Change is Hard, Necessary: Rethinking Our Electricity System Post-Sandy

Nov 1, 2012 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Change is hard.

And the larger, more important and more entrenched the thing being changed, the harder it is.

There are few things that are larger and more important than our electricity system. Just ask a parent of a child who was in the intensive care unit of a New York City hospital when Hurricane Sandy wiped away the electric grid and the emergency generators failed. In some moments, like that, electricity is quite literally a life-saver.

In 1882, the world’s first practical coal fired electric power plant came online in New York. For the last fifty years coal has been the dominant fuel and backbone of our electric generation system, spawning a  massive industrial process of extracting coal from the earth, transporting it to power plants, burning it to make heat, transforming it into electricity, and finally disposing of the plants’ waste products into the air, land and water.

Given coal’s longstanding role in maintaining a stable electricity system in this country, it is not shocking that some reasonable folks find it hard to contemplate life without it – despite the evidence of the harm it causes both to human health and the environment.

But ending our dependence on the most harmful fuels to generate electricity is part of the change we need to make if we are going to avert full-on climate disaster. The hard truth is that past emissions of greenhouse gas pollution from coal plants and other dirty fuel sources have already transformed our world, warming our oceans and increasing the water vapor in our atmosphere. As a result, the weather dice are now loaded in favor of catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy, among many other effects.

Propping up and retaining our obsolete and inefficient old coal plants so they can continue to spew global warming greenhouse gases into the air is not an option – and thankfully, the economic tide in this country is starting to turn against them. But after decades of depending on coal for electricity, many wonder how we are going to keep the lights on without it. The answer, to borrow a phrase, is: “Use less electricity, mostly renewable.”

The first step is very clear: we must be much smarter and careful about how we use electricity. This means going all out in our deployment of  energy efficiency that slashes energy use at all times, and also reducing electricity demand at the moments of greatest need when the system is pressed hardest. We are evolving towards a world where highly flexible demand will simply be a routine part of our energy system – our dishwashers, cell phone chargers and air conditioners will ramp up or down their energy use based on price signals and energy system conditions.

Second, we need to redouble our commitment to develop zero emissions renewable electricity generation like wind and solar. Every watt of energy we get from those sources displaces the need for energy that comes from the burning of fossil fuels. Eventually, we will be able to store enough of that clean power to meet demand even when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. But, until that technology matures, we will still require some “firming” power to fill in the gaps.

Here in the Northeast, that power is likely to come from sources like hydroelectric dams, or natural gas fired power plants, which are cleaner and cheaper than coal, but  come with their own environmental price tags. The specter of over-dependence on natural gas is the cause of much consternation in environmental and energy expert circles. And for good reason: locking ourselves into dependence on a finite imported fossil fuel would be a mistake. Instead, we need to carefully manage our transition to a new and cleaner power system, ensuring that we maintain a sufficiently diverse portfolio of resources and keep the lights on as we move surely and steadily away from fossil fuels.

The transition from dependence on coal to natural gas in our electricity system is crudely analogous to a heroin addict moving to methadone. It is a step in the right direction and movement away from a dangerous addiction, but it is still only a partial step toward toward the full recovery we need: elimination of greenhouse gas pollution from our electric system.

Fundamental change is indeed hard, but the roaring winds of Katrina, Irene and Sandy loudly remind us that we have an absolute obligation to step up and manage the transition to a better, safer and cleaner energy future.

The New Normal: A Post-Sandy Point of View

Oct 31, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

A cottage teeters on the shore at Roy Carpenter's Beach in South Kingstown, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Credit: NBC News 10

What do the 2010 March Floods, Hurricane Irene, and Tropical Storm Sandy all have in common? These three 100-year events (meaning there is a 1% chance of this type of storm happening once a year) have all occurred within the past two and half years.

Failing to change how we view significant storm events (e.g., it’s just a fluke), affects how well and whether we plan for future storm events. Viewing these storms as “just a bad run,” or “ a freak storm” denies the reality of a changing climate and its effect on weather, precipitation and the severity of storms. In this way, our point of view can threaten our ability to change our approach to development and planning in a way that preserves our assets for future generations. Ultimately this short-sighted point of view is used to justify an unwillingness to move away from static planning concepts, like planning for a 100-year flood, which, to be sure, allows for more development short-term, but, is of little use when planning the life expectancy of coastal development or construction already along our river banks and in our flood plains.

After the March 2010 floods submerged and disabled three major municipal sewer treatment facilities for more than a week, wiped out dams and bridges, destroyed homes and business built along the banks of the Pawtuxet River, and pushed massive areas of pavement up with surges of water from swollen rivers, and, after incurring hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, what did we do? We left our sewer treatment facilities where they were; continued to plan for and permit development for 100-year storms; rebuilt the bridges; repaved the parking lots that were built within the flood plains of major rivers; talked about how we could get environmental regulations out of the way of job creation and economic development, and; tried to get back to normal.

