THE LIGHTBULB

Note to readers: Dino is on vacation this week. Juliet Eilperin, The Washington Post's senior national affairs correspondent, wrote today's Lightbulb. Follow her here.

You may have missed the fact that exactly one week ago two major solar power plants, with a combined generating capacity of 179 megawatts, shifted into commercial operation on Bureau of Land Management property in southern Nevada. It’s totally understandable, since the Interior Department didn’t even issue a news release (although its Nevada state director did show up for the formal opening ceremony, and provides a quote for a solar firm’s publicity package).

The launch of Switch Station 1 and Switch Station 2, which deliver electricity to massive data centers in Las Vegas and Reno, highlights the fact that solar power is still expanding in the United States even if President Trump rarely mentions it (despite his talk of a solar-powered border wall). The nation’s solar output rose 47 percent for the first three quarters of 2017, according the Energy Department — and the switch stations mark the first utility-scale energy facility built on BLM land through a streamlined process the Obama administration established in 2014.

Backers of the project — which include First Solar (which built it); EDF Renewable Energy (which runs it); and the Nature Conservancy (which developed the plan to offset its environmental impacts) — say it proves that federal land has tremendous renewable energy potential if the planning is done right. The project lies within the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone, one of 19 zones that Interior identified as ideal for large projects, and siting it there cut the permitting time in half and reduced its cost to 3.8 cents per kilowatt hour.

The span of the two stations stretches across about 1,797 acres. It boasts 1,980,840 solar panels and generates enough energy to meet the demand of 46,000 homes. Switch, a major data center operator, is tapping the energy as part of its plan to be powered by 100 percent renewable energy.

“The administration is completely supportive of ‘all of the above’ energy,” BLM Nevada director John Ruhs said in an interview Sunday, adding that when it comes to large-scale solar projects on BLM land, “It’s just the first of more that are coming, especially for Nevada, and probably California, as well.”

Deploying renewable energy on federal land ranked as a high priority during the previous administration. A year ago, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that the department had approved 60 such utility-scale projects, including 36 solar, 11 wind and 13 geothermal plans.

The GOP tax overhaul bill that could pass as soon as this week keeps key production and investment tax credits that have boosted investment in solar and wind power, which has eased fears within the renewable energy sector.

But these companies still have some concerns about another provision aimed at preventing multinational firms from taking advantage of the U.S. tax code, on the grounds that it might curb investors’ ability to claim a part of production or investment credits. More broadly, the Trump administration’s emphasis on spurring fossil fuel production nationwide has raised questions about the outlook for renewable energy projects on federal land and in federal waters.

The Nature Conservancy helped develop the $6.9 million restoration project that will offset the solar plant’s environmental impact by improving desert tortoise habitat about a 45-minute drive away. John Zablocki, its Mojave Desert program director, said in an interview Saturday that the stations’ launch “shows there’s a better way of doing things.” Now, he added, “It’s a question of whether that will continue. I’m confident it will here in Nevada. Stay tuned.”

 

 

POWER PLAYS

-- They spoke out, then their emails were requested: The New York Times's Eric Lipton and Lisa Freidman report that shortly after three EPA employees spoke out against the department's direction, requests were submitted by a lawyer working for a GOP campaign group for copies of their emails mentioning chief Scott Pruitt, President Trump or that included communication with Democratic lawmakers.

The requests came from an attorney for "America Rising, a Republican campaign research group that specializes in helping party candidates and conservative groups find damaging information on political rivals, and which, in this case, was looking for information that could undermine employees who had criticized the E.P.A ...

Now a company affiliated with America Rising, named Definers Public Affairs, has been hired by the E.P.A. to provide 'media monitoring,' in a move the agency said was intended to keep better track of newspaper and video stories about E.P.A. operations nationwide."

One EPA employee whose emails were targeted called it a “witch hunt” against EPA "employees who are only trying to protect human health and the environment[.]" But the EPA fiercely defended its $120,000 contract with Definers, with a spokesman saying that the group was hired as a clippings service at a rate of $87,000 cheaper than the previous vendor -- and that the company isn't providing any other services. 

-- Taking aim at the "resistance:" One of the top executives at Definers has spent the past year investigating EPA employees critical of the administration, report the Times's Lipton and Friedman in a separate piece.

"A vice president for the firm, Allan Blutstein, federal records show, has submitted at least 40 Freedom of Information Act requests to the E.P.A. since President Trump was sworn in. Many of those requests target employees known to be questioning management at the E.P.A. since [Pruitt] was confirmed ... 

Mr. Blutstein, in an interview, said he was taking aim at 'resistance' figures in the federal government, adding that he hoped to discover whether they had done anything that might embarrass them or hurt their cause.

'I wondered if they were emailing critical things about the agency on government time and how frequently they were corresponding about this,' he said. 'And did they do anything that would be useful for Republicans.'”

-- Red Team, BlueTeam, paused:  The Trump administration is putting on hold Pruitt’s “red team, blue team” exercise to debate the science on climate change, E&E News reported. Trump has told Pruitt he supports his plan, but it has sparked divisions within the administration, per the report.

The effort was put on hold following a meeting at the White House, which included EPA air chief Bill Wehrum, Trump energy aide Mike Catanzaro and deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn.

More: "Trump has privately told Pruitt he supports a public debate to challenge mainstream climate science, administration officials told E&E News. But the administration isn't unified behind the idea, and an official said prior to this week's meeting that 'Pruitt has not been given authorization to go ahead with red team, blue team; there are still many issues to be ironed out.'"

-- Permits continue: The U.S. government is still granting permits to hunters looking to import elephant remains from Zimbabwe, The Post’s Darryl Fears reported. Between January 2016 and October 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted 16 people permits in 11 states, Fears reports, citing information from the nonprofit environmental group Friends of Animals. But the permits were for trophies from elephants shot before 2014, when the Obama administration first established the import ban.

