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I helped to organize a months-long project that was published this week about how Midwestern communities are adapting to the effects of climate change. You might expect this to be a depressing exercise, but what I found was a lot of optimism, and some of it had to do with clean energy.

I’m Dan Gearino, with news and analysis of the clean energy economy. Send me questions and news tips to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org, and thanks for reading!

— Dan

Calm Down Everyone, There’s a Problem to Solve

When Ashlynn Stillwell, an engineering professor at the University of Illinois, told me that the inherent traits of Midwesterners will help the region deal with climate change, the comment struck me as true.
 
I would know. I was born and raised in Iowa, went to college in Minnesota and now live in Ohio.
 
“We Midwesterners are more doers than talkers, and so protesting and talking about something is honestly annoying compared to doing something about it," she said.
 
I used that quote in the main story for “Unfamiliar Ground,” a joint project of Midwestern newsrooms, our second such collaboration this year. The comment touches on a recurring theme in several of the project’s stories — that many community leaders are problem-solvers who take climate risks seriously.
 
In Rochester, Minnesota, Mayor Kim Norton told me how the city is working to be more prepared for the torrential rains and flooding that are increasingly frequent in a warming world.

But this adaptation strategy, which includes improvements to storm sewers, among many other steps, goes hand in hand with a clean energy strategy. The city is buying all-electric buses, and the city-owned utility is taking steps toward getting 100 percent of its electricity from renewables.
 
By reducing emissions from vehicles and electricity production, the city aims to do its part to encourage the transition away from fossil fuels.
 
“It is our job as elected leaders to be honest with people,” Norton said. “The way we live and the way we manage resources is going to need to change.”
 
There is a similar dynamic in Goshen, Indiana. Beth Edwards of Indiana Environmental Reporter wrote about how Mayor Jeremy Stutsman responded to devastating floods. The city is working with the University of Michigan to better understand how water flows and come up with ways to reduce flooding risk. The city also set up a new Department of Environmental Resiliency to manage this process.
 
At the same time, the city is encouraging residents to install rooftop solar, leading to 92 solar projects in the past year.
 
Stutsman was able to convince his constituents by talking about the economic benefits of these projects, rather than putting it in the context of global warming.
 
“We didn’t argue about climate change,” he said. “We talked about Goshen. I showed them the numbers. I showed them what we could do. As a mayor, you need to make sure you're giving the argument or allowing everybody to find the argument that allows them to support the initiatives you're bringing forward. Staying out of the politically charged discussions is very important if you're going to continue to get projects moving.”
 
The work happening in Rochester and Goshen is notable for the can-do attitude and the sidestepping of partisan politics. Read all of the stories in the project here, including those from Illinois and Missouri and two from Michigan.
 
This isn’t feasible everywhere, but as cities see benefits from climate adaptation and clean energy investment, others will want to emulate.
 

Global Agency Uses Its Megaphone to Call for ‘Grand Coalition’ to Cut Emissions

Last month, I wrote about the International Energy Agency’s forecast showing “spectacular growth” in solar power worldwide by the mid-2020s. That report provided some hints of what was to come this week when the agency released its World Energy Outlook 2019.
 
The new report shows that renewable energy is growing at a rapid pace — but not by nearly enough to reduce carbon emissions to levels needed to avert a crisis.
 
The World Energy Outlook is widely read by governments, and is also criticized by clean energy advocates who have said its forecasts help reinforce the idea that fossil fuels will remain the foundation of the world’s energy supply for decades.
 
The forecast continues to show substantial demand for fossil fuels for decades, but it also shows that growth in demand is shrinking. It presents this within an overarching narrative that governments need to take swift action to move away from fossil fuels and reduce emissions.
 
“The world urgently needs to put a laser-like focus on bringing down global emissions,”  Fatih Birol, the agency’s executive director, said in a statement. “This calls for a grand coalition encompassing governments, investors, companies and everyone else who is committed to tackling climate change.”
 
This is the lead quote in the report’s news release, leaving no doubt about what the agency sees as its main message.
 
The report is clear that the world faces a great challenge in meeting the growing demand for energy while also reducing emissions.
 
The rising output of oil and natural gas from U.S. shale formations, which is driving an increase in the oil and gas supply, is one major obstacle, the report said. Another is that the world has many new or young fossil fuel power plants, including many coal-fired plants in the developing world. These will lock in emissions for many decades, unless governments move to take those plants offline.
 
In short, sustaining current practices would be disastrous for the climate.
 

Cheapest Electricity Sources Keep Getting Cheaper

It’s difficult to go from the bleak outlook of the International Energy Agency report to this next item and think they came from the same world. But here goes.
 
The costs to build and operate a utility-scale solar farm have fallen by 89 percent since 2009, and that is sending ripples throughout the energy economy.
 
I got that figure from the new edition of an annual report from the investment firm Lazard. The report shows the worldwide “levelized cost of energy” for various power plant technologies, a metric that takes into account the costs of building and operating plants.

Previous installments of the Lazard report were milestones for tracking how renewable energy has become cost-competitive with coal and natural gas. This new edition shows that solar and wind costs continue to fall and are the lowest of any power source, but the pace of the decrease has slowed.
 
For example, wind energy now has an average levelized cost of $41 per megawatt-hour, down from $42 in 2018.
 
Ten years ago, it was $135 per megawatt-hour.
 
The price decreases are leveling off in part because the wind and solar industries have grown to the point that there are fewer opportunities to save money through economies of scale and other efficiencies. The Lazard report says this is indicative of the maturing of the industries.
 
It’s important to note that these prices do not take into account subsidies, so wind and solar are even less expensive in markets where developers can qualify for tax breaks, as they can in the United States.
 
While the price decreases have slowed, the key point is that they are continuing. The trend means more fossil plants will struggle to compete as market forces push forward the transition to clean energy.
 
Market forces are also making it prohibitively expensive to build new coal-fired plants, which have a levelized cost of $109 per megawatt-hour, according to Lazard. That cost has barely changed from $111 from 2009, while other sources have gotten much less expensive.
 
So, what does this mean in the context of the International Energy Agency report? The main point is that the economics of renewable energy continue to improve, but this is only one part of a much larger picture in which other factors — such as rising energy demand and the plentiful supply of oil and gas — are making it difficult to reduce emissions.
 

Is ‘Renewable Gas’ a Fuel of the Future, or Just an Industry Talking Point?

I’ve gotten questions from readers about the viability and environmental impacts of biogas, which a few utilities have started marketing under the catchier term “renewable gas.”
 
Basically, it’s methane captured from landfills, livestock manure and other sources that can be transported and burned like natural gas for fuel. My answer has been that I don’t know enough about it to speak authoritatively.
 
Now I can send them this week’s story from my colleague Phil McKenna, who very nicely explains what “renewable gas” is and how it fits into the larger debate about the future of energy.
 
The upshot is that biogas, or biomethane, is (at least theoretically) a zero-emissions energy source that can be blended with natural gas. But it isn’t being produced in large enough quantities or at low enough prices to replace even a tiny fraction of natural gas, and studies question whether it could ever be a scalable solution. 
 
Instead, critics say “renewable gas” looks like a marketing tool for the gas industry to preserve its natural gas operations in a low-carbon future.

In California, a state with a goal of getting to net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2045, the big utility SoCalGas is proposing to mix biogas into its existing natural gas pipelines. But it would use only small quantities of biogas, while the bulk of gas going through the pipes would still be natural gas, a fossil fuel.
 
The gas company argues that the result would reduce emissions just as much as shifting to electric appliances, so, it reasons, cities don’t need to follow Berkeley’s lead and ban new gas hook-ups in buildings. Environmental scientists see it differently.
 
“I think we have to be honest about what we are really talking about when we are talking about biomethane,” said James O’Dea, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It means a little bit of biomethane but a lot of natural gas.”
 
I don’t want to dismiss the value of biogas. To address climate change, it is critical that businesses capture methane from landfills, farms and other sources. It’s also a good thing if there is a market to sell this methane for fuel. But it’s a big stretch to say that biogas somehow resolves concerns about the emissions from regular natural gas.

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