Tuesday January 21, 2020
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Solar Installation in Massachusetts to Fight Climate Change

Ed Martell is on the job, helping build an 8,000-panel solar farm outside the town of Wales, 110 kilometers southwest of Boston

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Does Fighting Climate Change Mean Wrecking the Economy? VOA

It’s minus eight degrees Celsius on a late winter morning in western Massachusetts. But electrician Ed Martell is on the job, helping build an 8,000-panel solar farm outside the town of Wales, 110 kilometers southwest of Boston.

Martell says solar installations have been going nonstop for the past several years.

“I thought it was going to be a flash in the pan a couple years ago,” he told VOA. “I’ve seen solar keep going and going and going.”

Although sunshine is not the first image that comes to mind in connection with Massachusetts, policy decisions have propelled the state to third place nationwide in solar jobs, behind sunny California and Florida, which is known as the Sunshine State.

Martell says the industry has been growing at a time when there has not been much other work for electricians.

“If it wasn’t for solar, there would have been a two-year period when I wouldn’t have worked at all,” he added. “So, yes, it’s very good for us.”

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FILE – This undated handout image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan, shows the Four Corners area, in red, left, the major U.S. hot spot for methane emissions in this digital map, showing how much emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003-2009. Dark colors are lower than average; lighter colors are higher. VOA

Greenhouse gases

As the planet heats up, experts say the world needs to stop burning the fossil fuels that have powered civilization for centuries and switch to energy sources that do not release greenhouse gases that drive up the Earth’s temperature and produce weather extremes.

The transition will not be easy. There will be winners and losers, economists say.

The smokestack and the rusting remains of the 1960s-turquoise turbine are the last identifiable remains of the Mount Tom Station coal-fired power plant located 145 kilometers west of Boston in Holyoke, Mass.

Former maintenance engineer Clancy Kaye kept the plant running for more than 30 years.

But between expensive environmental upgrades, the plunging price of natural gas, and concerns from neighborhood groups about climate change and air pollution, the plant’s owners pulled the plug in 2014.

They then built one of the largest solar farms with battery storage in New England just down the street.

Eighty people worked at Mount Tom at its peak. When it finally closed in 2014, the number was down to 28. Some of them retired. The company offered a generous severance package, Kaye said. But about a dozen employees had to take other jobs with 30 percent to 50 percent pay cuts and fewer benefits.

“It’s been really a very rude awakening for many people who used to make some very good money. And some very highly skilled people,” Kaye said.

As coal-fired plants close across the country, he added, “the good jobs — and I mean good paying, good benefits, good pension — those jobs are virtually all going away for your average middle-class person.”

More than half of the 530 coal-fired power plants that were running in 2010 have shut down or plan to by 2030, according to the Sierra Club, an Oakland, California-based environmental group.

There have been losses in Massachusetts.

Winners in state policy

But experts say the state’s policies to fight climate change have created more winners.

While Congress and the White House have feuded for years about what, if anything, to do, Republican and Democratic leaders in the Bay State have taken innovative steps to reduce greenhouse gases.

In 2008, Massachusetts was among the first U.S. states to set a greenhouse gas reduction target. By mid-century, the state aims to have cut emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels.

Accompanying legislation requires utilities to buy increasing amounts of renewable energy and charges power companies for carbon pollution. The state created aggressive programs to promote energy efficiency.

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U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry is silhouetted near the words “Clean Energy” during a photo session after the opening ceremony of an international clean energy conference in Beijing. VOA

“Some detractors did say that this is going to turn the economy upside down, this is going to cost people more,” said Mark Sylvia, former Massachusetts energy resources commissioner.

“But in fact,” he said, “it did the exact opposite.”

With a clear signal from the government, the market responded. Clean energy is now a $13 billion industry in Massachusetts. Its workforce has grown 84 percent since 2010. The sector now employs more than 110,000 workers, three percent of the state’s workforce.

In Washington, the climate debate is polarized between Democrats calling for an end to fossil fuels and Republicans saying these proposals will destroy jobs, when they acknowledge the problem at all. Only recently did Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky acknowledge that human activities are responsible for climate change.

Climate policy

But Massachusetts’ Republican Gov. Charlie Baker took over from a Democrat, Deval Patrick, and held firm on climate policy.

“In Massachusetts, climate change is not a partisan issue,” Baker told the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources in February.

