Tuesday, June 18, 2019

How Do We Find the Best Solutions for Climate Change Both Locally and Globally, and What Challenges Persist?

by Marietta DeJulio-Burns, UNA-NCA Spring 2019 Development and Advocacy Program Assistant    

We are taking large quantities of sequestered carbon dioxide that have been locked up in our planet for millions of years and then releasing it over a couple of hundred years. It may not sound like a lot, but when you are talking geological time, that release is essentially instantaneous. It is going to have an impact. - Tony Giunta

As an undergraduate student, I often question what I can do to help tackle the problem of climate change. I recognize the will I have as an individual and the small changes that I can make to live a more sustainable lifestyle. But is that all I can do? There are many conflicting perspectives on the best ways to address climate change in the United States as well as some media sources that attempt to depreciate its harmful effects. This article attempts to provide some clarity on how climate change should be addressed and the importance of global participation for the United States utilizing an interview with Tony Giunta, an interconnected professional of both politics and science.

Tony Giunta is the current Mayor of the City of Franklin, New Hampshire.  He is also the Director of Project Development for the Nobis Group, and the founder of the American Energy Independence Company. By formal education, he is a geophysicist and has worked in the renewable energy field for several decades. Since his first term as Mayor beginning in 2000, Franklin has experienced immense growth in the renewable energy field. Despite considerable growth within the renewable energy field that has decreased its cost and increased its availability, it is his elected position as Mayor that has allowed him to decrease greenhouse emissions in his growing city. How? As Mayor, Giunta gets to appoint like-minded individuals to the Planning Board who will help support permit approvals needed for the construction of renewable energy projects proposed by developers.

In theory, those who want to see more environmental action would be strong supporters of implementing more renewable energy. If asked if they want renewable energy on their homes, their answer would be yes. So, what is preventing easy implementation of renewable energy? According to Giunta, everything comes down to cost. These individuals are willing to buy it, but they are not willing to pay more for it. How do we make renewable energy less expensive and competitive with combustible fuels? Individual localities across the country are showing us how.

I am most excited about what I am seeing from state governments from specific states that are making a solid commitment to welcome more renewable energy. States like Texas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, California, and Florida. These are states that are allowing renewable energy projects to happen on a large scale. These are places that are dedicating hundreds of thousands of acres to solar and wind, and these large-scale projects are making a very positive difference. They are moving the dial on putting renewable energy on our national electric grids.  So, I applaud these states for making these commitments...this is extremely exciting to me because as a result of their investment and commitment to renewable energy, the cost of renewable energy continues to decrease. - Tony Giunta

The commitment of these states to invest in renewable energy and encourage its building has reduced the cost of the production of renewable energy. It is these large initial investments in renewable energy that deliver a critical return on those initial investment dollars needed to pay for the equipment that is then used to build renewable energy components.  These initial components are the most expensive. It’s very much like large flat screen televisions.  The first flat screen TVs were $4-5,000.  Today, the same if not better models sell for $4-500.  Similarly, the first large scale solar panels that cost $1,000 ten years ago, cost $100 today.

Mayor Giunta emphasizes that these states are at a point where renewable energy is now the same cost, or cheaper than brown energy (energy created by burning oil, coal, and natural gas), all of which release harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. It is renewable energy that should be becoming the preferred choice for consumers. Moreover, the states that have gone above and beyond with state statutes which encourage the use of renewables have helped bring renewable energy costs down nationally. As renewable energy costs become more competitive, they should be as accepted in New England as they are to a developer in Texas.

Across the board, the cost to build renewable energy components like wind turbines and solar panels are decreasing substantially because initial investment costs for the equipment to build these components has been recovered. As a result, the unit cost for each subsequent component that rolls off the assembly line continues to go down. I deal in the renewable energy field every day and I see ever cheaper solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and other carbon neutral or minimal admitters of CO2 available right now to make a significant difference in reducing the use of fossil fuels. - Tony Giunta

This begs the question, if there are competitively priced renewable energy innovations available across the nation, why aren’t we seeing more sustainable projects?

