New York regulators are requiring the state's biggest electric utility to armor the grid against all sorts of sweeping global warming impacts that could black out the nation's financial capital and disrupt services like cell phone networks and water and gasoline supplies.
The Feb. 20 ruling mandates Con Edison to carry out an immediate and comprehensive assessment of climate risks to its power grid, a lifeline of New York's economy. The utility must factor the data into all of its long-term planning, construction and budget decisions—and also use new flood maps that put much more of New York in vulnerable flood zones.
The ruling by the New York Public Service Commission is "a recognition that something has to be done to make the system withstand what appears to be the 'new normal,'" said Robert Thormeyer, a spokesman for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) who was not involved in the New York case. "They're taking a holistic approach to looking at how we can fit [climate change] into our everyday planning."
The sprawling hills of California's Altamont Pass are covered in thousands of wind turbines nearly three decades old. But many of those aging models are coming down as wind developers replace them with a smaller number of giant, more powerful turbines.
For Rick Koebbe, the switch spells opportunity.
Koebbe, president of PowerWorks, runs a sort of wind-turbine hospital from a manufacturing facility in the San Francisco Bay Area. The firm takes old, 100-kilowatt models that would otherwise head to the scrap yard and replaces their well-worn screws, gears, bearings and generators with gleaming new parts. The steel towers and blades are generally still in good shape, so they stay put. Koebbe said his second-hand turbines are an attractive bargain—they sell for as little as half the price of a fresh-off-the-assembly-line model.
"There are very few people doing this," he said.
PowerWorks is part of a niche global market that is emerging for used turbines. While earlier attempts by U.S. companies to sell the models at home have waned, demand appears to be picking up in developing countries and island nations—places where wind power costs far less than electricity from imported fossil fuels, but where ponying up millions of dollars for today's massive wind turbines doesn't make sense.
The view from David Gallagher's porch window should have been bucolic on that January evening. In the distance, the setting sun was bouncing off fresh snow that blanketed old farmland surrounding his Ceresco, Mich. home.
But Gallagher could see only the workers from Enbridge Inc., the Canadian energy company that had been constructing a crude oil pipeline 12 feet from his house for the past seven months.
Although he had grown used to the crew and the rumblings of their bulldozers and backhoes, Gallagher's fears about the safety of laying pipe so close to his home never left him. And on Jan. 8, as he watched a crane lift a piece of 50-ton pipe longer than a football field, a shot of alarm raced through his body. The crane suddenly began to tip over, and the massive pipe that was dangling between the machine's claws plunged into a trench before the crane toppled on its side.
If the pipe had been any closer, "it would've smashed into our sunroom," Gallagher said. "It was a holy shit moment."
The debate about tackling climate change has long revolved around the twin challenges of mitigating global warming and adapting to its more predictable long-term impacts—rising seas, higher peak temperatures, relentless drought.
Now a new concept has risen: "climate resiliency," or preparing cities for climate change's unforeseen and destructive disasters and disruptions. Resiliency includes adaptation measures—such as rebuilding wetlands or moving homes onto higher foundations as a way to fight floods—but it's also about armoring entire populations so they can absorb and quickly recover from sudden calamity.
Resiliency is "a more holistic perspective on creating stronger and more prepared communities," said Brian Holland, the director of climate programs at ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, a nonprofit based in Germany with U.S. headquarters in Oakland, Calif. "We're not just reacting to climate change. We're looking at how to build communities that can bounce forward" after a shock.
American cities on the frontline of climate action are quietly but dramatically shifting their approach—from primarily trying to limit global warming to coping with its impacts. They're building forested buffers to shelter homes from wildfires, considering concrete sea walls to restrain ocean waters and developing software to conserve water during drought.
Now, a new global initiative aims to make nearly a dozen of those cities into models that can spur urban resiliency around the world.
The Rockefeller Foundation, which launched its 100 Resilient Cities Network earlier this month, said that cities' ability to "withstand and bounce back" from climate and other disasters is crucial as more people move to metropolitan areas and as urban economies become inextricably linked.