The report follows Trump’s decision to postpone Fish and Wildlife’s announcement last month that it would lift the Obama-era ban.

-- A leak at the EPA, and this one spilled sewage: E&E News reported Friday morning that plumbing issues at the EPA caused water fountains at agency headquarters to overflow with sewage.

EPA employees received an email Friday morning about the issue.

"There is a water line back up in the William Jefferson Clinton North Building that is causing the hallway water fountains to leak throughout the building in the 400 and 500 Corridors," the email said, per the report. "GSA is working this issue right now. There is no estimated time for resolution."

Some social media users were quick to point out the irony of such as leak at the agency: 

The Center for Responsive Politics' Robert Maguire shared an image:

From a March for Truth national co-organizer:

From the clean air director and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council:

-- Follow the money: Texas state records don't indicate how the state is using billions in federal aid to help with recovery following Hurricane Harvey, the Associated Press reports. While a large portion of the $11 billion in federal disaster aid received has been channeled through federal agencies, which keep public records of spending, it has been more difficult to track federal funding that is being distributed by the state, per the report.

Public records show that as of Dec. 12, FEMA has paid $1.47 billion for hotel bills and emergency home repairs following the storm in Texas, the Small Business Administration has paid $2.84 billion in low-interest loans to homeowners and businesses, and the National Flood Insurance Program has doled out $6.87 billion in insurance.

The AP notes more than $500 million has gone to Texas to reimburse state agencies and local jurisdictions for relief work -- including debris removal, power restoration and emergency repairs. But exactly how much money has been spent through the state has not yet been disclosed. 

The U.S. House natural resources committee chairman on Friday invited outdoor retailer Patagonia's CEO to testify before the panel after the company criticized the Trump administration's decision to drastically reduce two national monuments in Utah.
Reuters
The final text of the legislation reverses language in earlier versions that could have slowed the growth of renewable energy.
The New York Times
THERMOMETER

-- California is still burning: The Thomas fire in Southern California is still raging, with more than 8,000 firefighters battling what is now the third-largest fire in the state’s history, fueled by continuing Santa Ana winds. On Sunday morning, the San Fernando Valley experienced wind gusts of up to 70 mph in some areas, per the Los Angeles Times. The fire as of Sunday evening had burned through 279,000 acres and was 45 percent contained. Lighter winds into Sunday evening allowed firefighters to gain some ground in battling the flames. 

According to the LA Times, winds are expected to stay calmer Monday and Tuesday to 10 to 20 mph before they kick up again on Wednesday and Thursday in the region.

The firefighting effort had surpassed $104 million in costs as of Saturday, officials said, Max Ufberg and Danielle Paquette report for The Post.

CNN reports that the Thomas Fire is on track to become the largest wildfire in the state’s modern history. The 2003 Cedar Fire, which burned through 273,246 acres, currently holds that spot.

Sophisticated systems are protecting art collections, from the Getty to the Whitney, from the effects of climate change.
Bloomberg
Speaking of Science
Alongside sessions about the ocean and Mars, AGU offers a congressional call-a-thon and legal advice for activist scientists.
Sarah Kaplan
LOCAL ENVIRONS

-- A power outage halted operation on Sunday at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the busiest in the world. The Post’s Faiz Siddiqui reported the outage was caused by a fire at Georgia Power’s underground electrical facility. The utility said the fire caused extensive damage, which resulted in more than 1,000 flights canceled from the busy hub and thousands of travelers stranded. No areas outside of the airport were affected. Shortly after midnight, power to all concourses had been restored, according to the Associated Press.  

Georgia Power updated customers on social media throughout the nearly 11-hour outage:

Images and videos shared on social media show stranded passengers waiting in the dark at the airport.

 

Former Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx weighed in:

The latest from Puerto Rico:

CBS New’s David Begnaud shared the latest details from Puerto Rico's relief efforts in response to outrage about the power outage at Atlanta's airport:

-- A new report has found that the island is in urgent need of housing for tens of thousands of residents, the AP reports. The report, from Refugees International, also criticized the response and relief efforts following the storm. Eric Schwartz, the group’s president and a former State Department official told the AP that “there was a failure of leadership and a failure to appreciate the magnitude of the situation and the need for extraordinary action by U.S. officials.”

With 69 percent of power restored on the island, there are still about 600 people left in shelters, according to the AP. And more than 130,000 people have left Puerto Rico for the mainland United States. 

-- The New York Times reports on the small gestures that have slowly helped to rebuild the island: "... the day-to-day task of looking after one another and digging out from the storm, sometimes block by block, has fallen largely to Puerto Ricans, and most have done so with intimate gestures of compassion and solidarity," writes Lizette Alvarez. 

-- Jeremy Konyndyk, a former Obama administration director for foreign disaster assistance at USAID, writes for The Monkey Cage blog on whether federal disaster relief failures can be blamed for the reported wave of secondary deaths in Puerto Rico.  

Back-to-back hurricanes destroyed hundreds of boats that were people’s livelihoods and even homes.
The New York Times
DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosts the launch of the International Energy Agency’s analysis and forecasts to 2022.

Coming Up

  • The Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy holds a  U.S. Offshore Wind Research and Development Consortium Informational Webinar on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Transportation & Infrastructure will hold a hearing on freight movement on Wednesday.
EXTRA MILEAGE

Here are the top ten fact checks of 2017:

"My people were very upset about it," President Trump says after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III obtained emails from the transition team:

In Saturday Night Live's cold open, Alec Baldwin as President Trump reflects on his "amazing first year in office:"

Watch SNL's Weekend Update on Omarosa's White House exit: