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The Energy 202: Here's what solar energy research is going to look like under Trump

with Paulina Firozi


Six years ago, President Obama, in an effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions, set a goal of reducing the cost of solar energy generated by utilities to 6 cents per kilowatt hour by 2020.

Under President Trump, the agencies charged with enforcing that mandate are no longer undertaking a concerted effort to address climate change. Nevertheless, on Tuesday the Energy Department announced that Obama’s goal has been met three years ahead of schedule — in part through research funded by the department’s solar energy office.

Despite that success (or perhaps because of it), the Energy Department’s Solar Energy Technologies Office is reorienting its mission.

“With the impressive decline in solar prices,” Daniel Simmons, acting head of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, said in a statement, “it is time to address additional emerging challenges.”

Solar power makes up a slim portion — about 1 percent — of electricity generation in the United States. Most of that energy comes from photovoltaic solar panels that convert sunlight directly into electricity. But those panels can only do so when the sun is shining.

As such solar panels evolve into a growing share of electricity, some within the Energy Department, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry, worry there may not be enough power plants in parts of the country capable of running 24/7. The concerns include the availability of nuclear and coal-fired power plants, and their ability delivering electricity during peak evening hours.

So in August, the Energy Department published a 187-page report on grid reliability that drew criticism from the solar industry for recommending, among other things, that steps be taken to prevent solar (and wind) companies from driving the price of electricity provided to a grid below $0.

On Tuesday, DOE announced it intended to give out $62 million in grants for early-stage research into another way of generating electricity from sunlight called concentrated solar power.

A primer: Concentrated solar power, or thermal solar, works by using an array of mirrors to concentrate sunlight on troughs or towers that convert the energy into heat, which is used to boil water and drive a steam generator. Some of that heat can be stored in molten salt that can be used into the evening, when the sun goes down and residential energy demand goes up.

“We tap a large solar mass that can be used immediately or whenever the grid operator would like to have power,” Charles Gay, director of the Solar Energy Technology Office, said in an interview. “How do we further advance the use of solar with concentrating solar and power electronics to weave the energy delivered by solar into the grid?”

The money for these new grants was appropriated by Congress before Trump became president. The department set a goal of getting the cost for utility-scale solar down to 3 cents per kilowatt hour by 2030, even though the White House has proposed shrinking the solar energy program's budget to $69.7 million from $241 million just a year earlier, a 71 percent slashing.

"The budget cycles may ebb and flow, but there’s a solid commitment to solar," Gay said.

Despite the controversy over the grid study, many observers outside the federal government agree with the new direction for the solar program. Trump has also floated the idea of building a solar-powered wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, though the idea is not considered feasible by energy experts.

Given the gains made in reducing costs and improving efficiency for photovoltaic cells, it’s time to turn the solar office’s attention to thermal solar with or without the grid study, said David M. Hart, professor of science and technology policy at George Mason University.

“So for me it makes sense to rotate funding to less mature technologies,” Hart said.

Concentrated solar power, which requires local workers to construct and operate plants, also fits snugly into another Trump goal of creating jobs.

"It generates local employment," said Yogi Goswami, a solar energy expert and professor at the University of South Florida. Photovoltaic panels, Goswami noted, can be (and are) manufactured abroad more cheaply in China. 

Indeed, right now a case before the U.S. International Trade Commission could result in tariffs being slapped onto foreign solar imports. This month, the commission will determine if U.S. solar manufacturers are being harmed by cheap foreign-made solar equipment.

If the commission decides domestic panel makers are being hurt, President Trump will then be able to levy a tariff against one of his favorite punching bag on trade, China.

On Tuesday, a group of conservative organizations, including the American Legislative Exchange Council, urged the U.S. International Trade Commission in a letter to avoid solar tariffs, which it worries could "lead to retaliation by our trading partners."

Chris Mooney contributed to this report.


-- Bye-bye: The Trump administration has waived 26 environmental laws and two religious freedom laws in order to build the president's promised border wall with Mexico. A three-mile section of the border in California will be built without protections meant for clean water and air, endangered species and historic sites, reports The New Republic's Emily Atkins.

The list of laws waived, compiled by Atkins from a notice published Tuesday, is loooong:

  • The National Environmental Policy Act
  • The Endangered Species Act
  • The Clean Water Act
  • The National Historic Preservation Act
  • The Migratory Bird Treaty Act
  • The Migratory Bird Conservation Act
  • The Clean Air Act
  • The Archeological Resources Protection Act
  • The Paleontological Resources Preservation Act
  • The Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1988
  • The Safe Drinking Water Act
  • The Noise Control Act
  • The Solid Waste Disposal Act
  • The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
  • The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act
  • The Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act
  • The Antiquities Act
  • The Historic Sites, Buildings, and Antiquities Act
  • The Farmland Protection Policy Act
  • The Federal Land Policy and Management Act
  • Section 10 of the Reclamation Project Act of 1939
  • The National Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956
  • The Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act
  • The Administrative Procedure Act
  • The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899
  • The Eagle Protection Act
  • The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
  • The American Indian Religious Freedom Act
  • The Religious Freedom Restoration Act

It’s not the first time the administration has waived environmental regulations for the purpose of building a wall that has yet to be funded by Congress (or Mexico, for that matter). In August, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would bypass environmental rules for a 15-mile stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego.

