Welcome back to The Planet You Save May Be Your Own, a weekly newsletter on local & state climate action.
Happy anniversary, The Planet You Save.
Two years ago, sitting in a beautiful college campus office in Rhode Island and not more than a little panicking about what exactly I was going to do now, I started writing what became the first relaunched edition of this newsletter. (I actually first started TPYS all the way back in 2016 — thanks to the readers who have been around that long!)
September 2021 doesn’t feel very long ago at all. A lot has changed; a lot hasn’t. The “X years to save the planet” rhetoric has faded a bit, in part because the disasters of climate change are already here, and because I do think people are actually moving away from that kind of thinking. To be clear, we are already late to limit some of climate change in many ways that matter; but not too late to prevent the worst case scenario.
For the second anniversary of this newsletter, I want to take a look at some of what’s changed since fall of ’21.
If you’ve been a reader for one edition or all two years or even before then, thank you. Want to celebrate with me? Share this or your favorite edition with someone you think would enjoy it or on whatever social media you’re actually enjoying these days.
It would be impossible to talk about what’s changed over the past two years without mentioning the Inflation Reduction Act .
It’s a giant grab bag of a law — the IRA also includes policy on healthcare and enforcing tax law — but the lion’s share is explicitly about reducing carbon pollution in the US To a smaller extent, some of the elements of the earlier infrastructure law — EV infrastructure, electric school buses — also have this goal.
How much will these laws lower US emissions remains to be seen. That’s because it encourages investments in all sorts of emissions reductions but relies on businesses, individuals and local governments to take that action.
Sure, the tax credits and rebates to Americans for things like heat pumps, EVs, and solar panels, will play a big part. So will the money for larger projects for businesses that undertake them. But as the Economy Policy Institute writes the law’s “direct pay” policy, is a new way to expand that impact:
These direct pay provisions allow parties to receive the subsidies even if they do not have tax liability themselves. This means that non-profit entities and state and local governments (including school districts) that decide to undertake clean energy or efficiency investments will receive incentives. This gives concerned citizens who want to lobby their state and local governments to undertake smart investments a huge potential tool—one that is already being used to great effect.
It’s been one year since this law was passed. It’s still too early to see if its working as intended, and there are other bottlenecks and potential issues with credits for less proven technologies, but has absolutely changed how state and local governments can approach this — even if they are saying no
Back in Sept 2021, about 3.2 GW of large, utility-scale batteries were connected to the grid in the US - mostly in California, charging when solar power is cheap in the middle of the day and then discharging after the sun went down. In two years, that number has quadrupled, growing sharply in places like California and Texas.
Those are exactly the places that needed it. California has worried about increasingly hot summers straining grids for several years now, and when Texas sweltered under a multi-week heat dome earlier this year, batteries were credited, from local media to the Washington Post to the Wall Street Journal for helping to prevent blackouts amid record high electricity demand.
It’s not all magic — a few large-scale battery plants had fires in New York this summer, and had to be taken offline temporarily. But there are multiple ways to store energy beyond very large lithium batteries, as Canary Media notes in their explanation of how these batteries contributed to balancing the electrical grid:
Right now, the volume of electricity stored in batteries and returned to the grid in California and Texas is just a drop in the bucket of those states’ ample consumption.
But the value batteries provide isn’t so much from bulk-shifting clean energy; it’s in delivering bursts of power at key moments with lightning-fast response times. Battles with grid outages, much like modern presidential elections, are won or lost on the margins. The few thousand megawatts that batteries can instantly contribute to those states in moments of crisis spell the difference between rolling blackouts and a control room full of sweaty but relieved grid operators.
In terms of the transition to clean energy, this means that batteries are taking on more of the role served by fossil-gas peaker plants, which don’t run all the time but fire up for several hours at a time in response to high demand. Lithium-ion batteries today can only keep up their full-strength discharge for a few hours; that’s why numerous startups and the Department of Energy are pushing to commercialize long-duration storage technologies.
The US has been a net exporter of gas since 2017 , oil since 2020, and has always been a coal exporter, but over the past two years, the amount of fossil gas being sent overseas as LNG has shot up. In the first half of 2023, the United States was the world’s top exporter of LNG. With new LNG terminals coming online that will continue to grow over the next few years
To the gas industry and a significant chunk of American politicians, that’s actually a climate win. The idea is that gas is displacing coal — and its more concentrated carbon emissions — across the world. This is an exceptionally hard thing to prove, in part because its unclear how much methane — a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide — leaks along the US gas supply chain, potentially making the overall effect worse than coal.
Either way, the impact of increased gas export is felt locally in the US — especially in the basins producing this gas in Texas, New Mexico, Appalachia, and elsewhere, as well as in the communities that host the LNG processing facilities — almost all along the Gulf Coast. And it’s creating an odd dichotomy: as the US’ own emissions from the electrical grid and transport continue to drop from increased renewables and EVs, it’s projected to grow its fossil fuel exports even more.
Last week, paid members got a chance to see and vote on some of the story ideas I’m considering. You become a paid member here and get every bonus edition, plus a few extra surprises. Next week: an interview with someone who has rearranged how I think about all the stuff we own and how to lessen our climate impact from it.