We did the same after Hurricane Irene (a category 1 storm that left half of state’s residents without power, many for more than a week, and which resulted mandatory evacuations for low-lying communities including Charlestown, Narragansett, South Kingstown, and Westerly over storm-surge related concerns. We fixed the roofs, removed the trees, restored power, and petitioned the coastal management agency for the construction of 202 foot seawall (price tag, about a million dollars) in Matunuck to guard against storm surge and erosion.

The goal always the same:  just try to get back to normal as quickly as possible.

Piles of sand plowed from Matunuck Beach Road, South Kingstown, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Credit: NBC News 10

In the immediate aftermath of Tropical Storm Sandy, our third major storm event in less than three years, and a storm that resulted in more serious damage in some of our coastal communities than was experienced during the Hurricane of 1938 (portions of the seawall in Narragansett dislodged; homes and businesses shattered all along the coast; infrastructure, like the bath house and boardwalk in Galilee, washed away; mounds of sand covering roads throughout South County, and breakers compromised) — maybe we should start asking ourselves, “What is normal?”

Because to “get back to normal” under a planning regime and system-wide frame of mind that does not understand, appropriately consider, or strategically plan for the effects of climate change on our coastline, our natural resources, our communities and our economy; well, that is not  “normal” at all. If all we’ve learned as a result of these past three storms is to get milk and water, buy a generator, install a sump pump, get flood insurance, trim down branches and trees that might fall on power lines; and bring in more line and more contractors to assist with power outages, then we haven’t really learned anything at all.

Does it makes sense to rebuild infrastructure, at a significant cost to the taxpayers, in areas that we know will continue to be vulnerable? Should we seize the opportunity to undo a past planning decision that undermined the ability of a natural system to absorb flooding or protect against storm surge and erosion, like removing parking lots that were paved over marshes, and wetlands, or removing hard shoreline structures that accelerate erosion along the beaches? Should we be planning for 500-year or 1,000 floods (the Netherlands and Japan protect their residents against a 10,000-year flood)?

We cannot continue to plan and build according to standards that don’t contemplate climate change and its effects on our built and natural environment. Ignoring the policy and economic conversations that need to happen about the costs of coastal protection versus costs of land-use relocation as well as the potential for movement of populations and infrastructure is irresponsible and will come at a great price.

Sandy Roundup: CLF on Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change

Oct 31, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

A wave crashes over a seawall on the Atlantic Ocean during Hurricane Sandy in Kennebunk, Maine, on October 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

By now, you have undoubtedly seen the photos – Manhattan’s flooded streets and subway system, fallen trees in Massachusetts, debris littering beaches and towns up and down the Eastern seaboard. Sandy’s impacts were not only widespread, reaching from the Caribbean to Nova Scotia, but they were record-breaking in severity. It is no exaggeration to say that the effects of climate change are being felt – not tomorrow or in any other vague future – but right now. Today.

We have rounded up a selection of CLF’s articles on Hurricane Sandy, on climate change and on the connection between a warming climate and increasing weather volatility.

Here is a selection of our articles:

On Sandy:

On Climate Change:

On CLF’s Advocacy Work related to Climate Change:

On Hurricanes:


Reacting to Sandy Across New England: News Coverage

Oct 30, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Thrill seekers at Hampton Beach in Hampton, N.H., on Oct. 29. Cheryl Senter For The Boston Globe

As Hurricane Sandy, the “Frankenstorm,” bore down on the East Coast Monday, the widespread and devastating impacts were immediately felt. With 30 deaths confirmed as of writing, 7 million people without power, and an anticipated $20 Billion in damages, the severity of the impacts cannot be exaggerated.

We have compiled a selection of great coverage on Hurricane Sandy’s impacts state-by-state across New England, as well as the connection between increasingly volatile storm systems and climate change.

On Hurricane Sandy and its Impacts:

Rhode Island:




New Hampshire:

On Sandy, Hurricanes, and Climate Change:

Brace for Impact – Heavy Weather Ahead (and a Changing Climate is Part of the Reason It is Happening)

Oct 25, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

If you have a sense that this business of hurricanes becoming routine in October is new and that we didn’t use to have to worry about such storms with names starting with S, T and higher in the alphabet so much in the past then you are correct.

