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The Energy 202: Trump takes on wind energy, talks solar-powered border wall in Iowa speech

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with Paulina Firozi


On Wednesday evening, an evidently gleeful President Trump gave a campaign-style speech in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in which he attacked some of his favorite objects of ire in front of diehard fans, including Democrats, the Russia investigation and the news media. 

Feisty following a Republican winning the fifth special election for a House seat in a heavily contested Georgia seat, Trump reiterated promises to cut taxes, rebuild infrastructure and repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. (Read more from by colleagues John Wagner and Jenna Johnson here.)

But in his meandering speech, Trump, perhaps tellingly, also focused ridicule at wind energy in Iowa, a state where the renewable energy industry makes up a significant portion of the energy portfolio. Only days earlier, Trump’s energy secretary, Rick Perry, delivered a strikingly different message to Congress, telling lawmakers the United States will pursue an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy production.

In his Iowa speech, Trump also made unrealistic claims about putting solar panels on his long-promised border wall with Mexico and outright misleading claims about the recently exited Paris climate accord.

It fits a pattern of misstatement about energy production that was also on display in Trump’s Rose Garden speech announcing U.S. withdrawal from the Paris deal. 

As The Energy 202 did then, let’s break down the claims:

CLAIM #1: “I don’t want to just hope the wind blows to light up your house and your factory as the birds fall to the ground,” Trump said in Iowa in a remark in line with his past comments about wind energy. Before becoming president (or even running for office), Trump disparaged wind turbines as “ugly” and claimed wind power “kills all the birds.”

THE PROBLEM: There are at least two. As he did occasionally on the campaign trail, Trump is overstating the impact wind turbines have on bird populations. According to the National Audubon Society, wind turbines cause about 234,000 bird deaths a year, or less than 0.01 percent of all human-related bird deaths. Tall buildings and automobiles cause significantly more fatalities.

Second, Iowa got more than a third of its net energy generation from wind production last year, a higher percentage than any other state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Only Texas produced more wind energy outright.

Wind turbines -- and the federal tax credits that support them -- are also politically popular in the state. “If he wants to do away with it,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in August of then-GOP nominee Trump and federal wind-energy tax credits, which Grassley helped write, “he’ll have to get a bill through Congress, and he’ll do it over my dead body.”

Trump may have been reminded of the many wind turbines dotting Iowa prairies with a stop at a community college with a 240-foot-tall wind turbine on campus:

Later in the speech, the president dialed back his critique of wind energy and stayed on message with his administration’s all-of-the-above energy strategy: "We use electric. We use wind. We use solar. We use coal. We use natural gas. We will use nuclear if the right opportunity presents itself.”

CLAIM #2: “They all say it’s non-binding,” Trump claimed of the Paris climate accord, riling the crowd about his decision to withdraw the United States from the international agreement. “Like hell it’s non-binding."

THE PROBLEM: The Paris accord is non-binding.

Under the agreement, countries voluntarily set their own greenhouse-gas emissions targets. That’s its key virtue, the reason Trump’s predecessor, President Obama, was able to convince nearly every other nation on Earth to sign onto it. Previous international efforts to reduce climate-warming emissions, most notably the Kyoto Protocol, were not able to generate that level of consensus in the international community, and get 195 nations to sign on in 2015, precisely because those treaties were legally binding.

CLAIM #3: “We’re thinking about building the wall as a solar wall, so it creates energy, and pays for itself,” Trump said in Iowa. “And this way Mexico will have to pay much less money, and that’s good.”

The president later asked: “Pretty good imagination, right? Good? My idea.”

THE PROBLEM: It was not his idea.

At the very least, Thomas Gleason had the idea before President Trump. Gleason, a business owner in North Las Vegas, Nev., submitted a bid back in April to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency with designs for a border wall covered with solar panels, according to the Las-Vegas Journal Review.

More significantly, experts who have taken the solar-paneled border wall proposal seriously say such a structure would have significant issues. Vertically fixed panels could lead to an efficiency loss of around 50 percent, according to an analysis by the Financial Times.

And that’s just the beginning. As Sophie Yeo reported for The Post earlier this month:

In addition, solar panels degrade over time. The requirements dictated by the security aspects of the border wall — bricks and spray paint, for example — could further reduce efficiency.

Then there is the question of finding a market for any electricity that would be generated by a solar wall in a remote section of the country.

With less than 2 percent of the U.S. population living within 40 miles of the Mexico border, the electricity generated by the wall would mostly be useless — unless costly transmission lines were built to take the electricity to other areas of the country.


-- Three heavyweight researchers who study various aspects of the science and politics of climate change -- Benjamin Santer, an atmospheric scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT; and Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard -- wrote a searing critique of an idea espoused by New York University professor Steven Koonin and embraced by EPA  Administrator Scott Pruitt to conduct a “Red Team/Blue Team” process for climate science.

They write in an op-ed in The Post:

The basic premise of these “Red Team/Blue Team” requests is that climate science is broken and needs to be fixed. The implicit message in the requests is that scientists belong to tribes, and key findings of climate science — such as the existence of a large human-caused warming signal — have not undergone adequate review by all tribes. This tribalism could be addressed, Koonin believes, by emulating Red Team/Blue Team assessment strategies in “intelligence assessments, spacecraft design, and major industrial operations.”

In Koonin’s view, “traditional” peer-review processes are flawed and lack transparency, and international scientific assessments do not accurately represent “the vibrant and developing science.” He implicitly accuses the climate science community of “advisory malpractice” by ignoring major sources of uncertainty. To use present-day vernacular, both Koonin and Pruitt are essentially claiming that peer-review systems are rigged, and that climate scientists are not providing sound scientific information to policymakers.

We do not consider ourselves to be members of any team or tribe. Our goal is not to “win” against “the other side.” Our prime motivation is to understand the natural world, and to use that knowledge and understanding to inform sensible decisions on important public policy questions. Whether we succeed in doing so is what we are ultimately judged on.

The peer-review system criticized by Koonin and Pruitt is imperfect, but it is the best system we have, and has served science well for several centuries.


-- Oil will continue to flow through the Dakota Access pipeline pending a new review of its environmental impact. A federal judge said Wednesday that he will decide later this year whether to shut the pipeline down in the meantime. In court Wednesday, an attorney for the Army Corps of Engineers Matthew Marinelli said he "cannot give you a time frame" for how long the additional review would take. "The corps is just starting to grapple with the issues the court identified," according to E&E News. A federal judge ruled last week that the Army Corps of Engineers did not consider how oil spills may impact the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, and ordered a redo of its environmental review, the Associated Press reported

-- With the strong rebound in the U.S. shale-il drilling and production, crude oil prices have tumbled more than 20 percent over the last 10 months, The Post's Steven Mufson reports. U.S. consumers benefit as a result: Gasoline prices are hitting lows at the start of the summer driving season, a time when increased demand typically bumps up the cost of gas. And the low oil prices will help keep a lid on inflation and, because the United States is a major oil importer, will reduce the trade deficit.

This is happening despite Saudi Arabian efforts to cut output by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and to coordinate with Moscow to trim Russian supplies. In May, OPEC and non-OPEC members led by Russia extended supply cuts through the first quarter of 2018 in a bid to drain plentiful global inventories.

-- What states are releasing the most carbon into the air? Bloomberg took a look at a report from Ceres, Bank of America, Exelon Corp., and the Natural Resources Defense Council among others that analyzed power plant emissions by state. 

Texas was found to have the highest level of emissions, more than twice any other state, followed by Florida. Bloomberg's Mark Chediak reported that "despite a surge in wind power there, Texas still depends on fossil fuel-burning generators to serve a large and growing population." 