“While we sometimes disagree on specific policies,” he added, “we understand the science and know the impacts are real because we’re experiencing them firsthand.”

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North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, left, watches as Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker speaks while they testify before the House Natural Resources Committee hearing on climate change, on Capitol Hill in Washington. VOA

Baker noted that since he took office in 2015, the state has suffered damage from record snowfall, record storm flooding and record drought. Rising temperatures have hurt the state’s winter sports industry and fisheries.

“While many of these challenges are not new, they are more frequent and more damaging than ever,” he said.

Baker’s position on climate change has evolved since his unsuccessful 2010 run for governor. At that time, he told The Boston Globe newspaper he was “not smart enough to believe that I know” whether humans were responsible for global warming.

But in his testimony, he called for a federal target for greenhouse gas emission reductions, a proposal congressional Republicans have repeatedly rejected.

He noted that since the state set its target in 2008, “far from being an economic burden, we have seen close to a 70 percent increase over 1990 levels” in the state economy.

Baker recently rolled out an updated incentive program for solar power and is planning major offshore wind installations that are expected to create 3,600 local jobs.

And to pursue the jobs of the future, the state has provided more than $2 million in loans and grants to Greentown Labs, a business incubator for startups working on clean technologies.

The growth will not help everyone, however.

In the power generation business, “if you want to know where the jobs are, take an aerial view of the parking lot,” said Donnie Colston, head of the utility department at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

A coal plant may have 150 to 200 cars in the lot, Colston said.

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FILE – The Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyo. VOA

Workers

But a solar farm? No parking lot.

“We have members that will clean them, they’ll maintain them, they’ll make sure that they’re running properly,” Colston said. “But that’s not a full-time job.”

Environmentalists pushing to close coal-fired power plants are sympathetic to the threat of lost jobs.

From freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York to local Sierra Club chapters, activists are calling for a “just transition” for displaced workers in fossil fuel industries — job retraining and other measures to cushion the blow.

But the workers don’t want to hear it.

“They want you to have a soft landing and a just transition,” said Kaye, the former Mount Tom coal plant worker, “but they have the saw in their hand that’s cutting the branch that you’re sitting on.”

ALSO READ: London Becomes First City to Use Pollution Charge Zone: Report

Massachusetts closed its last coal-fired power plant in 2017. While the transition has been hard on many of his colleagues, Kaye is not bitter. He started a pool installation company that’s expanding.

He said he always knew the plant wasn’t helping the environment. And change happens.

“We used to say coal is king, King Coal. But it’s just not that way anymore,” he said. “And all in all, I think that’s probably a good thing.” (VOA)

Next Story

Here’s how Climate Change has Affected the Economy

Climate vs. Economy: Four Lessons From a Year of Reporting

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People attend a climate change protest in Brussels, Belgium. VOA

Does fighting climate change mean wrecking the economy?

That’s the question my editor posed to me about a year ago. It has been the focus of my reporting ever since.

The rhetoric from climate change skeptics suggests it would. President Donald Trump has made canceling Obama-era greenhouse gas regulations a central part of his tenure. Economic rationales are always front and center.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidates say they will create millions of jobs by transforming the energy system to carbon-free sources.

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A graph depicting how the economy is growing in Massachusetts despite the climate change. VOA

Job killer or job creator? Leaving aside for the moment the fact that climate change is already imposing enormous costs that are only becoming worse, I went looking for answers in Massachusetts, Wyoming and Colorado.

Here’s some of what I learned. It’s not simple. And much remains to be seen.

1. Where steps have been taken, the economy has kept growing. 

Take Massachusetts, for example. The Bay State passed the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2008, calling for an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases from 1990 levels by 2050. Massachusetts requires power plants to pay for their carbon dioxide emissions. The state was among the first to require power companies to generate a certain portion of their electricity from renewable sources. The government offers rebates and incentives for renewable energy, energy efficiency, electric vehicles and more.

Greenhouse gas emissions have come down by 17% from 2008 to 2017 in the state.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts’ economy has continued to grow. The state’s total output went up by 19% in that period, outperforming U.S. economic expansion as a whole by 3% in that time frame.

Employment went up in Massachusetts by 9%. The state has invested in growing a clean-energy economy. Jobs in renewable energy, energy efficiency and related areas have grown by 86% since 2010 and now make up more than 3% of the state’s workforce.