Two takeaways:

  • These waivers underscore the broad power the Trump administration has under a 2005 law (which passed the Senate 99-0!) to increase border security.
  • And the use of that broad power is poised to further unite activists and lawyers working to oppose the Trump administration in two seeming disparate policy area — immigration and the environment.

-- Don't let the door hit you: Despite predictions to the contrary, Trump's election did not spark an immediate rush to the exits by many federal workers, BuzzFeed News' Jeremy Singer-Vine reports.

But they did leave at the highest rate in the Energy Department, which before Trump took office was asked by the transition team for a list of department employees involved in climate meetings, potentially spooking some workers to call it quits. About 2.7 percent of Energy employees left the department between December and March, BuzzFeed found. Only 1.9 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively, left during that same period following Obama's election in 2009 and George W. Bush's in 2001.

The Environmental Protection Agency, on the other hand, did not see a mass exodus despite fears among federal employees about the way EPA chief Scott Pruitt would reshape the agency. But the data analyzed here came before the EPA started making buyout offers this summer.

-- Giving 'em the full Nelson: Florida's lone Democrat in statewide office, Sen. Bill Nelson, said it's clear to him that global warming made Hurricane Irma worse. 

"It’s denying reality,” Nelson told Politico's Michael Grunwald in an interview. “You can call it politics or whatever, but the Earth is getting hotter. This storm is another reminder of what we’re going to have to deal with in the future.”

Nelson has requested that DOE create an emergency gasoline supply for the state of Florida following fuel shortages in  after Irma.

“I appreciate efforts taken to date by the DOE and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to try to expedite the flow of gasoline shipments into Florida in the wake of the storm,” Nelson wrote in a letter to Energy Secretary Perry. “At least some of these efforts, however, appear to have been hampered by the apparent lack of adequate gasoline reserves in Florida prior to the storm.”

-- Cohn in New York: Gary Cohn, the chief White House economic adviser who pushed for President Trump not to withdraw from the Paris climate accords, will meet with climate and energy ministers from about a dozen nations in New York next week, the New York Times' Lisa Friedman reports.

According to the invitation, the event will be “an opportunity for key ministers with responsibility for these issues to engage in an informal exchange of views and discuss how we can move forward most productively."

"Move forward?" When Trump announced that the United States would pull out of the Paris climate agreement, he left the tiniest crack in the door open to reentering the accord.

"We’re getting out," Trump said in a Rose Garden speech, "but we will start to negotiate and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. If we can, that’s great. And if we can’t, that’s fine."

Few took Trump's remarks seriously about the chances of reentering the climate agreement. Other nations countered that the accord wasn't up for renegotiation. 

More context: It's difficult to tell what to make of Cohn's meeting, given that Cohn may have lost sway in the White House following his public rebuke of President Trump's comments on the neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville. Cohn even reportedly drafted a resignation letter. At the same time, the loudest anti-Paris voice in the White House, former strategist Stephen K. Bannon, has unlike Cohn actually left the Trump administration.

-- Zinke zonked: Clinton’s memoir about how she was "shivved" during the 2016 election pulls very few punches against her former political opponents — including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Check out this passage about Zinke below:

EPA opens inquiry into Arkema chemical plant explosion after Harvey flooding (The Washington Examiner)

Trump administration halts pollution controls at Utah plants (Associated Press)

Interior's "unusual" transfer of senior executives spurs official probe (Joe Davidson)


-- A long road to recovery in Florida: The Edison Electric Institute warned that in the aftermath of Irma, utilities are facing what is “likely to be one of the largest industry restoration efforts in U.S. history.” There are still about 4.4 million homes and businesses in Florida without power, and parts of the storm were still swirling toward Alabama and the Carolinas, which will force utilities to wait for calmer weather to start to assess what the restoration ahead may be like, Greentech Media reported.

EEI wrote that parts of the grid will “need to be rebuilt completely before power can be restored. This will delay restoration times, and customers should be prepared for the possibility of extended power outages.” 

As The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal writes, Florida Light and Power, the state's largest electric utility, already had a "vaunted smart-grid infrastructure" built with stimulus money under the Obama administration.

"FPL’s grid was about the best the country could have brought to the table," Madrigal writes. "And now, apparently, Irma has laid waste to at least a large chunk of that system."

All that goes to show the vulnerability of the grid to extreme weather in other parts of the country where it hasn't been recently upgraded.

-- Exxon vs. New York: New York’s highest court ruled that ExxonMobil must comply with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s subpoena as the AG investigates whether the company misled investors on the risks climate change pose to Exxon's business. The court rejected Exxon’s argument that it had “accountant-client privilege” with its auditor, PricewaterhosueCoopers LLP, Bloomberg reported.

"Exxon had no legal basis to interfere with PwC's production" of documents, Schneiderman said in a statement. ”Our fraud investigation continues to move full speed ahead, despite Exxon's continued strategy of delay.”

