It is obvious that the U.S. federal government is struggling to perform basic governance functions and, as I wrote earlier this summer, it is incapable of leading the transition to a renewable economy. Nevertheless, one of the key elements of that transition, the adoption of solar power, is well underway in the U.S. According to a new report by John Rogers and Laura Wisland, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists:
Solar is undergoing widespread and rapid growth in the U.S. ... The amount of solar PV installed in the U.S. grew by 485 percent from 2010 to 2013 ... Solar accounted for an average of 16 percent of electricity capacity installed annually in the United States from 2011 to 2013, and almost 30 percent in 2013.
They note that the price of solar systems has dropped by more than 50 percent since 2007, and that as local government permitting processes become streamlined and as financing options grow, household solar installations are becoming more feasible.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
There are a variety of obstacles to more rapid adoption of solar power. Federal, state and local tax treatment of solar varies by jurisdiction. Incentives are unpredictably phased in and phased out. The absence of smart grid technology and feed-in tariffs makes it difficult to integrate home excess solar power into the grid; utilities know how to send you energy, but they don't know how to take it back.
What is needed is a well thought through, comprehensive renewable energy program with national standards, serious funding for research and development, and clear, predictable incentives for adoption of solar power and other renewable energy technologies. This is far from realistic under the Obama White House and the Tea Party-influenced congress. The president is pursuing a meaningless "all-of-the-above" energy non-strategy and will not push renewables too hard, and the congress does not believe that government has a role to play in promoting renewable energy development and use.
One good piece of news about declining solar energy costs is that the time it will take to amortize a solar installation is coming down. If energy savings fund the cost of a solar array and the amount being saved is growing, the risk of investment is being reduced. Solar installations will pay off faster, even under current conditions. Fortunately, if you invest in today's technology and the payback period is ten years or so, you run little risk of wasting your money.
While the overall contribution of solar energy to national energy use is quite low, the potential of solar energy is quite high. For a few days this past summer, Germany generated more than 50 percent of its electricity from solar energy. In the U.S., it will take a long time for solar energy to reach Germany's levels. While our pace might be called "slow, but increasing rapidly," Europe and China are moving quickly to add solar energy to their power mix. In this country we see similar movement in California. These examples provide an indication of how rapidly renewable energy can be adopted when government policy provides the push that is needed.
The U.S. presents both enormous potential and persistent problems in pushing solar energy. The potential is in our research universities and creative, entrepreneurial culture. The computer and smart phone industry was built on a partnership between government-funded basic research and creative use of off-the-shelf technology by companies like Apple, IBM, Dell, HP and Microsoft. Research funded by the Defense Department, NOAA, NASA and the National Science Foundation has built enormous capacity in university-based research institutions. When coupled with our government's national laboratories and the applied research undertaken by the private sector, we have benefited from a nearly continuous stream of new technologies and new products generated by new industries. As I often argue, that same drive needs to be applied to renewable energy technology. If mobilized effectively, we have the potential to generate transformative technologies in renewable energy.
Unfortunately, we suffer from the persistent problem of our pay-to-play politics. The fossil fuel industry is not blind to the threat that renewable energy poses to their core business. At risk are billions of dollars invested in the technology and infrastructure of fossil fuel extraction, transport and use. At the very moment we need a determined national policy to promote renewable energy, the elected officials who might lead such an effort are in an endless competition for more and more campaign cash. Instead of investing in new solar technologies, fossil fuel companies are investing in politicians who will vote to inhibit the development of these technologies. So far they are succeeding. The "all-of-the-above" energy non-strategy is an example of the fossil fuel industry's success. It is not yet politically feasible for an American president to take a position to aggressively push for the replacement of fossil fuels. The best we could get is an argument to develop every form of energy possible. Apparently, the hope is that somehow, enough alternative energy will make it through the mix to enable renewables to take hold.
American leadership would surely speed the transition to a renewable economy. But America's absence will not prevent that transition. There will eventually be an Apple-Google-Microsoft-Amazon-like company selling us household solar energy technologies. Note that Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft are all American companies that went global in the world economy. The energy technology companies of the future may be home grown or they may come out of Europe, Latin America or Asia. The need for low-cost and reliable energy is only going to grow. The planet's need for a less destructive form of energy supply is urgent and is also growing. Engineers and businesspeople all over the world see the demand and are working to figure out a way to generate supply. In a global economy, the old line fossil fuel companies will not be able to prevent the diffusion of new technology once it is developed. Ask Kodak what happens to companies that do not change their strategies to reflect emerging technologies.
I should note that I am not in favor of taxing fossil fuels and having government raise the price of energy, but rather support increased funding in the research and development of alternative forms of energy. I also support using the tax and regulatory system to encourage the installation of available renewable energy technology. While of course the government could stop subsidizing fossil fuels, I consider that more of an artifact of a bygone age than a major impediment to the transition to renewable energy. The goal is to lower the price and convenience of renewables and make fossil fuels irrelevant.
In order of priority I think the U.S. Federal government should pursue an energy policy with these elements:
- Massive funding for research on the basic science and applied engineering of solar cells and battery technology. Significant but lesser amounts of funding should be allocated to other safe forms of energy generation and storage.
- Tax credits and regulations to require increased energy efficiency in buildings, appliances and transportation.
- Tax credits and regulations to encourage the installation of solar, wind, geothermal and similar forms of energy. Higher credits should be provided when current levels of fossil fuel use are reduced.
- A federal grant-in-aid program similar to the highway trust fund to help localities build smart grids, integrated into a national system. The funding for the program would come from a new federal tax on electricity. Feed-in tariffs would be required of state utility commissions in order to receive smart-grid grants.
I am certain there are other policies that can be pursued—these are just the ones I think would be most useful. As Rogers and Wisland found, solar power is on the rise in the U.S. even in the face of indifference from the federal government. Their piece reports overwhelming public support for solar energy and highlights the potential for increased adoption of current technology.
I agree that it is a good idea to push the technology we have, but strongly believe that what we have now is not good enough. The original cellphones were the size of a loaf of bread and look a little silly in retrospect. My hope is that the solar cells of the future will make rooftop arrays look quaint. We need to invest money and brainpower in the search for a transformative energy technology. I think the most rapid path to develop that technology requires the U.S. federal government--but it can be done without it. Even a slow boat can eventually reach the shore.
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By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.