Mayor Giunta attempted to explain the reason we don’t see more renewable energy projects by using the recent example of what happened to a renewable hydroelectric energy project proposed in his home state of New Hampshire called “Northern Pass.” As proposed, the project would import large-scale hydroelectric renewable energy from Quebec, Canada into New England by bringing the power over existing transmission lines. Eversource, the State of NH’s largest utility, spent 5 years and nearly $280 million dollars to attain all the necessary State and Federal permits. But in the end, and mainly for aesthetic reasons, their last and most important permit was denied by the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee, thus ending the project before it even began.

Not only was this large scale attempt to bring over 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy into the New England electric grid a huge waste of money, but it has shown renewable energy developers from across the world that regardless of its environmental benefit, there is no guarantee their projects would ever be approved in New Hampshire.

I am telling you that right now the technologies are there, and the technologies are cheap enough that they can compete head-to-head with fossil fuels. The problem is people don’t want these projects in their communities. As a result, developers cannot get their permits. From previous examples, developers know that if they invest $100,000, $1,000,000, or $200,000,000, that at the end of their permitting process, there’s absolutely no guarantee their project will be approved. If the end result is a project denial, you have that big risk.  So, what do you do?  You go somewhere else. You go where there’s less risk. You go to Texas. You go to Florida. You go to California, or Utah, or Nevada.  You go where you’ve seen every other developer in front of you who has gone through that same process you are about to go through get approved to build their project. - Tony Giunta

The problem is not that green technology does not exist or is too expensive, it is that impactful, well-engineered projects are getting rejected. Why? Politicians need to get re-elected by their constituents and thus, their actions are influenced by the support of their constituents. Regardless if people truly believe in climate change and fully support renewable energy, if a proposed project threatens their view, open space, job, or livelihood, they will protest this action. In the end, politicians support actions that their constituents support, and although many want to take action against climate change, when they believe their actions will go contrary to their constituents’ wishes, they deny renewable energy developers from building their projects.

The Northern Pass project would have added about 15 miles of new transmission towers to an existing 192-mile transmission corridor with minimal impact to existing infrastructure.  But the public didn’t want change.  A similar New England natural gas pipeline upgrade proposal that would have increased capacity of the pipeline to deliver lower carbon emitting natural gas to replace dirtier coal and oil fuels was also recently rejected by regulating authorities. Two of the reasons for denial cited were it would have disrupted family backyard structures illegally placed on the existing pipeline’s right-of-way and it would have increased the danger of explosions.  The irony is, updating this 50-year-old pipeline would have made these lines safer. However, families filled town halls in protest and as a result, the developer simply walked away from the project. Thus, some of the same citizens advocating for renewable energy were the same families who showed up at public hearings to oppose the very projects they say we need to save our planet.

How can the average citizen help renewable energy developers actually successfully implement their projects?  And what in particular should we be demanding of our lawmakers? In the words of Tony Giunta:

At the end of the day, we all need to go back to our constituents and ask for their vote.  As the famous New England politician, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Niell once said, “all politics is local!”. Meaning, when my constituent “Joe” meets me at the local grocery store, pulls me aside and says, “your stance on X, Y, or Z, will negatively impact my job, my family, my livelihood, and I am not voting for you ever again if you continue to push your stance!” influences my decisions. This is what it comes down to.

And so, what can the local person do to help promote renewable energy? They can come out and help vocally support renewable energy projects in their communities.  When renewable energy projects are proposed, go to your Planning Board meetings, Zoning Board meetings, get up and speak in favor of these projects.  You can also go out and challenge people who are running for office by asking how they will encourage the use of renewable energy. Ask politicians how they will reduce the obstacles to renewable energies getting built in your town, your city, your state, and in our country. You can ask them what they’ll do to make it easier for renewable energy projects to get built.

The local person has the most power in this process because they are the ones who vote for their local elected officials and put individuals in power. They can make it difficult for elected officials to deny renewable energy projects or make it more difficult for officials to implement renewable energy projects.

Supporting renewable energy projects, questioning officials, and continuing to advocate for renewable energy are ways to promote these green projects locally, but what are the best ways to achieve progress globally?

How can we halt the negative effects of climate change through making our energy sector greener without affecting the economy or our day-to-day lives? Many people fear the perceived consequences of changing the energy sector.

However, Mayor Giunta has used his 30 years’ experience in politics to influence how he interacts with fellow members of his city council, especially those who do not think exactly like him.

I am blinded by the things that I do not believe in or do not understand. But if I am open-minded and want to come to the best solution, I listen to the person who disagrees with me the most because that is the area where I am blinded by not understanding. But once I am able to understand their position, I am always open to shifting my position especially if they are able to be open-minded to my ideas and compromise accordingly. In the end, it is not giving up ground or feeling like I lost the debate if I change my stance based on good, solid reasoning to do so. Unlike politicians on the national stage, I don’t take it personally if my original position becomes a better group position.  In the end, I’d like to be remembered for having fostered a cooperative environment where we found the best possible solution to the issue at hand. - Tony Giunta

On a global level, the United Nations Environmental Programme has provided the platform through the Paris Agreement to allow world leaders to come together and have open discussions about solving this issue that requires collective action. The appeal of the Paris Agreement is that leaders were able to speak about the needs of their country, whether it was their economic reliance on coal or an ambition to convert to nuclear energy. This discussion allowed leaders to better understand other countries’ interests and learn what prevented them from moving away from brown energy.

The Paris Agreement allowed each country to decide their own commitment based on their own capabilities. Tony Giunta explained how forcing other countries to take certain actions without truly understanding their full capabilities can be inhibiting to successful negotiations. Consider this example:

For example, leaders must understand that if my country is 90% dependent on coal, it’s no wonder I don’t want to use less coal. What is my alternative? I am terrified that I will be told that I can only use 10% of my coal. However, if everybody else understands my situation and my mindset, it can result in a better solution. If they say, “let’s work together to reduce your carbon output and we will make an agreement to send you the following sustainable technologies if you agree to reduce your coal usage by 20%.” Now, under those cooperative conditions, what would the coal using nation say? “I’m in!” But if everyone else looks at me and says, “too bad, we are forcing you to give up coal right now and you just have to accept it!” I am going to get up and I am going to walk out because my population is completely reliant on coal.  - Tony Giunta

On the other hand, if one country wants to move rapidly into renewable energy, then other countries who have previous experience in this field can help them. Sharing research can help countries with the efficiency of this transition and help reduce costs, but at times, this is slowed down by the desire to stay competitive and the particularities of patents that protect the rights of this information from being shared. People often forget that climate change is severe, and it will be catastrophic for all humans in just a short couple of years.

Picture this: we, the world community, are all in one big automobile. We just pulled into our massively large garage and closed the door. We are all in the car and the engine is running. All of us are in the same car, breathing the same build-up of carbon monoxide that will eventually kill every one of us. As soon as we all realize that, whether in Saudi Arabia or Taiwan, we are all breathing the same amount of poisonous molecules and we all need to get on the same page.  - Tony Giunta

I asked Mayor Giunta about if he would make any changes to the structure of the Paris Agreement. He believes one of the biggest strengths of the Paris Agreement is its ability to bring world leaders together, but he wants to see more of these discussions happening. The worst is when world leaders walk away from the table and agree not to meet again.

The Paris Agreement should be called the Paris Conferences or the Paris Continuing Resolutions or the Paris Approach to Solving Global Climate Change. It is not a one-time three-day event where everyone signs documents, feels good about themselves, then go to supper. This is not the way to solve it. It was a misnomer to call it the Paris Accord and for all of us to think that everyone that signed it would live by it forever. No way. It is a living document and needs to change. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone who met agreed to meet on a yearly basis or a quarterly basis or a semi-annual basis? Make it an open forum where countries feel comfortable saying they missed their targets and other countries can say, how can we help? Better yet, a chance for everyone to get together and hear from those who met their goals and share how they did it.  - Tony Giunta

Mayor Giunta’s commitment to renewable energy perfectly embodies the often uttered “think globally, act locally.” As an undergraduate student, Mayor Giunta has taught me more efficient ways to advocate for action against climate change, particularly involving renewables. Most importantly, he taught me that the ability to be open-minded is necessary, both locally and globally. The developers and citizens in local areas need to be understanding of each other's interests and needs. Evidently, both the support of the citizens and the capabilities of the developers are vital components in completing successful projects. At the global level, the United Nations Environmental Programme has provided the forum for world leaders to gather and have open-discussions on climate change, but it requires a willingness for each leader present to be an active team player and understand each other's positions.

No one ever said the solution is easy, but before we are able to find the best solution possible, we need to work on understanding each other as individuals first.

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