"What happens in one part of the world can shake the stability of another," said spokeswoman Carey Meyers. "There's this interdependency, this need for cities to be stronger." By 2050, three-fourths of the world's population will live in cities, up from about 50 percent today and 10 percent a century ago.
As Mayor Michael Bloomberg winds down his last month in office, his plan for protecting New York City from the threats of climate change has received an important boost. But there is still uncertainty over whether his successor, Bill de Blasio, has any interest in carrying forward Bloomberg's legacy on combating global warming.
New York last week was one of 33 cities worldwide selected to participate in the first round of the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities Network. The initiative grants cities undetermined portions of a $100 million pot of money for hiring a "chief resilience officer" and developing long-term resiliency plans to assess and tackle risks they face from climate and other disasters.
New York is ahead of the curve on both issues. It already has a director of resiliency in the Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, as well as a comprehensive strategy in its Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR)—a $19.5 billion plan unveiled in June in response to Superstorm Sandy. The plan includes 257 initiatives spread across the city, about one-quarter of which could be completed before Bloomberg leaves office.
At the U.S. Department of Energy's Washington, D.C. headquarters, the fourth floor feels like any other nondescript outpost of the federal bureaucracy. But the no-frills landscape of desks and cubicles belies the immensity of the job at hand.
Each day nearly 200 staffers scour loan applications, track billion-dollar debts and manage borrowers' credit risk as part of the department's Loan Programs Office—one of the biggest clean energy finance shops in the world.
You may think you've never heard of the LPO—after all, its $34.4 billion loan portfolio for renewable energy, nuclear and fuel-efficient technologies pales in comparison to, say, annual federal student loans (roughly $1 trillion) or even the $68 billion Congress used to rescue just one troubled insurance company, AIG.
But chances are that you know of the program because of one very large and very notorious loan.
Peter Davidson walked nervously toward a U.S. Senate conference room in Washington, D.C. A lanky man with graying, wavy hair and thick-rimmed glasses, he was still studying the notes he had prepared when he stepped inside to face a dozen members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
"My name is Peter Davidson," he said as he slid into a black leather chair and pulled a microphone close. "I recently joined the Department of Energy as executive director of the Loan Programs Office…one of the largest clean energy and transportation portfolios in the world."
Though few outside Washington know it, the Energy Department's eight-year-old Loan Programs Office is at the center of the nation's highly political battle over clean energy. The program backs innovative energy projects that can't get private financing because their technology is too new and risky.
A handful of U.S. utilities have discovered they can save money by encouraging small rooftop solar projects—the same projects utility industry leaders have insisted were too expensive and unreliable to be practical.
The Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) in New York, for instance, is paying developers to build solar panels on top of buildings in tiny towns that are experiencing population booms but don't have enough electric grid infrastructure to bring in the electricity they need. The pilot initiative will allow the utility to avoid spending more than $80 million to build new transmission lines and grid equipment.
"It's actually cost-effective to add renewables" this way, said Michael Deering, LIPA's vice president of environmental affairs.
The program reflects some utilities' changing relationship with distributed generation, or DG, the name for small-scale energy generators like solar systems and micro wind turbines that produce electricity close to where the power is used.
Aggressive energy efficiency efforts by households, companies and motorists led to the decline in carbon dioxide emissions from energy use in the United States, according to a recent report. The controversial finding contradicts recent studies that say the power sector's shift away from coal to cheap natural gas caused the bulk of reductions.
U.S. emissions last year fell by 205 million metric tons, or 4 percent, from 2011 levels. CO2 Scorecard Group, a small environmental research organization, says that nearly half the decline came from energy-saving measures such as retrofits and smarter appliances in homes and offices, as well as from Americans driving fewer miles, and using more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Natural gas is responsible for only about one-quarter of last year's emissions drop, CO2 Scorecard Group asserts.
"Everybody started to believe that shale gas is driving all these CO2 reductions," said CO2 Scorecard chief executive Shakeb Afsah, an environmental economist and co-author of the study. After investigating, he said he and colleagues found that "the numbers just don't add up."