainly shows that these choices are seldom, if ever, equitable. Here’s a refresher on a recent quantitative study by UC Merced political scientist Jessica Trounstine, which we have cited before:
The general message coming from Supervisors is as simple as it is false: San Francisco is doing enough. Leave us alone.
Well, is it? According to the City’s Department of the Environment, San Francisco has slowly seen a 36% reduction in net emissions since 1990. Meanwhile, transportation accounts for the lion’s share of those emissions (45% at latest count), though this appears to gradually be decreasing. But these numbers are deceptive.
When I tried to compile a region-wide analysis of transportation emissions from the nine-county Bay Area, I ran into an insurmountable hurdle: the methodology had changed quite drastically around 2012. Rather than merely counting trips at their point of origin, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) developed a simulation of typical trips based on “travel analysis zones.” While analysts believe this data may be more robust, it renders pre-2012 comparisons to the present day essentially useless.
And an important caveat: “Our simulation model explicitly assumes that every worker living in the nine-county Bay Area also works in the nine-county Bay Area. This is, of course, not always true,” says the agency. Well, no shit.
San Francisco politicians sometimes speak as though every district in the City were equivalent to the vulnerable working-class of the Mission District circa 1990, or East Oakland and Vallejo today, where many former San Franciscans have since had to move. The genuine concern over market volatility upending marginalized communities is actually reflected in Wiener’s bill: many such census tracts with concentrated poverty and minority residents are those that Senate Bill 50 will temporarily exempt as “communities of concern.” But in terms of having affluent, expensive neighborhoods that compel longer commutes, the City as a whole has little in common with them. In this respect, San Francisco bears more resemblance to Marin County, a notorious violator of the Fair Housing Act.
By importing their workforces, Marin and San Francisco outsource their transportation emissions. A 2011 report by the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California (NPH), a co-sponsor of SB50, outlined the climate and social equity impacts of Marin’s workforce and housing disparities. According to the California Employment Development Department and data from the American Community Survey (ACS), over a third of Marin’s workers commuted from outside the county. But in the latest census, San Francisco led the nation in workers commuting from other counties.
San Francisco’s leaders don’t seem interested in reversing this calamity. Its recent approval of the Central SoMa plan, which plans space for over 3 new jobs for every new housing unit, suggests that City Hall is unanimously eager to see booming job growth continue apace. But rejecting state reforms to plan for those workers to be housed nearby—some of whom indeed will earn six-figure salaries and earn the ire of lower-income workers struggling to stay in their homes—is just planning for accelerating displacement.
Nonprofit affordable housing developers don’t build multi-million dollar detached bungalows—they build apartment buildings with units numbering in the double digits, which are prohibited under current zoning in nearly three quarters of the City. Notably, though Supervisor Fewer has called for more affordable housing to be built, her District has not been rezoned for the densities that make it possible.
One would think that elected officials concerned about displacement would be rushing to add more housing to balance out the job growth they approved. Instead, Supervisor Matt Haney bravely stood up for abundant sunshine, leading a unanimous vote in rejecting a housing development on Folsom Street with 25% Below Market Rate homes, because it would cast shade on 18% of the area of a nearby park, for 100 minutes in the afternoon, during the longest day of the year. Haney campaigned on fighting for affordable housing, not against shadows—and if climate change continues apace, his future constituents may wish he had approved some cooling shade.
Under the status quo favored by the Supervisors’ majority bloc, jobs will keep coming, workers will be forced to move out and drive from farther away, and no affordable housing will be built in their tony suburban neighborhoods to balance that out. It’s a transparent sham that the mainstream press and alt-weeklies alike are calling out—but will that make the Supervisors care?
Growth is Good, Actually!
Some local Progressive-branded thinkers have intimated to me that the housing shortage and climate crisis is inherently a crisis of capitalism itself: that growth necessarily brings inequality and destruction. This of course ignores the experience of our most recent recessions, in which all but the wealthiest suffered the most.