What's happening? At first, Exxon decided to cooperate with investiagators in New York before changing tacks. So far, it seems, that strategy is not paying off. 


--“It’s a mess, a real mess:” Millions in Florida are still in the dark, with 40 percent of the state still without electricity.

“We understand what it means to be in the dark,” said Robert Gould, vice president and chief communications officer for Florida Power and Light, reports Patricia Sullivan, Mark Berman and Katie Zezima. “We understand what it means to be hot and without air conditioning. We will be restoring power day and night.”

For some Floridians who did have power, cellphone service and Internet access remained spotty.

The mayor of Naples Bill Barnett called it a “real mess.” “The biggest issue is power,” he said. “We just need power. It’s 92 degrees and the sun is out and it’s smoking out here.”

Some say it could take until Sunday to restore power to most customers in Florida, while other harder-hit areas could take longer.

President Trump is expected to visit Florida on Thursday. He tweeted about his plan this morning:

Here are a few more updates on Irma's damage and recovery efforts: 

  • The number of homes and businesses without power dropped from 5.8 million, which represents about 12 million people, to 4.4 million.
  • 60 percent of the gas stations in most of Florida’s major cities are without gas, Fox Business reported, and the shortages could persist for weeks.
  • Jacksonville, Fla. is still experiencing severe flooding, which officials have called “epic” and “historic”. Even as the city recovers from the storm, flooding will return as storm waters move from the Carolinas toward the Atlantic, Lori Rozsa reports.
  • The island of St. John of the U.S. Virgin Islands, is “now perhaps the site of Irma’s worst devastation on American soil,” writes Anthony Faiola.
  • Miami police arrested more than 50 people for looting during Irma, Reuters reported, including more than two dozen people who broke into a Walmart.

-- The deadliest part of a deadly hurricane: The Post’s Ben Guarino breaks down why storm surges are the worst part of hurricanes.

The surge is “literally just the brute force of the winds pushing the water into the land,” the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Karthik Balaguru told Guarino. And the location of the surge can be the target of catastrophe, Guarino wrote. Flooding in Jacksonville, Fla. reached record heights on Monday. The surge extended hundreds of miles up the coast, where a flash flood warning was issued into Charleston, S.C.

The Weather Channel’s Alex Wallace tweeted a before-and-after image to show how storm surge can affect an area:

And from NBC’s Amanda Plasencia:

And storm surge may be the deadliest element of hurricanes, accounting for 1,500 deaths during Hurricane Katrina, per the National Hurricane Center.

Guarino warns that scientists believe surges could get even worst because of the changing climate. He writes:

Even if carbon emissions peak in the next few decades — a very conservative scenario — surges at the end of the 21st century will be severe, Balaguru and his colleagues reported in a 2016 article in Climactic Change. They compared surges at the end of the 20th century with those predicted at the end of the 21st and calculated that the average storm surge decades from now will have increased by 25 percent to 47 percent over those 100 years prior.

-- One amazing image from NOAA: Shown simultaneously in the photograph below, taken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's weather satellite, are three hurricanes in the Atlantic along with wisps of smoke out West from 65 large wildfires there.

The Atlantic's Robinson Meyer reflected on the image, which he dubbed a "Climate-Change Ad": "It has been a stirring month for weather in North America. After a decade-long drought, two major hurricanes made landfall in the continental United States. Record-setting fires raged across the Pacific Northwest. The largest earthquake in a century struck southern Mexico."

NOAA made a GIF, too: 

Scientists say damage to Florida's coral reef has made the state more vulnerable to storm surges (Chelsea Harvey)



  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing on expanding and accelerating the deployment and use of carbon capture.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee will hold a markup on various legislation.
  • Reps. Ted Deutch and Carlos Curbelo host a Climate Solutions Caucus event focused on the impact of climate change on the tourism industry.
  • The National Save the U.S. EPA Day news conference including Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) is today.

Coming Up

  • The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions will hold an event on innovations in carbon capture and use on Thursday.
  • The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources will hold a business meeting on Thursday to consider various nominations.

The Miami-Dade police department shared a video of Sister Margaret Ann of Archbishop Carroll HS in South Florida: 

Gov. Rick Scott addresses Florida power outages: 'There's still a lot of work to do':

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) asked residents, Sept. 11, to be patient as officials try to restore power for millions of people after Hurricane Irma. (Video: Reuters)

A look at Marathon, Fla., after Hurricane Irma:

An on-the-ground look at the city of Marathon in the Florida Keys after Hurricane Irma. (Video: Dalton Bennett, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Floridians face long lines for gas after Irma:

Floridians still had to wait in long lines for gas on Sept. 12, days after Hurricane Irma disrupted fuel deliveries. (Video: Jorge Ribas, Whitney Leaming, Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

Watch a police officer help ease an elderly woman's anxiety about Irma with a dance: 

A police officer in Kissimmee, Fla., helped ease an elderly woman’s anxiety about the effects of Hurricane Irma with an adorable dance at a on Sept. 11. (Video: Osceola County Sheriff's Office)

Celebrity telethon raises almost $15 million for hurricane victims:

Scores celebrities came together on Sept. 12 to raise funds for the victims of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)