It’s hard to know, though, to what extent the state’s climate policies were responsible for either the greenhouse gas reductions or economic growth. From 2008 to 2017, carbon emissions went down in every state but six: Idaho, Nebraska, North Dakota, Mississippi, Texas and Washington. GDP shrank in just four states: Connecticut, Louisiana, Nevada and Wyoming.

That’s largely because cutting carbon has become much easier to do with the rise of natural gas and renewable power.

2. Some of the most significant greenhouse gas reductions have happened not because of state policies but because of dramatic shifts in energy markets.

Climate economy
Wind turbines produce green energy in Nauen near Berlin, Germany. Stephan Kohler, who heads the government-affiliated agency overseeing Germany’s electricity grid. VOA

The biggest factor lowering carbon dioxide emissions nationwide is that natural gas has replaced coal as the main fuel for electric power plants.

Burning natural gas generates the same amount of energy with half the carbon dioxide emissions as coal. The price of natural gas has plunged as drilling technology has made the United States the world’s leading producer. That has helped drive a wave of fuel-switching at power plants across the United States. Coal generation fell 40% from 2008 to 2017, while natural gas climbed 47%.

Renewable energy is growing quickly, but it still makes up a small portion of the power supply. Wind generated just 6.5% of the nation’s electricity last year. Solar produced 2.2%.

Wind and solar are starting to give fossil fuels serious competition, though. After dramatic cost declines over the last decade, these sources are now significantly cheaper than coal and often cheaper than natural gas, even without subsidies.

They need to replace fossil fuel generation much faster, however, in order to take a serious bite out of emissions.

3. Some good jobs are going away. Dealing with the changes is not easy.

Powering the nation is not the job it used to be. Coal once generated more than half the nation’s electricity. Coal mines and power plants are mostly unionized. The jobs pay well and provide good benefits for workers without a higher education.

Coal mining, however, employs 42% fewer workers than in 2011. More than 300 coal-burning power plants have closed or are slated to be shuttered.

There are growing opportunities in renewable energy and energy efficiency. The solar industry employed 242,000 people in 2018, for example, about 45,000 more than the coal industry.

The jobs are not equivalent. Many solar installation jobs are not unionized, don’t pay as well and have fewer benefits than those for people working at coal plants. And a solar farm doesn’t need many workers once it’s built, while a coal plant can steadily employ hundreds.

Workers hurt by the energy transition are a small part of the overall economy. But coal mines and power plants tend to be in rural areas without much else in the way of industry. When these jobs go away, the pain is localized but intense.

Some policymakers are trying to blunt the impacts. Last year, Colorado was one of several states that passed laws aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions and included provisions for a “just transition” — job retraining, economic development aid and other measures to help workers and communities find a life after fossil fuels.

Climate economy
Members of the European Parliament vote in favor of the Paris U.N. COP 21 Climate Change agreement during a voting session at the European Parliament. VOA

4.  No one is doing enough. 

The plunge in coal-fired power helped the United States cut its emissions by an estimated 2.1% in 2018. Since 2005, emissions are down 12.3%.

But the United States pledged to cut greenhouse gases at least 26% by 2025 under the U.N. Paris climate agreement. Emissions must go down by 2.8% per year on average to hit that target. It’s not impossible, experts say, but it’s a stretch.

The Trump administration is moving policy in the opposite direction, aiming to weaken fuel economy standards for vehicles, approving construction of a new oil pipeline from Canada and vowing to shore up America’s coal industry.

Meeting the Paris pledge is not enough, however. Scientists say the world needs to get to zero carbon emissions by 2050 to stave off a climate disaster. Almost no one is on track to do so.

Unless cost-effective carbon capture technology appears soon, natural gas will have to go. Transportation, the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gases, will have to go electric (or hydrogen or biofuel) much, much faster than it is. And someone will have to figure out what to do about emissions from energy-intensive industries like glass, steel, aluminum and concrete.

Also Read- People with Inadequate Food Access Likely to Die Prematurely: Study

Does fighting climate change mean wrecking the economy? Not necessarily. But the steps taken so far will not stop the climate impacts we’re already seeing from becoming much worse.

Can we stop climate change before it’s too late? No one has all the answers yet.

But something must be done. Each new climate-related disaster shows the cost of inaction is mounting.  (VOA)