It is true that American cities have been strained under periods of prosperity, and emissions have increased as production increases. But a city’s emissions come from its residents, and people make individual choices within their society—they generate emissions per capita that are increasingly a function of their dependence on the automobile. The latest report from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) notes that the bulk of our car trips won’t switch to carbon-free electric vehicles soon enough; we will need to reduce car trips by 25% meet the state’s emission reduction goals. Fewer car commutes, however, does not mean fewer workers.
When a job is lost, the corresponding human being does not disappear. They continue to look for work and consume, though perhaps they will move to a more affordable part of the country with a much larger carbon footprint, such as Texas or Arizona. California loses a taxpayer, San Francisco loses revenue to pay its pensioners and service providers, but the planet does not lose a consumer of resources. So limiting job growth to achieve sustainability, as proponents of the 1980’s Prop M office cap would hold today, is not a real choice we have now.
San Francisco has seen major economic growth along with both net and per capita emissions declining since 1990—but in the transportation sector, it is lagging significantly, as is the rest of the state. Urban infill and transit-oriented development is the most environmentally sustainable way for California’s economy to grow—not the inequitable, sprawling growth that has been the norm for too long.
To understand this complex issue, we turn to UC Berkeley climate scientist Dan Kammen’s work. Critically, Jones, Wheeler & Kammen et al (2018) found that emissions reductions were greater when urban infill development was concentrated within pockets of higher household income. In other words, packing rich people closer together reduces GHG output three times more than simply adding density wherever it is possible.
Infill development is a more potent emissions reduction strategy in rich neighborhoods, the authors argue, such as“most of San Francisco, and the wealthy hillside of the East Bay.” Why? “While these neighborhoods have higher than average carbon footprints, they have lower than average carbon footprints for their income level. Low carbon footprint cities that make housing available at all income levels help share the burden of meeting housing demand, while lessening the impact on the climate across the population.”
This should come as no surprise. Rich people consume more, and can afford the poverty trap of car ownership more easily. When they don’t drive, their emissions fall more steeply. Already, San Francisco workers drive alone at a rate less than half of the national average. And further, research from UC Berkeley’s Terner Center and Urban Displacement Project has predicted that SB 50 will focus more market-rate housing production precisely in the affluent, high-opportunity neighborhoods that exclude it today.
But does this mean our climate solutions should exclude the poor from our booming cities? Of course not.
Take the recent research on Seattle by sociologists Rice et al (2019), which found that gentrification in Seattle resulting from Amazon’s infusion of high-paying tech jobs displaced lower-income residents with smaller footprints out to far-flung suburbs. This describes the status quo in many American cities, not the Smart Growth policy suggested by SB 50 and its proponents. As the authors noted: “In so far as densification paired with climate policy remains limited to parts of cities only, rather than the urban fabric as a whole, evidence strongly suggests that gentrification seriously undermines GHG reduction efforts.”
The goal of smart housing policy and evidence-based climate solutions should be to increase residential capacity in low-carbon urban cores, not a zero-sum, one-to-one replacement that outsources poverty to suburbs that lack a strong commercial tax base to support its safety net.
It should come as no surprise that Kammen’s research on hundreds of California municipalities predicts significant emissions reductions from urban infill development in places like San Francisco. This is not the case in more rural and suburban counties like Stanislaus County, where carbon-intensive sprawl absorbs displaced urban growth.
SB 50 presents a radical departure from the status quo in enabling California cities to grow more equitably and sustainably. It would expand affordable housing requirements to many cities in California that currently don’t have them. It explicitly prohibits the demolition and redevelopment of tenant-occupied housing and recently Ellis-evicted properties (something a statewide rental registry could help enforce), and it targets high-opportunity suburbs that have seen major job growth, but currently lack good transit, to discourage car traffic.
Again, while Supervisor Fewer insisted that she wanted to see more permanently affordable nonprofit housing in her district, she has made no effort to rezone District 1 to allow for the densities at which it can be built. Indeed, in most of the city, it is still illegal to build even the low-rise apartment buildings that pencil out for nonprofits, and SB 50 can change that. It is exactly the kind of policy the world’s top climate scientists and gentrification critics should be lining up to support—which is why Kammen co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times with Sen. Wiener to support it.
