Equilibrium & Sustainability

‘Virtual’ power plants get a boost

Google, Ford, General Motors and a group of solar energy producers are joining forces to innovative a virtual solution to the rising pressures on the electric grid. 

The companies announced Tuesday they are signing on to the Virtual Power Plant Partnership (VP3), an initiative by clean energy think tank Rocky Mountain Institute.

Virtual power plants are pools of decentralized energy resources — like smart thermostats, plugged-in electric vehicle (EV) batteries or electric heaters — that can be turned on or off to create a form of dispatchable power for overtaxed grids.

The Inflation Reduction Act — the Biden administration’s climate spending package — contains considerable tax incentives for a wide array of electric devices, from heat pumps to solar panels, which can be used together to smooth the grid if properly coordinated.

Such technology “is increasingly going to be required to make sure that the grid remains resilient, that we avoid blackouts and that we enable the grid to become cleaner and greener,” said Parag Chokshi, director of Google’s Nest Renew, told Reuters. 

“The next 12 to 24 months are critical for policy and program development to seize the potential offered by virtual power plants, and VP3 is here to ensure that the energy transition doesn’t miss a beat,” Mark Dyson of the Rocky Mountain Institute said in a statement. 

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send tips and feedback. Subscribe here.

Today we’ll start in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) unveiled his 2023 budget proposal, followed by a look at why the Federal Reserve is staying out of climate policy. Plus: A hidden danger facing children living near small airports. 

Newsom’s budget proposal includes climate cuts

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Tuesday unveiled a 2023 state budget proposal that includes significant cuts to climate investments, announcing the measure as a relentless storm system batters California’s coast. 

Bridging the gap: California is now facing an estimated budget gap of $22.5 billion for the 2023-2024 fiscal year, which the governor attributed to declines in capital gains taxes. 

  • Although the state has $35.6 billion in budgetary reserves, including $22.4 billion in its “budget stabilization account,” the shortfall has led to some major cuts across the board. 
  • “We’re not touching the reserves because we have a wait-and-see approach to this budget,” Newsom said at a press conference where he released the new budget proposal

Reductions on the way: Regardless of the shortfalls, Newsom emphasized that climate initiatives for the most part were unscathed in the new budget proposal. 

  • His budget proposal maintains $48 billion — 89 percent of last year’s $54 billion allocation — in climate investments over the next five years. 
  • And while the proposal includes a variety of new climate investments, several key initiatives would see significant cuts.  

Prioritizing flood mitigation: Chief among the new investments added to the proposal is $201.1 million toward protecting California from the effects of floods. 

  • “I’ll be off after this, down to the Central Coast,” the governor said, recalling the “conveyor belt of storms” that have been pummeling the region. 
  • In addition to flood-related funds, other new climate investments outlined in the proposal are a $125 million drought contingency fund as well as $31.5 million for modernizing water rights. 

And what’s getting cut? The proposal would reduce investments for water resilience programs and cleanup efforts of toxic forever chemicals — with each area maintaining 95 percent and 65 percent of funding, respectively. 

Leaning on federal support: Newsom justified the reductions to climate investments within the budget by reminding reporters that California has now received $48 billion through federal legislation signed into law by President Biden.

Read more here.

Chair: The Fed ‘will not be climate policymaker’

The Federal Reserve will largely stay out of climate regulation, Chairman Jerome Powell announced in a speech on Tuesday.

  • “We are not, and will not be, a ‘climate policymaker,’” Powell said. 
  • Decisions about climate policy ”should be made by the elected branches of government and thus reflect the public’s will as expressed through elections,” he said. 

The independent financial regulator will restrict itself to certain “narrow, but important, responsibilities regarding climate-related financial risks,” Powell added.  

Behind the news: The speech sought to pour cold water on both sides of the dispute over whether federal agencies like the Fed should regulate climate risk.

  • On one side are climate hawks, who believe climate change represents a serious threat to economic stability and therefore falls within the Fed’s purview.
  • On the other side are conservatives who have sought to portray climate financial regulation as a political overreach. 

One area the Fed is watching: The independent financial regulator will monitor whether banks are properly accounting for and managing their risks around climate change — regardless of how they choose to invest, Powell wrote.

  • The public has a right to expect that the Fed will “require that banks understand, and appropriately manage, their material risks,” he said. 
  • This includes “the financial risks of climate change,” he added. 

Kids living near airports face high exposure to lead

Children who live near airports may be exposed to dangerous concentrations of lead, according to a new study in PNAS Nexus. 

Distance matters: The decadelong investigation determined that kids who lived adjacent to the Reid-Hillview Airport in Santa Clara County, Calif., had elevated lead levels in their blood. 

The closer that a child lived to the airport, the greater the probability that their blood lead level exceeded California’s state-defined threshold of 4.5 micrograms per deciliter, according to the study

Wasn’t lead fuel banned? Only for cars. The Clean Air Act of 1970 led to the phase-out of tetraethyl lead from automotive gasoline, the authors noted.  

  • This move had dramatic implications on the blood-lead levels of children. 
  • Nonetheless, leaded gasoline remains a standard part of aviation, as the fuel is used by about 170,000 piston-engine aircraft nationwide. 

What are piston-engine aircraft? Such aircraft have one or more piston-powered engine — a type of reciprocating internal combustion engine — connected to a propeller to provide the vehicle with thrust, according to the National Business Aviation Association. 

Piston-engine aircraft typically use “low-leaded” fuel and fly relatively short missions at altitudes below 15,000 feet, per the Washington, D.C.-based trade organization. 

Low-lead is not no-lead: While such planes may be low-leaded, the use of lead-formulated aviation gasoline is responsible for up to two-thirds of lead emissions in the U.S. today, according to the PNAS Nexus study. 

And those emissions are affecting children who live in the vicinity of these airports, the researchers stressed. 

What did they find? The authors, from Colorado State University, analyzed 14,000 blood samples children under 6 years of age from 2011 through 2020. 

  • For children living a mile or more away from the airport, the probability that a blood sample exceeded the threshold was 21.4 percent lower than for children living within a half-mile of the airport. 
  • Children who lived east — downwind — of the airport were 2.18 times more likely to present a blood lead level above this limit.  

To read more about these findings, and what the authors described as a “compelling need” to reduce lead emissions in aviation, click here for the full story.

Transport Tuesday

Biden administration reveals how the U.S. transport sector could get to net-zero by 2050, Britain’s first satellite launch ends in failure and electric vehicle (EV) purchases soar in China. 

Biden administration unveils road map for net-zero transportation 

  • The Biden administration on Tuesday laid out a road map for curbing emissions from the transportation sector to net-zero by 2050, our colleague Rachel Frazin reported. The road map includes both shorter- and longer-term policies, such as selling more electric vehicles, investing in public transportation and prioritizing walking and biking.   

Britain’s first satellite launch attempt ends in failure 

  • Virgin Orbit’s attempt to launch the first set of satellites from British soil Monday night did not go as planned, leading to the loss of all nine satellites on board, our colleague Amy Thompson reported. The nine small satellites included equipment from the British Ministry of Defense, the British government, Poland, the Sultanate of Oman and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. 

Chinese car buyers going electric 

  • Chinese auto-buyers bought five times as many electric vehicles (EVs) in 2022 as Americans did, The Wall Street Journal reported. About 5.67 million plug-in hybrids and battery EVs sold in China last year — nearly twice as many as the year before, according to the Journal. 

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for more and check out other newsletters here. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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