A discussion thread.
My pick is the story I wrote about here:
After an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes discussion and trust-building, virtually the entire left spectrum, from Justice Dems to moderates in Congress, has come into alignment around a common policy vision: standards, investments, and justice (SIJ).
As someone who has witnessed vicious policy fights & tribalism in the climate movement for over a decade, this is something new and, IMO, precious. A smart movement would nurture this consensus, help it grow and become more robust. Instead I worry that everyone's just going to pick at the scabs of the few remaining areas of disagreement -- CCS & nuclear -- until the solidarity fades.
We'll see whether this consensus informs Biden's executive actions, or what manages to get in an infrastructure or reconciliation bill.
My favourite is this https://www.anu.edu.au/news/all-news/anu-finds-530000-potential-pumped-hydro-sites-worldwide. It is some research that has received little press but has a huge impact.
We are all familiar with the anti-renewables argument that goes "yes but you need coal for baseline power because when the sun don't shine and the wind don't blow..". Of course there's huge Tesla batteries but they'll be expensive at grid scale. Also there's pumped storage that is usually a bolt-on to an existing hydro power station but unless you are Norway or New Zealand, you are a bit limited in available hydropower.
The team at ANU realised that you don't need an existing river-fed hydro power in order to build a pumped storage facility - you just need a topography that has a couple of natural hollows with sufficient vertical separation and close enough together that you can cost-effectively dam them, run a pipe between them and let rain fill up the closed system. You don't need a river because you don't need to generate net power - just pump water uphill when the sun shines and run it downhill at night. The ANU team then used satellite topography maps to identify candidate sites around the world and found that there are 100 times more feasible sites than the total worldwide energy demand.
So, with solar power generation now cost effective without subsidy, and with plentiful cheap off-river pumped storage, and with HVDC technology for low-loss connection between generation and storage facilities, the big energy story of 2020 is that we've arrived. There are no barriers and no arguments against plentiful low cost renewable energy.
My pick is a little self serving but I hope a good sign - I was the first person made a VP at my engineering company that has worked their entire career in renewables.
Avangrid's New York gas distribution utilities, NYSEG and RGE, agreed to net-zero growth in future gas sales and an end to the promotion of gas. This event, while it attracted little press attention, will be remembered as one of the first significant step's in the coming multi-decade managed process of decapitalization for our existing gas utilities and their eventual replacement by district heating and heat pumps.
The first step in filling a hole is to stop digging it deeper. In the NYSEG/RGE rate case, we were able to convince the gas utilities to abandon their traditional assumption that gas expansion would continue until universal service was achieved. New York's gas utilities are now beginning the difficult process of developing new business plans based on the assumption that the gas distribution business will be substantially, if not completely, eliminated by 2050 in order to comply with New York's Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA).
The seed changes in 2020 are more economic than political; or at least not directly the result of government actions.
$14.5 Trillion in institutional divestment couple with fed rules requiring climate change risk disclosures. The banking sector is going to rapidly pull back from investing in carbon extraction.
Unsubsidized renewable costs for electricity dropping below fossil fuel prices while they are depressed by the pandemic. Combined with pressure on banks, the pool of capital for FF projects will rapidly dry up.
Batteries hitting the $100/KW HR barrier. Electric cars, storage, etc. are now cost effective even with suppressed fossil fuel costs.
My vote is for the story of how the vast majority of progressive big-city mayors in the US were utterly unable to grapple with the change in demand for public street space in 2020 and what that signals about our capacity to deal with transportation emissions.
President-elect Biden embracing 100% clean electricity by 2035 was huge. Went from aspirational to a mainstream policy. Now we need to make it happen.
Defeating the New England Ratepayers Association (NERA) petition to FERC. This was arguably the greatest threat to small scale solar in 2020.
My pick has to be a David Roberts story, and topping the list for this year is the one on geothermal energy (https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2020/10/21/21515461/renewable-energy-geothermal-egs-ags-supercritical)
That one excited me for several reasons but one is that it makes it so easy to see how to broaden the coalition for the green energy revolution. It's great that the left is more united under SIJ, but more than half the country is still resistant. But imagine if we could get the oil industry to come strongly on board and turn its energies to drilling for geothermal energy. Imagine Texas and Oklahoma politicians, with the fossil fuels guys covering their backs, coming on board.
Oh man, that would be awesome.
What drove me nuts in 2020 and is carrying over to 2021 is that a Democratic governor of a blue state, who talks a good game on both climate and Covid, is bringing in thousands of out-of-state workers, during the pandemic, to build a huge tar sands pipeline through the ‘Lake Country’ part of a state known as ‘The Land of 10,000 Lakes’ against the wishes of the tribes whose treaty lands it crosses. They are already spreading Covid:
One Line 3 worker, the father of 9, has already died from getting run over by a fork truck. When incoming climate czar, Gina McCarthy, was at NRDC, she made her position pretty clear about Line 3: https://twitter.com/ginanrdc/status/1293913343632109569?s=21
Let’s see if she and Pres. Biden stop construction come Jan. 20. If they don’t, I hope that climate leaders around the world call them out as Pres. Biden and John Kerry try to assert themselves as global leaders in fighting climate change. According to the state of Minnesota, building Line 3 would be the same as building 50 coal-fired power plants and the state’s own Dept. of Commerce is currently in court arguing that it is not needed. Also, and this is truly laughable, MN AG Keith Ellison says the state is taking on the fossil fuel industry, arguing that if Exxon, etc. had been more forthcoming about how burning fossil fuels was contributing to climate change, the rest of us would not have done all the fossil foolish things we have in the last 30 years. That’s a hard case to make when, with all the knowledge we now have, your state is enabling a tar sands pipeline in 2021.
But for Covid, Line 3 would be one of the biggest stories on the news right now because there would be Standing Rock 2.0 established in MN. There’s a lot going on in the news right now, but MSM is not doing its job by not covering this. One wonders if CNN & MSNBC are silent because Gov. Tim Walz is a Democrat. Would they be more ready to criticize if it was Kristi Noem, for example, who was building this pipeline during a pandemic. Walz is constantly preaching Covid safety and asking all Minnesotans to sacrifice, but Canadian energy giant, Enbridge, is not asked to sacrifice as they build this pipeline that will be used to export oil around the world. This is nuts on so many levels.
My pick(s) is this story by the late Dr. Vox:
combined with the deep decarbonization pathways modeling of eg Saul Griffith/Rewiring America (https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/21349200/climate-change-fossil-fuels-rewiring-america-electrify) and Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia/SDSN (https://xenetwork.org/ets/episodes/episode-131-decarbonizing-the-us-by-2050/)
—> 2020 was the year it finally sunk in for me that the energy transition is very cheap (less than 1% GDP per year), and that the co-benefits more than pay for it - the energy transition is free! The air-pollution co-benefit seemed extra relevant since it’s a short-term and local effect, that should help drive popular demand and policy action.
I know all the diehards here at Volts knew the low cost thing already, but I don’t think it’s widely appreciated that the energy transition is not overall expensive. Following normal news sources and politicians’ statements gives the opposite impression - very expensive and difficult, hard choices, green realism, etc. Also, the modeling shows (as I understand it) that this is possible with little change in individual behavior. Again, normal coverage (and fossil propaganda) gives the opposite impression - the transition will require lots difficult and confusing changes of habit by everyone and we’re all guilty and please don’t worry your little selves about systemic change....
The above realization (🤯) then prompted - what’s holding us back then? -> lack of political will, leading to the final 2 highlight of 2020: 1) Biden more or less going GND and the Dem unity described by Dr Volts and 2) the European Green Deal.
Governor Newsom's Executive Order requiring all new passenger vehicles sales be zero-emission vehicles by 2035. This will pretty much solidify the passenger vehicle market shift to electric vehicles and gives industry a clear long-term market signal to build their plans around. The transportation sector has to move much faster in its adoption of zero-emissions vehicles so hopefully this is the nudge that will move the rest of the market in the U.S.
I think your story on geothermal energy was highly significant, and I hope we're smart enough to pursue its potential. It's serendipitous that a workforce trained in fracking can seemingly be switched over to geothermal projects pretty painlessly!
One trend that will matter is the push toward electrification of the built environment, led by California municipalities enacting "reach codes" banning natural gas hookups in new construction.
Another important development is progress by the growing movement toward limiting urban oil and gas production in urbanized areas, also led by local governments. CA is seriously considering policies that would create mandatory setbacks for wells, Culver City has a City Council majority that is moving towards phasing out oil and gas production, and the City of LA reportedly has a legal opinion that may pave the way toward similar efforts in Los Angeles. A statewide setback bill failed in the legislature this year, but the issue has momentum that will carry forward, supported by both EJ and climate change advocates.
I think we'll remember 2020 as the year that set the stage for better alignment of competitive wholesale markets with state policy objectives, and improved federal-state coordination. FERC's MOPR policy brought us to the brink of states breaking RTOs apart. A new Administration committed to making progress on climate, coupled with a Senate that is unlikely to legislate major new federal policy, means states will continue to play a huge role in decarbonizing the power sector. That means that the federal government, including FERC, DOE, and EPA, are likely to focus on regulatory reforms and other measures that allow states to go further faster. Those could include efforts to institutionalize the role of the states, and their policies, in RTO markets, to prevent a future FERC from blacking those policies through things like MOPR.
Honestly, with all due respect to you, David, every positive story published in local and national daily papers are collectively the big clean energy stories for me. Solar still suffers from the same myths it did 12 years ago--mainly that it's too expensive. We still haven't broken that myth in the eyes of the general public, so kudos to the local papers that cover solar being adopted by utilities, homeowners, and businesses. Despite Elon Musk owning Tesla's solar division, his cool, you-should-have-this aura is only working for EVs, which is great, but we need the same sort of dynamic spokesperson for the solar industry.