The evidence is consistent on averting climate disaster, and on eliminating traffic deaths: people need to drive less, and drive slower. Meanwhile, the City has had data on its High-Injury Network of deadly streets for years, and has well-documented numbers on car commutes comprising the lion’s share of its emissions. Given that it seems to take grisly, well-publicized cyclist deaths to impel the political action for protected bike lanes, what will it take to truly make San Francisco a car-last, Transit First city? Will City Hall wait until the Ferry Building is underwater before acting with any urgency to take some unpopular decisions? What will it take to replace on-street parking spots with bus lanes, or block some sunshine new apartments in western neighborhoods?
In light of all this evidence, San Francisco constituents should all have one question on their mind: do your Supervisors care? We should all be furious that so much evidence suggests they do not—and whatever happens after that, is called politics.
Highland Park’s streetlights were torn out in 2011 because the predominantly black Detroit suburb couldn’t pay its electricity bill after the 2008 economic downturn. Today street lamps once again cast reassuring pools of light—and this time they are cheaper, because they harvest the energy of the sun. Highland Park offers an example of what environmental justice advocates hope to do more of to bring affordable, clean energy to communities of color.
Plummeting costs have helped solar power rapidly expand in the past decade, with U.S. residential installation growing by more than 50 percent each year between 2010 and 2016. But access to this energy has not been equitable—and not just because up-front installation costs can price out people with lower incomes. A new study indicates that even when income is taken out of the equation, communities of color have installed fewer rooftop solar facilities than predominantly white communities. The data are among the first to show such an inequality in access to clean energy, a situation advocates have been reporting anecdotally for years. The results “affirm trends in disparity in adoption that are well known to practitioners, but demonstrate their existence in a robust way,” says Ben Sigrin, an energy systems modeling engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, who was not involved in the study.
Reasons for the disparity remain unclear, but the latest findings suggest programs aimed at boosting solar power in disadvantaged communities need to consider more than just income levels. Some activists and nonprofit organizations are already moving in this direction. For example, the civil rights group NAACP—inspired partly by local activists who formed a group called Soulardarity, which helped bring Highland Park its solar street lamps—launched a year-long 2018 Solar Equity Initiative aimed at improving solar energy access to marginalized communities, including racial and ethnic minorities. “To us [energy] is just another dimension of social justice challenges,” says Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program. “With clean energy, not only is it often a more affordable way of accessing energy, but it also puts us in control of our energy.”
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley saw a golden opportunity to study imbalances in solar power deployment through their access to data from Google’s Project Sunroof—an initiative that maps solar rooftop panels seen in satellite images—and demographic data from the U.S. Census. They had an inkling of possible racial and ethnic disparities but initially thought other socioeconomic factors could help explain many of them. Yet their study results, published in January in Nature Sustainability,showed that even when controlling for income levels, neighborhoods with either black or Hispanic majority populations have installed fewer rooftop solar panels than neighborhoods with no clear racial or ethnic majority. White-majority neighborhoods, in stark contrast, have more rooftop solar installations than those without a clear majority. The researchers say these differences cannot be completely explained by either household income or home ownership levels (homeowners are more likely than renters to invest in permanent solar panels). “I was not surprised to see that race and ethnicity were important, but once we controlled for income I thought the effect would be reduced significantly,” says Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley and a co-author on the study. “But alas, it was not.”
The study did not uncover the root of why rooftop solar panels are typically sparser in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. But the findings mesh with reports from industry and nongovernmental organizations, which have previously shown that a lack of diversity in the environmental and solar-power fields has hindered efforts to spread solar power’s benefits. Causal factors may connect to the well-documented historical pattern of racial discrimination that has left many minority neighborhoods in the U.S. stuck with problems like insufficient public infrastructure and predatory home loans. “The disparity in rooftop solar is the same disparity as in everything else,” says Naomi Davis, founder and president of the Chicago-based nonprofit organization Blacks in Green.
The study also adds to the body of research showing that black and Hispanic Americans bear the brunt of the costs of fossil fuel use. For one thing, they are exposed to higher levels of air pollution than white Americans—regardless of income levels. There are more direct economic effects as well. “This paper does highlight an energy injustice,” says Deborah Sunter, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. and co-author of the rooftop solar study, “because there are certain communities that are missing out on the financial benefits that come with having rooftop solar: the tax incentives, the rebates, the profit from net metering.” (The latter refers to credits received in exchange for putting excess solar power into the electricity grid.)
