Now congressional Republicans are digging through scientists’ grant proposals

Read the full story in Grist.

When scientists across the country need money for research projects, one place they often turn is the National Science Foundation. The NSF is an independent federal agency with an annual budget of about $7 billion, which it doles out to fund about a quarter of all federally supported science research.

Of course, the agency doesn’t just give money away to anyone who asks. Proposals have to survive a rigorous review process that includes close scrutiny by a panel of top scientists in the relevant field. Competition is fierce: Of the 49,000 proposals submitted in 2013, only a fifth were ultimately funded. So as far as most scientists are concerned, an NSF grant is about the highest mark of scientific legitimacy a research project can get.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) apparently disagrees. Over the last 18 months, Smith, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has launched an aggressive campaign against what he sees as misguided money management at NSF that fritters funds away on frivolous research. Research on ridiculous things like, you know, climate change.

Behavioral Economics Applied to Energy Demand Analysis: A Foundation

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Neoclassical economics has shaped our understanding of human behavior for several decades. While still an important starting point for economic studies, neoclassical frameworks have generally imposed strong assumptions, for example regarding utility maximization, information, and foresight, while treating consumer preferences as given or external to the framework. In real life, however, such strong assumptions tend to be less than fully valid. Behavioral economics refers to the study and formalizing of theories regarding deviations from traditionally-modeled economic decision-making in the behavior of individuals. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has an interest in behavioral economics as one influence on energy demand.

Leidos Engineering, LLC (Leidos), previously known as Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), conducted research on behavioral economics and energy demand, and reports the following in the contract report in Appendix A:

  • “Research revealing that energy consumption can vary widely (by a factor of nearly three) among homes and households with nearly identical characteristics1,2
  • Research revealing widespread and consistent disconnects between attitudes and behaviors regarding the importance of the impact of energy consumption on the environment and awareness regarding energy consumption or conservation behavior3
  • A variety of papers and studies suggesting energy efficiency policies and program adjustments to address the implications of particular irrational behaviors and cognitive limitations, such as labeling schemes, framing of energy efficient choices as avoiding losses rather than making gains, replacing small value rebates with larger value lottery-based awards, among other tactics4
  • Research suggesting that households that received reports regarding their consumption relative to neighbors were demonstrated to cut their usage by 2.5 percent, in a sustained manner.
  • Research work suggesting that a large portion of subsidies for hybrid automobiles and solar panels go to free riders, who would have adopted the more energy efficient technology anyway.”

These above findings lend strong evidence to the need for the current National Energy Modeling System (NEMS) framework to continue keeping pace with either existing or developing best practices in energy economics with respect to consumer behavior. There is substantial research interest within the government, academia, and trade organization communities in consumer behavior with respect to energy demand and efficiency, especially as program funding targeting energy efficiency continues to increase. EIA hosted a technical workshop5 on behavioral economics and recently released a nationwide inventory providing detailed summaries of energy efficiency evaluation reports—commonly called evaluation, measurement, and verification (EM&V) reports6 —on electricity and natural gas programs. Energy efficiency program budgets have rapidly expanded, and in many states now approach supply-side capital investment in scale. Behavior is commonly considered a key aspect of energy efficiency programs.7

A key finding of the contract report, reflecting expert input from the technical workshop as well as subsequent research, is that the implementation of the modeling structures in NEMS has an inherent tendency to relax key assumptions in the neoclassical framework. While this finding supports the current implementation of demand modeling in NEMS, experimentation with aggregate demand specifications remains warranted. Preliminary approaches are described in the report.

The contract report in Appendix A characterizes and defines behavioral economics with respect to energy economics and demand analysis, and helps to both inform the public and to provide the information and foundational concepts for potential enhancements in EIA’s statistical and modeling programs. When referencing the contract report in Appendix A, it should be cited as a report by Leidos Engineering, LLC prepared for the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Rooftop solar is just the beginning; utilities must innovate or go extinct

Read the full post at Grist.

By now, most people are aware that solar power — particularly distributed solar power, in the form of rooftop panels — poses a threat to power utilities. And utilities are fighting back, attempting to impose additional fees and restrictions on solar customers. These skirmishes generally center on “net metering,” whereby utilities (forced by state legislation) pay customers with solar panels full retail price for the power they produce, which can often cancel out the customer’s bill entirely. That’s lost revenue for the utility.

Net metering, however, is largely a distraction, a squabble over how long utilities can cling to their familiar business model. Larger reforms are inevitable, because the threat to utilities goes far beyond solar panels and demands a response far more substantial than rate-tweaking. Sooner or later, there must be a wholesale rethinking of the utility business model. And if utilities are smart, they’ll do it sooner.

To understand why, let’s have a look at two recent analyses. One examines the short-term issue for utilities, revealing the core problem lurking within. The second pulls the lens back to take in the big picture.

Environmental indicator report 2014

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To examine what the concept of green economy means in practice and evaluate Europe’s progress in achieving this transition, in 2012 the European Environment Agency (EEA) initiated a new series of environmental indicator reports. The first two reports in the series focused on green economy and the European environment, addressing resource efficiency and resilience (EEA, 2012a), and the links between European resource demand, environmental degradation and changes in human health and well-being (EEA, 2013d).

This report provides another perspective on the green economy transition, addressing the global value chains that meet European demand for goods and services. In doing so, it goes beyond previous reports and analyses to address the global dimension of Europe’s economic activities. This perspective is highly relevant because European production and consumption systems rely heavily on imported resources and goods. In doing so, the related environmental pressures from these systems largely affect other world regions, while European consumers are unlikely to have much knowledge of these impacts and European policymakers have relatively little authority to influence them. The continuing globalisation of trade flows therefore creates a significant challenge for environmental governance.

Confronting the West’s Water Crisis

Read the full story in FutureStructure.

The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment released a new report Oct. 20 that addresses how western states can confront the crippling drought that threatens the nation’s entire water system.

The report is comprised of three papers, each of which examines particular strategies for coping with ongoing drought conditions. The first paper, Shopping for Water, advocates using market forces to manage water resources and lessen the impact and frequency of water shortages. The second paper, The Path to Water Innovation, highlights the need for innovative new technologies for promoting efficiency and conservation and suggests reviews of regulatory practices and creating statewide offices for water innovation. The third paper looks at nine economic facts about water in the United States with “the aim of providing an objective framing of America’s complex relationship with water.”

Transforming Agbogbloshie: From Toxic E-Waste Dump Into Model Recycling Center

Read the full post on the Blacksmith Institute’s Pollution Blog.

On October 9, Agbogbloshie, Ghana – one of the world’s largest e-waste dumpsites – got something new.

The sense of excitement grew when residents saw a group of about a dozen men carrying a towering sign through town before planting it in the ground and raising it up in a Herculean effort, with six men on each side pushing and pulling.

The 20-foot tall sign announced the launch of a pilot project – the opening of a new e-waste recycling facility that could transform the way recyclers work in one of the worst polluted places on earth.