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Stories for May/June 2020
Message from the Director
As the country mourns the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade, the latest victims in our long history of systemic racism and police brutality, the Nicholas Institute pledges more than outrage.

Over the past week we have sought input from our staff on how we can do better, as individuals and as an organization, to contribute to addressing these injustices. We are making a sustained commitment to starting the process by:

  • Ensuring that racial equity frameworks and analyses inform more of our environmental policy work,
  • Setting aside regular times to better educate ourselves, and
  • Interrogating uncomfortable truths about our own structures.

We support the Black community, the call for justice, and a dismantling of structural racism. We hope this is only the beginning of true change. We are ready to listen and learn how to help make it so.

Tim Profeta
Director, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
Analysis Offers Systematic Look at State of Policies to Address Oceanic Plastic Pollution
Plastic pollution along the coast
Governments at every level have taken steps over the last decade to reduce the flow of plastic pollution into the world’s oceans, according to a new Duke University policy analysis. The analysis finds, however, that the vast majority of new policies have focused specifically on plastic shopping bags, and more study needs to be done to determine whether they have worked.

To conduct the analysis, researchers from Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the Nicholas School of the Environment compiled an inventory of nearly 300 subnational, national, and international policies instituted between 2000 and mid-2019 to target plastic pollution.
Report: Policies That Invest in Rural America Enable Natural Climate Solutions to Take Hold
Cover photo for Rural Investment report
Rural America—particularly farms, ranches, and forests—is vital to addressing climate change, but rural voters tend to view governmental environmental policy measures with skepticism. A new report by the Nicholas Institute outlines a series of natural climate solution policy ideas aimed at investing in rural communities in a way that earns their political support while sinking carbon.

The report examines specific policy options capable of meeting these dual goals, including use of Farm Bill conservation programs, a carbon bank, modified carbon offsets, and tax incentives for financing natural climate solutions. It also recommends that Congress examine investments in ways to expand sustainably produced bioenergy, including renewable natural gas; forest products markets; and jobs that will support agricultural and forestry carbon sequestration activities.
Action Plan Provides Recommendations for Natural and Working Lands to Help Meet NC Climate Goals
Forests, wetlands, agricultural lands, and coastal habitats cover 88 percent of North Carolina. Natural and working lands are places where North Carolinians live, work, and play, and they provide fundamental economic, social, and environmental benefits. As the new North Carolina Natural and Working Lands Action Plan recognizes, these lands are also a key part of efforts to make the state more resilient to the effects of climate change and to reduce carbon emissions that are causing it.

The Nicholas Institute’s Ecosystem Services Program has developed a series of interactive story maps to visualize the data behind the action plan. As the program’s Lydia Olander and Katie Warnell discuss in the video above, the maps provide on-the-ground examples of how these lands could be managed or conserved to store carbon, increase community resilience, and provide additional benefits to people and the environment.

Olander and Warnell also coordinated work on the floodplains, wetlands, and buyouts sections of the state’s action plan.
Coronavirus Conversations: How the Electric Power Sector is Weathering the Pandemic
The electric power sector is facing major operational challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jennie Chen, the Nicholas Institute's senior counsel for federal energy policy, joined industry experts June 1 for a panel discussion of how the electric power sector is weathering these challenges—and what the impact might be for the energy transition.

The conversation was presented in partnership with the Duke Initiative for Science & Society, the Duke Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, and the Duke University Energy Initiative.
Coalition Releases Set of Principles
for Green Recovery from COVID Pandemic
The Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership, a coalition of organizations that includes the Nicholas Institute, has released a set of 10 principles for how infrastructure investments under COVID-19 economic recovery packages can be more sustainable and resilient.

The document encourages countries to make decisions on infrastructure spending based on strategic planning aligned with the United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Climate Agreement. Other principles call for steps to avoid future crises, quickly boost employment, and protect ecosystems and biodiversity.
Former FERC Commissioners Weigh In on Challenge to EPA Air Rule
On April 24, eight former commissioners—including five former chairs—of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission submitted a “friend of the court” brief to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to offer their energy expertise to the Court in a challenge to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s latest power sector carbon rule. The brief was written and filed by Kate Konschnik, a senior lecturing fellow at Duke Law School who also serves as director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Nicholas Institute.

The former FERC commissioners who signed onto the brief were appointed by presidents from both parties and collectively served on the Commission for a total of 42 years, spanning nearly the entirety of its existence. The group includes Norman Bay, a former FERC chair who is now a non-resident senior fellow at Duke. Bay assisted Konschnik in preparing the brief.
Seven Duke Research Projects Receive
Catalyst Program Grants
The Nicholas Institute has awarded seed funding to seven interdisciplinary research projects for Fiscal Year 2020–2021 through the Catalyst Program.

Now in its fourth year, the Catalyst Program aims to build on the Nicholas Institute’s mission by increasing engagement with Duke faculty to incubate and advance new partnerships, enhance policy-relevant knowledge, and create innovative policy solutions based on new creative synergies.

Katie Warnell, Lydia Olander, Taylor Minich, Allison Killea, and Fizzy Fan

The concept of ecosystem services has been formalized into U.S. Forest Service decision-making over the past decade in response to the 2012 Forest Planning Act and Agency regulations and directives, but many practical questions remain about how to do this most effectively. ... Some of the models commonly used by the USFS do not yet include many ecosystem services outcomes, but there are other predictive models designed for ecosystem services that might help fill such gaps. This project explores how these non-USFS models could be combined with existing USFS models to provide a fuller analysis of ecosystem services outcomes from different management scenarios. We used an ecosystem service conceptual model as a framework to examine the utility of currently available predictive models for quantifying the effects of fire and timber management on ecosystem services and socioeconomic outcomes.

Jonathan Phillips, Victoria Plutshack, and Seth Yeazel

This brief explores the successful rural electrification experiences of seven case countries—Brazil, Chile, Laos, Peru, South Africa, Thailand, and Tunisia—looking specifically at the cost of connections and how subsidies and public financing were deployed to address the affordability challenge and facilitate energy access. The analysis finds that connecting rural customers has been costly—more than $1,500 per connection on average—far more than the cost of distributed systems today. The rural electrification programs examined subsidized 70–100 percent of connection costs. Maintaining these public investments and adapting funding mechanisms to address the unique nature of the off-grid sector, will dictate the extent to which distributed systems are able to scale in the coming decade.

Rob Fetter and Justin S. Baker

One of the defining features of our current era is the proliferation of innovative technologies that constantly generate data and information. Earth observation satellites, ground-based tools such as vehicle-mounted cameras, smart meters, and crowd-sourced platforms all collect and gather data with applications for the energy sector. ... This document presents a vision and summary of how development and scaling of new tools, and application of big data analysis principles, have the potential to transform energy systems planning, policy design and implementation, and investment decisions.

Kate Konschnik and Burcin Unel

As states advance their climate policies with ambitious clean energy targets, wholesale market operators are grappling with questions about if and how electricity markets should evolve as a response. Several ISO/RTOs are looking to change their market rules to include carbon pricing, but there is a diversity in approaches.

NYU's  Institute for Policy Integrity  and Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions hosted a conference on March 3, 2020, in Washington, DC, that focused on the different approaches for carbon pricing in wholesale energy markets. This conference brief summarizes expert discussion of current initiatives, legal issues, and stakeholder perspectives.

Katherine J.D. Warnell, Marc Russell, Charles Rhodes, Kenneth J. Bagstad, Lydia P. Olander, et al.

Ecosystem accounts, as formalized by the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting Experimental Ecosystem Accounts (SEEA EEA), have been compiled in a number of countries, yet there have been few attempts to develop them for the U.S. We explore the potential for U.S. ecosystem accounting by compiling ecosystem extent, condition, and ecosystem services supply and use accounts for a 10-state region in the Southeast. The pilot accounts address air quality, water quality, biodiversity, carbon storage, recreation, and pollination for selected years from 2001 to 2015. Results illustrate how information from ecosystem accounts can contribute to policy and decision making. Using an example from Atlanta, we also show how ecosystem accounts can be considered alongside other SEEA accounts to give a more complete picture of a local area’s environmental-economic trends.

Ryan S.D. Calder, Andrea Alatorre, Rebecca S. Marx, Varun Mallampalli, Sara A. Mason, Lydia P. Olander, Marc Jeuland, and Mark E. Borsuk

Governments and social benefit organizations are expected to consider evidence in decision-making. In development and sustainability, evidence spans disciplines and methodological traditions and is often inconclusive. Graphical models are widely promoted to organize interdisciplinary evidence and improve decision-making by considering mediating variables. However, the reproducibility, objectivity and benefits for decision-making of graphical models have not been studied. We evaluate these considerations in the setting of energy services in the developing world, a contemporary development and sustainability imperative.

Luke Eastman, Erika Smull, Lauren Patterson, and Martin Doyle

Preliminary data from five water utilities of different sizes and different climates across the U.S. show variable impacts to consumption and billed revenue in response to the global pandemic. Some utilities saw a decline in primarily non-residential consumption of up to 19% and non-residential billed revenue of up to 8% in April, one full month into the pandemic, relative to April usage and revenue in the past three years. For some utilities, consumption and revenues remained similar to previous years. In general, that is good news from these preliminary data, COVID-19 does not appear to be causing a ground shift in all water utility consumption and revenues. In general, residential customers are using water in similar amounts to previous years, and often more one utility saw an increase in residential consumption of 14% in April 2020 compared to the average of the past three years. Annual rate increases and steady or increasing residential consumption results in billed revenue that appears to offset effects of the COVID-19 shutdowns. Importantly, our data reflect billed revenue, not actual revenue; delinquency or nonpayment rates remain a significant source of uncertainty for water utilities. 
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