There is already a movement among community activists, researchers and politicians to promote social justice in policies designed to support clean energy and fight climate change. “There is tons of leadership in communities of color that is not seen or acknowledged, and it’s growing,” says Julian Foley, vice president of communications at Grid Alternatives, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, Calif. that helps disadvantaged communities install solar projects. The study’s results could help fine-tune such efforts by underlining the need to shift strategies from focusing only on low-income communities—since that approach may not catch neighborhoods where ethnic minorities predominate. Kammen says policymakers could, for example, recognize how credit scores have been used to discriminate in home loans on the basis of race—and could apply “positive pressure” by offering bonuses to loan seekers who add rooftop solar panels or other energy-efficiency measures.
Officials also need to be aware of how small changes in policy can have indirect but significant impacts on programs aimed at bolstering solar power in disadvantaged communities. For example, the Bishop Paiute Tribe has used both federal energy grants and California state funding for rooftop solar projects, which can slash monthly utility bills by up to 90 percent. But starting in 2020, new California rules that define disadvantaged communities according to U.S. Census tracts could make the tribe ineligible for such state funding, despite being a low-income community. “A lot of tribes are smaller than census tracts, so the income base gets diluted by surrounding communities” under the new rules, says Brian Adkins, environmental director at the Bishop Paiute Tribe Environmental Management Office.
The researchers behind the new study also hope it can encourage leaders to support environmental justice for historically disadvantaged communities—and to recognize more diverse voices on such matters. “The environmental movement in the United States has an overwhelming amount of white leadership, and even if many of those groups are doing great things, that doesn’t speak towards a very inclusive effort,” Kammen says.
The advocacy work done by Davis, the Chicago nonprofit leader, has helped shape state legislation aimed at increasing renewable energy in Illinois. She has also secured funding for solar job training and has set up a social enterprise program in hopes of establishing a solar panel assembly plant in Chicago’s predominantly black Woodlawn neighborhood by 2021. Davis sees solar power as just one small piece of a bigger holistic approach to building sustainable neighborhoods, but she wants to make sure black communities are not left out of the economic transition to clean energy in the U.S. “Step back and create partnerships where money flows directly to frontline environmental justice community-based organizations,” Davis says. “And then depend on those organizations to write the story.”
Summary: Energy poverty, is arguably the most pervasive and crippling threat society faces today.
Lack of access impacts several billion people, with immediate health, educational, economic, and social damages.
Furthermore, how this problem is addressed will result in the largest accelerant of global pollution, or the largest opportunity to pivot away from fossil-fuels onto the needed clean energy path.
While debate exists on the optimal path or paths to wean our economy from fossil fuels, there is no question that technically we have today a sufficient knowledge and technological foundation to launch and to even complete the decarbonisation
For the free version under rael.berkeley.edu publications, click here.
For The New York Times, click here.
Since August 2017, Burmese security forces have been carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State forcing over half a million of them to flee to neighboring Bangladesh to escape killings, arson, and other atrocities. This mass migration has resulted in one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. The Chowdhury Center, in a attempt to understand this, has launched a Rohingya crisis working group in which students, researchers, and practitioners are invited to develop ideas and collaborations to further our collective work related to the Rohingya crisis. Samira Siddique is playing a central role in this working group.
HYDROELECTRIC dams are not the answer to sustained power generation, said a former US State Department science envoy, calling them an attempt to “steal” from Malaysians.
Daniel Kammen, in an op-ed previewing the topics to be discussed at the Clean Energy Collaboration conference in Kuching next week, said future energy requirements for Malaysia, and Sarawak in particular, can “easily, and more cheaply, come from other projects”, namely those on solar and wind generation.
A former US State Department science envoy says it would be a tragedy if the renewable energy revolution arrives too late to save the world’s rivers and the communities that depend on them – March 7, 2019.
Kamnen’s Op Ed and comments came in advance of the March 15 & 16 Clean Energy Collaboration meeting in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia