A century after museum collectors surveyed Colombia’s avian fauna, a new generation of researchers returns to see what remains, and what has changed.
The top energy story right now is fallout from Hurricane Ida's direct hit on Louisiana. The Category 4 storm knocked out power to nearly 900,000 customers across the state, simultaneously shutting down oil and gas sector activity in the region.
Utility Entergy warned that restoration of power in areas hit directly could take three weeks. But the impact was especially severe in New Orleans, the most populous city in Louisiana. Entergy reported Sunday:
As a result of Hurricane Ida’s catastrophic intensity, all eight transmission lines that deliver power into the New Orleans area are currently out of service.
That's remarkable. Irma essentially turned New Orleans into a temporary grid island. It's the electrical equivalent of trying to drive into the city if all freeways and major thoroughfares were suddenly blocked.
Here's what that looked like on the outage map Monday.
The immediate challenge is to restore power to everybody. New Orleans will have high temperatures in the upper 80s with potent humidity all week. That's not a pleasant environment to inhabit without air conditioning or refrigeration.
In the longer term, this raises thornier questions about how to plan for the grid of the future.
Many utilities are asking regulators to let them invest in grid-hardening techniques, like putting overhead wires underground or reinforcing the poles. But even carefully buried power lines won't help if electricity can't reach them, and that's exactly what happens if a hurricane snaps a city's ties to the broader grid.
That raises the question of what kind of power plants Entergy can muster within city limits to restart portions of the local grid or keep high-priority facilities running. (I'm waiting for a response from Entergy on just that topic).
This illustrates the dangers of relying too much on power shipped in from elsewhere. But that remains the norm for cities, where it's hard to build enough power plants to meet demand, given space constraints and impacts on the surroundings.
The alternative paradigm, of course, is distributed energy that produces and stores power at homes and community buildings.
I know if I lived in New Orleans, I'd be wishing I had some solar and batteries to keep my house going. But we'll need to see data on how distributed energy performed there before coming to conclusions on what lessons to draw from this.
Hurricane-proofing the Caribbean grid
In the meantime, if you want to brush up on hurricane-proofing a clean energy grid, I highly recommend this story we just published from freelancer Kiernan Dunlop in Antigua and Barbuda.
Islands across the world are making the switch to solar to save money on expensive imported generator fuel and to play a part in reducing the carbon emissions responsible for climate change.
But if these plants are going to withstand the more frequent and intense hurricanes that are also an outcome of the changing climate, engineers and contractors will have to consider hurricane resiliency throughout the design and construction process.
The Green Barbuda project will power more than half of the island's daily electricity needs using solar and batteries. Diesel generators kick in for the remaining hours. But the whole thing had to be specially designed for survival after Hurricane Irma wrecked an earlier solar project in 2017.
The first one had been built to withstand winds up to 160 mph (slightly more than Ida's highest speeds this week). Irma hit 185 mph.
The good news is, there's a lot that can be done to hurricane proof a power plant:
- Move the site out of reach of storm surge.
- Invest in heavy-duty bolts for the solar modules, instead of clips that break off in high winds.
- Reinforce the solar frames and the structures that house the batteries and generators.
- Even with those upgrades, solar is still highly competitive with the costs of imported diesel fuel.
But there's a warning here, too. Storms have gotten stronger and more damaging to grid infrastructure, even in the last few years. Here's what Christopher Burgess, projects director for the Global South at think tank RMI, told Dunlop:
The Caribbean did not experience any Category 5 hurricanes between 2007 and 2016, when the solar industry was taking off. Solar projects in the region were designed to withstand Category 3 hurricanes, which have wind speeds of up to 129 mph.
“Some islands had never even had a Category 5 hit,” Burgess said. “But it’s really since 2017 that these Category 5s are now the norm.”
Green Barbuda may survive another Irma-like storm. But if climate change continues to intensify extreme weather, future storms could make Irma look like an opening act.
Why we need a carbon price in reconciliation
By Tony Sirna
Congress has committed to taking action on climate change in this year’s budget reconciliation bill. They should not pass up the chance to go big on climate, include a carbon price, so we can meet the challenge of reducing emissions 50% by 2030 and hitting net-zero emissions by 2050.
There are signals that the legislation will include a wide range of climate provisions — an extension of tax credits for clean energy, a Clean Energy Payment Program, methane pricing, electric vehicle incentives, and even a border carbon fee. But even with these programs there are still many reasons to include a carbon price.
50% by 2030
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recently sent a letter to his Senate colleagues highlighting the importance of this legislation in meeting the 50% by 2030 commitment that President Biden made to the world. Unfortunately the chart he included showed how the current outline of the legislation only gets us to 45% reductions. While a robust carbon price could hit 50% on it’s own, even adding a small carbon price to the bill, as low as $20/ton, could easily push us from 45 to 50% reductions.
Simple and quick
As the latest IPCC report shows, we need to reduce emissions and we need to start now and move quickly toward zero emissions. One of the best features of a carbon price is that it can be implemented simply and quickly — Canada started collecting their carbon fee within 6 months of passage — and it can have immediate effects on emissions, in some cases even before the price goes into effect. And the sooner you reduce emissions, the greater the cumulative effect, which is what matters most to the climate.
Regulations can sometimes take years to get finalized, or to fend off challenges in court, and even investments and tax credits can take time to show their effects. A carbon price can start reducing emissions now, while regulations move through those processes, and can provide a backup in case regulations are struck down by the courts.
Reduces emissions across the whole economy
In addition, a carbon price would not be limited to the electricity sector or to personal vehicles, but would reach all sectors of the economy. Right now the industrial sector, including things like steel, cement, chemicals, and other manufacturing, represents 23% of US emissions. Without a carbon price, the reconciliation bill might have minimal impact on these emissions.
Complements other climate solutions
A carbon price would also support almost any other program in the reconciliation bill, by further aligning economic incentives with any regulations and investments. For example, if there are programs to help people electrify their homes and make them more efficient, a carbon price will make it even more clear to consumers that such a step is worth the investment and will save them money on heating bills.
A carbon price can also act as a backstop in case certain provisions of the legislation are deemed inadmissible for reconciliation by the Senate parliamentarian. For instance, in the Clean Electricity Payment Program, the parliamentarian might rule against penalties for utilities not meeting targets. This could hobble that program, leaving it without any mechanism to drive compliance with utilities not motivated by the potential for payments. A carbon tax could provide that incentive and experts say it is almost certainly acceptable in budget reconciliation.
Makes a border fee possible
A domestic carbon price may also be essential to implementing a border carbon fee. Europe and Canada are already planning to have such fees, but it’s unclear that the U.S. could do the same without a domestic price, and still be compliant with the World Trade Organization standards. A domestic price would harmonize our climate policies with Europe and Canada (some of our biggest trading partners) and allow us to implement border fees with other countries without a comparable price. This could be key to getting nations like China to take faster action to reduce their emissions.
Will not increase overall costs
And finally one other big feature of a carbon price is that, unlike most other climate provisions in the reconciliation bill, it does not add to the cost of the package and will not increase the deficit or debt. Instead a carbon price would make polluters pay. Since it is not in competition with other provisions for budget expenditures, it would be easy to add in on top of any other provisions. And if revenue from the price is returned to households it would not raise overall costs for low and middle income households, which aligns with the President’s priorities for not raising taxes.
Carbon pricing has the support of 70% of Americans and business leaders from across the economy. It is good policy that will reduce emissions fast, put money in people’s pockets, save lives by reducing pollution, and can work well with the whole array of climate policies expected in reconciliation. Congress should not miss this opportunity to go big on climate with a strong carbon price in reconciliation.