News Archive:

Prof. Deborah Sunter profiled by the US Department of Energy

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.

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Sus­tain­ing our Future through Energy Security

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: Dan Kammen and Tom Steyer talk climate change with Thuy Vu

KQED News­room, May 10, 2019

Go to the 17:45 mark to watch the cli­mate change seg­ment: click here


Or, here is the link:


A climate change solution slowly gains ground

For the orig­i­nal Wash­ing­ton Post, story, click here.

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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.”

Does City Hall Care If You Die?

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.

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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.


Solar Power’s Benefits Don’t Shine Equally on Everyone

For a direct link to the arti­cle in Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can, click here.

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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.”

Solar Dis­par­i­ties

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.)

Shift­ing Strategies

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.”

Clean energy in Bangladesh

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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


RAEL PhD student Samira Siddique part of new Working Group on the Rohingya Crisis

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.

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Dam projects steal from Malaysians, says former US science envoy Daniel Kammen

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

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