When focused on emission rates, or carbon dioxide released per megawatt-hour of electricity, Texas drops to 20th and Florida to 27th place. Instead, Wyoming, Kentucky and West Virginia take the top rankings for a high use of coal. And California ranks near the bottom of the list for emission rates, using minimal amounts of coal-fired power generation, and accessing electricity from renewables, Bloomberg reported. 

-- State regulators say that an ambitious "clean coal" power plant in Mississippi run by Southern Co. should switch to burning natural gas. The Wall Street Journal's Russell Gold reports: "Mississippi regulators said they wanted the Kemper power plant, which has already taken $7.5 billion and seven years to finish, to run using natural gas henceforth, and don't want to pass on additional costs to electricity customers. The plant has primarily been running on natural gas, not coal, because the company has struggled to make the clean coal technology consistently work."

Last July, that plant was subject to a thorough New York Times investigation that found the project "has been plagued by problems that managers tried to conceal." 


-- Turning to the ocean, there's some good news and bad news from government scientists:

Good news: An ongoing global coral bleaching event, one that’s affected more than 70 percent of tropical reefs worldwide, may finally be coming to a close. A new forecast from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suggests that the high ocean temperatures that lead to bleaching are no longer widespread in the Indian Ocean, potentially signaling the end of what’s been a worldwide event for the past three years, Chelsea Harvey reports for The Post.

Bad news: An oxygen-poor “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, which can prompt harmful algae blooms and threaten marine life, could approach the size of New Jersey this summer, federal scientists say, making it the third-largest the Gulf has seen. A new forecast, again from NOAA, predicts that the annual dead zone will reach an area of nearly 8,200 square miles in July, more than 50 percent larger than its average size, Chelsea Harvey reports.


-- A meteorological research group is firing off on Energy Secretary Perry for his claim that carbon dioxide is not a main driver of climate change, suggesting he does not have a "fundamental understanding" of science. 

In a Wednesday letter, the executive director of the American Meteorological Society wrote to Perry that "it is critically important that that you understand that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are the primary cause. This ia a conclusion based on the comprehensive assessment of scientific evidence." 

The letter added that "skepticism and debate are always welcome and are critically important to the advancement of science," but that "skepticism that fails to account for evidence is no virtue." 

And Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) seemed to share in AMS's message: 

The letter follows after the energy secretary's remark about carbon dioxide on national television.

When asked on CNBC if CO2 was "primary control knob for the temperature of the Earth and for climate," Perry said: "No, most likely the primary control knob is ocean waters and the environment that we live in." 


-- Fake earthquake: A staff member at the California Institute of Technology erroneously sent out an alert for a large magnitude 6.8 earthquake on Wednesday afternoon for a quake that happened off the Santa Barbara coast in 1925. When the staffer tried to correct data on the location of the 92-year-old quake, a new report went out instead, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The alert went out at 4:51 p.m. PDT, the Los Angeles Times reported. And some on Twitter began to wonder why they hadn't felt such a large magnitude quake: 

Shortly after, U.S. Geological Survey tweeted about the mistake, saying that the notification was "caused by a revision of the historic 1925 M6 Santa Barbara earthquake and was misinterpreted by software as a current event": 



  • Zinke will also testify about the department’s budget during a hearing before the House Committee on Natural Resources.
  • Perry will testify before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the department’s budget.
  • The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard will hold a hearing on marine debris.
  • The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials will hold a hearing on rail infrastructure. 

President Trump talks about his proposed border wall at last night's rally in Iowa: 

President Trump held a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on June 21, promising stricter immigration laws and a solar powered border wall. (Video: The Washington Post)

Watch how a bizarre experiment studies pumas reacting to political talk shows:

Scientists from University of California at Santa Cruz researched mountain lions' fear of humans by exposing them to clips of political talk shows. Here's what happened. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Stephen Colbert says Republicans want a vote, not a debate, on health care: