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As Federal Government Retreats from Dealing with Climate Change, Corporate America Moving Forward Anyway

Some of the largest companies in the United States are pushing local authorities for renewable energy

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Corporate, America, Climate Change
The blades of wind turbines catch the breeze at the Saddleback Ridge wind farm in Carthage, Maine, March 19, 2019.. VOA

As the federal government retreats from dealing with climate change, major parts of corporate America are moving forward anyway.

Some of the largest companies in the United States are pushing local authorities for renewable energy, such as solar, wind or hydro power. In some cases, they’re pushing harder than those local authorities are ready to go.

One place to see this happening is Northern Virginia, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

The brains of the internet are housed here in anonymous office parks. Warehouse-sized buildings filled with row upon row of computers process clicks, taps and swipes from around the globe.

Corporate, America, Climate Change
Some of the largest companies in the United States are pushing local authorities for renewable energy, such as solar, wind or hydro power.   VOA

Northern Virginia is home to more of these data centers than anywhere else in the world, according to real estate firm JLL.  Each building draws an average of 30 megawatts of electricity, roughly equivalent to 7,500 homes, according to Stan Blackwell, head of economic development at Dominion Energy, the region’s electric power company.

The region topped 1 gigawatt of capacity recently, according to real estate brokers CBRE. And another roughly 140 megawatts of data center demand has hooked up to the grid each year for the last several years, Blackwell said.

“The industry as a whole is the fastest growing segment in our territory,” he added.

Tech wants clean power

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The companies behind those power-hungry buildings include some of the biggest names in tech: Facebook, Amazon and Google.

These companies have plans to get all their power from renewable sources. Google says it’s there already.

“It’s important that what we build leaves a positive legacy, that we don’t build it on the back of fossil fuels, but rather, we build it on the back of the next generation of energy technology of wind and hydro and solar,” said Brian Janous, lead energy manager for Microsoft, another major data center customer in Northern Virginia. Microsoft is aiming for 70% renewable energy by 2023.

So when Dominion submitted plans last year to meet demand growth with natural gas-fired power, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and seven other companies wrote to the state regulator to demand less gas and more renewables.

Corporate, America, Climate Change
As the federal government retreats from dealing with climate change, major parts of corporate America are moving forward anyway. Pixabay

“Dominion Energy … fails to fully take into account the energy preferences of the data center industry — by limiting the amount of competitively procured solar energy, neglecting to consider energy storage as a cost-effective and beneficial energy resource, and continuing to plan for the development of additional natural gas infrastructure,” the letter said.

Blackwell says a mix of power sources is best to ensure a reliable supply. And Dominion has worked with tech companies before to get solar power on the grid.

Driving change

Facebook approached Dominion several years ago about building solar capacity to power a new data center.

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“Regulation required you to build the lowest cost source of generation,” Blackwell said. “Solar resources in that case were slightly above that, and so they agreed to make up that difference.”

Facebook helped modify state regulations so Dominion could sell the company power from several solar farms and build several more, Blackwell says.

“Facebook drove that change and that new tariff and we’re very happy with it,” he added.

But the cost of wind and solar have plunged in just the last few years. In many cases they are now the cheapest option. Data center companies now say they have an economic case for renewables as well as a climate argument.

“We just don’t really see why utilities should be talking about building new fossil fuel plants that realistically may only have a useful life of a few years before their costs are significantly undercut by wind and solar paired with storage,” Janous said.

Regulators ultimately approved Dominion’s plan. But the company is required to include cost estimates for solar power plus battery storage in its next planning update.

Corporate commitments

Nearly half of Fortune 500 companies have set at least one climate or clean energy target, according to a 2017 report.

Even in states where fighting climate change is not a priority, local authorities are finding that companies are demanding renewable energy.

“Our first solar decision in the state of Alabama was based solely on the Walmart decision to come in and use solar power,” Alabama Public Service Commissioner Jeremy Oden told a recent coal industry conference.

Outside of Walmart, the state still has negligible amounts of solar power on the grid, and has no policies to encourage renewables.

But Oden says from retail to manufacturing, states are often finding that if they want to recruit major industries, offering renewable energy is a must.

“You’re seeing some of this demand, especially in these car companies that we’re dealing with, like Toyota and Mazda, and Honda and Hyundai, they all have … (a certain amount of) alternative energy in their production. And so, whatever we do to recruit these, we have to offer (it).” (VOA)

Next Story

Worsening Extreme Weather Linked to Climate Change Creating Hardships for Many

Julia Sanger, whose tiny ice cream shop flooded twice in two years in Maryland's historic Ellicott City, joked darkly that the disasters left many local business owners

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Weather, Climate Change, Hardships
FILE - A man walks in a torrential downpour in Ellicott City, Maryland, April 30, 2014. VOA

Worsening extreme weather linked to climate change is creating hardships for many, from immediate deaths and injuries to increases in asthma and heat stroke. But the psychological trauma that often accompanies such losses is barely on the map.

Depression, anxiety, suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder tend to increase after floods, storms, wildfires and heat waves, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), which represents psychologists in the United States.

“The problem with that link is it’s not like so obvious. It’s not like I stick a needle in you, you feel pain right away,” said Anthony Ng, former head of the APA’s caucus on climate change and mental health.

“Some of this is so insidious and gradual that people won’t realize it until it’s too late. That’s why it’s hard for a lot of people to appreciate it.”

Panic

Weather, Climate Change, Hardships
FILE – A car drives on the main street of the former mill town in Ellicott City, Maryland, Aug. 23, 2018. VOA

The debate over how to safeguard residents of picturesque Ellicott City, a tourist draw an hour’s drive north of Washington, D.C., illustrates the challenges many towns are facing as the world becomes warmer and wetter.

The town was devastated in 2016 by a so-called 1,000-year flood — meaning a magnitude with a one-in-1,000 chance of occurring in any year. The Patapsco River, which runs through the town, rose more than 13 feet in less than two hours.

Less than two years later, a 1,000-year storm struck again, overwhelming the tributaries that converge under the old mill town’s buildings and feed into the Patapsco.

Warmer temperatures are increasing heavy downpours, and rainfall has been growing in intensity in the Northeast, according to the government’s 2018 National Climate Assessment, risking power outages and the viability of roads and bridges.

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As Ellicott City has become more built up, floodwater flows across paved roads and rooftops, instead of percolating down through the soil as it used to — a phenomenon known as urban runoff, which is worsening globally as cities grow.

In the wake of the 2018 floods, the county launched the Ellicott City Safe and Sound plan, which involves demolishing some old buildings, making tunnels to carry water under roads and clearing waterways more regularly.

Officials are also testing a flood warning system, with emergency sirens telling people to move to higher ground. It has caused some alarm among residents, said Amy Miller, a social worker at the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center.

“You almost have a panic response,” said Miller, whose non-profit organization, based in Columbia, some 8 miles (13 km) south, has provided food, shelter and support to flood survivors.

Weather, Climate Change, Hardships
FILE – Damage along Main Street in historic Ellicott City, Maryland, is viewed Aug. 1, 2016, after the city was ravaged by floodwaters, killing two people and causing devastating damage to homes and businesses, officials said. VOA

“We’re basically exposing ourselves to the perceived threat of a traumatic event.”

Suicides

Grassroots provides 24-hour counseling to people in Ellicott City and the surrounding rolling hills of Howard County who might be feeling suicidal.

Miller has trained farmers to watch out for each other and spot signs of danger, particularly suicide risks.

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Farmers are a high risk group. They tend to live solitary lives, have access to lethal means and face financial stress when hit by poor weather and low prices — factors they cannot control, according to anti-suicide campaigners.

“When your livelihood is impacted, that causes hopelessness,” Miller said. “The hard part for farmers is they work almost 24-7, and it’s really hard for them to seek treatment.”

Stanford University predicted last year that a hotter planet could lead to a surge in suicides by 2050. Its data analysis found suicides had risen 0.7% in the United States and 2.1% in Mexico with a 1°C increase in monthly average temperatures.

The researchers also found — by analyzing the language used in more than a half billion Twitter posts — depressive language increased during hot weather, suggesting worse mental health.

Weather, Climate Change, Hardships
FILE – Residents gather by a bridge to look at cars left crumpled in one of the tributaries of the Patapsco River that burst its banks as it channeled through historic Main Street in Ellicott City, Maryland, May 28, 2018. VOA

Keith Ohlinger, one of the Howard County farmers trained to keep an eye out, said he was driven to the work by the suicide of a young friend who grew up on a nearby farm, planned a career in agriculture and took her own life last year at age 21.

He struggled this spring with heavy rains washing away seeds and soil and leaving hay too wet to be dried and stored for winter feeding.

“Things are changing,” he said. “The Earth is changing, patterns are changing. Things are melting.”

Ohlinger uses his position on the Maryland Agricultural Commission, which advises the government on farming, and at monthly farmers club meetings to bring up mental health, often taboo in the conservative agricultural community.

He said climate change was just one more stress for farmers already worried about commodity prices, credit, bank loans, the price of equipment and old family-run farms being squeezed out by more and more giant residential homes known as McMansions.

“I can’t fix pricing. I can’t fix what the Chinese president or Donald Trump does, but I can surely try and keep someone from killing themselves,” Ohlinger said.

Not everyone in the region is willing to make the link between mental health problems and climate change.

Global warming as a manmade phenomenon is a politically divisive topic in the United States, where President Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw from the Paris agreement, a global pact to fight climate change.

“You talk about global warming, but we deal with this stuff all the time,” said another Howard County farmer, Howie Feago.

“Most farmers believe it’s more of an ebb and flow. We know that the weather is going to be up and down. If you’re going to worry about global warming, you probably ought to get some other kind of job because it will drive you nuts.” (VOA)