As Hurricane Sandy (no relation to CLF’s ace Vermont Senior Attorney Sandy Levine) moves up the coast it is worth noting that some of the sharpest observers of our climate and weather, like the founder of weather website Weather Underground the redoubtable Dr. Jeff Masters, are seeing a very real relationship between our changing climate and the advent of these “perfect storms” that bring tropical and winter weather into a fiendish collaboration.  As Dr. Masters writes (note sentence I have underlined in particular):

The Northeast U.S. scenario

If Sandy makes landfall farther to the north near Maine and Nova Scotia, heavy rains will be the main threat, since the cold waters will weaken the storm significantly before landfall. The trees have fewer leaves farther to the north, which will reduce the amount of tree damage and power failures compared to a more southerly track. However, given that ocean temperatures along the Northeast U.S. coast are about 5°F above average, there will be an unusually large amount of water vapor available to make heavy rain. If the trough of low pressure approaching the East Coast taps into the large reservoir of cold air over Canada and pulls down a significant amount of Arctic air, the potential exists for the unusually moist air from Sandy to collide with this cold air from Canada and unleash the heaviest October rains ever recorded in the Northeast U.S., Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. This Northeast U.S. scenario would probably cause damages near $100 million dollars.

 The story is clear and frightening.  Warmer water (a clear part of the story of global warming) is keeping these tropical storms alive later and later in the year and putting water into the atmosphere that then pours down on us in these storms.

And you were wondering why we were so intent on taking the steps needed to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming? The answer is very clear: self-preservation.

How a changing climate has messed with Texas: a cautionary tale.

Aug 26, 2011 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

National Public Radio offers an excellent in depth piece about how the long running and devastating drought is permanently changing Texas.

The climate science is absolutely clear that such droughts are part of the effects of a warming globe (if you are a real wonk take a look at the academic papers on the changing climate, drought and forest health).

Of course, reducing emissions of the greenhouse gases causing global warming is not a targeted attack on that drought – but it is the only way to slow (and possibly reverse) the trend towards a world where such horrific and wrenching events are commonplace.   A thought that should resonate here in already soggy New England as we brace for the impact of a hurricane and consider the climate science that tells us that a warming world will give us more extreme precipitation events.

The situation starts to veer towards the absurd when you consider that some leaders of Texas are denying the very existence of the phenomena playing out in their own state.  Could it be that the people getting arrested in front of the White House trying to stop a tar sands oil pipeline are serving the people of Texas (and the future people who will have to endure similar biblical plagues like droughts and floods) better than the elected officials doing all they can to hobble efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Sometimes you DO need a weatherman to know which way the climate blows – but watch out for zombies !!

Nov 1, 2010 by  | Bio |  10 Comment »

A satellite image of the Oct. 26 storm.

Dr. Jeff Masters, the co-founder of the Weather Underground website is the voice of climate sanity in the meteorologist world.    He has consistently noted, as he did in this post from last March,  how the models used by climate scientists make predictions about how winter storms are going to change in a warming world that are deeply consistent with what we are seeing unfold before us:

General Circulation Models (GCMs) like the ones used in the 2007 IPCC Assessment Report do a very good job simulating how winter storms behave in the current climate, and we can run simulations of the atmosphere with extra greenhouse gases to see how winter storms will behave in the future. The results are very interesting. Global warming is expected to warm the poles more than the equatorial regions. This reduces the difference in temperature between the pole and Equator. Since winter storms form in response to the atmosphere’s need to transport heat from the Equator to the poles, this reduced temperature difference reduces the need for winter storms, and thus the models predict fewer storms will form. However, since a warmer world increases the amount of evaporation from the surface and puts more moisture in the air, these future storms drop more precipitation. During the process of creating that precipitation, the water vapor in the storm must condense into liquid or frozen water, liberating “latent heat”–the extra heat that was originally added to the water vapor to evaporate it in the first place. This latent heat intensifies the winter storm, lowering the central pressure and making the winds increase. So, the modeling studies predict a future with fewer total winter storms, but a greater number of intense storms. These intense storms will have more lift, and will thus tend to drop more precipitation–including snow, when we get areas of strong lift in the -15°C preferred snowflake formation region.

Masters referenced these observations in a recent post about the unprecedented storm (which some are calling a “landicane“) that ripped across the Continental United States.  As Masters notes:

We’ve now had two remarkable extratropical storms this year in the U.S. that have smashed all-time low pressure records across a large portion of the country. Is this a sign that these type of storms may be getting stronger? Well, there is evidence that wintertime extratropical storms have grown in intensity in the Pacific, Arctic, and Great Lakes in recent decades.

And as always, Masters is tracking storms in the parts of the world more accustomed to this kind of activity.  However, he notes that it is “unprecedented” to have a hurricane of the magnitude of Tomas appear this late in the season.

The climate is changing.  The effects are real.  The need for action is urgent – and  the zombie armies of climate denial are approaching.