April 15 2024

April 15 2024

greenhouse-gas concentrations continue to climb, the oceans are the hottest we’ve ever seen, methane-detecting satellite is launched, misinformation is rampant about offshore wind, power-cable upgrades can enhance the grid without new construction

In the last In Brief, it was reported that carbon-dioxide concentrations continue to increase in the atmosphere, according to the International Energy Agency. The Guardian notes that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has announced that methane and nitrous oxide, both greenhouse gases, also reached record levels in 2023 (along with carbon dioxide). The increases were not as great as in previous years, which could possibly indicate that the relentless rise is slowing, but it nonetheless underscores that we are continuing to make the hole we are in deeper rather than getting ourselves out of it.

The Guardian describes a call for expanding the classification of hurricanes to include a new Category 6 for the most extreme storms. If that category existed over the last 10 years, there would have been five storms in the new category. The intensity of major storms has notably increased during the four-decade satellite record of hurricanes. Another article in The Guardian describes how the rapid intensification of Hurricane Ian as it approached Florida led to much more serious damage and loss of life. Redlining and other historic discriminatory practices has also resulted in families of color being forced to buy homes in areas more prone to flooding, leading to these families being disproportionately impacted by storm events. Meanwhile, The Washington Post notes that the first forecasts for 2024 indicate a very active Atlantic hurricane season, with the combination of warm oceans (called “alarming” and “unprecedented”) and an emerging La Niña weather pattern leading to powerful storms.

Indeed, The New York Times reports that “the ocean has now broken temperature records every day for more than a year. And so far, 2024 has continued 2023’s trend of beating previous records by wide margins.” In The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert visits with a number of climate scientists to ponder the extraordinary temperature of the oceans. Some scientists are wondering whether there has been a fundamental change in the climate system that is leading to these temperatures, which were not expected to be observed for many decades. Others posit that this might be, in large part, natural variability. Critical to an understanding will be what happens as El Niño conditions begin to wane later this year.

The Biden Administration just announced new standards for washing machines and clothes dryers. Grist reports that the regulations will result in “top-loading clothes washers that are 11 percent more energy efficient than similar current machines while using 28 percent less water. Dryers will see up to a 40 percent reduction in energy use, depending on the model.” It is estimated that these newer machines will save Americans $2.2 billion a year on their utility bills. The San Francisco Chronicle notes that rising electricity rates from Pacific Gas & Electric are cutting into the savings EV owners have been getting compared with fueling gasoline-powered cars.

Grist reports that “solar accounted for most of the capacity the nation added to its electric grids last year,” with utility-scale installations in Texas and California leading the way. While solar currently is just 5% of the U.S. electricity mix, over the next decade the nation will add much more. Canary Media notes that two large grid batteries are about to come online in Arizona. “Grid batteries have soared from obscurity to become the second-most popular type of power plant expected to be built in the U.S. this year — more than gas, more than wind — in fact, more than gas and wind put together.” The AP indicates that the U.S. added 62% more electrical storage in 2023 than it had in 2022. California and Texas lead the country in electricity storage, and both states have benefited during recent heat waves when electricity demand spiked.

The New York Times explores a myriad of commercial proposals to store energy in addition to batteries. These include rusting and re-rusting of iron (a type of low-cost battery), compressing carbon dioxide (or air) and then expanding the gas through turbines when electricity demand is high and storing excess energy as heat in sand or other substances for later recovery. One of the challenges facing commercialization is how to make money when the energy is stored, but not needed.

The New York Times reports on the growing market power of the Chinese solar industry. Last year, China installed more solar panels than the United States has in its history. China’s “export of fully assembled solar panels climbed 38 percent while its exports of key components almost doubled.” This growth is fueled by cheaper manufacturing costs in China ($.16 – $.18 per watt) compared to the U.S. and Europe ($.24 – $.30 per watt). “The difference partly reflects lower wages in China. Chinese cities have also provided land for solar panel factories at a fraction of market prices. State-owned banks have lent heavily at low interest rates.” (This photo of the world’s largest solar park in India is pretty remarkable.)

Retiring West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post about the success of U.S. energy policy in creating energy independence for the nation. He notes that fossil-fuel production and solar electricity generation are at all-time highs, yet he does not mention the fact that our use of fossil fuels is changing the climate, just as was predicted in the late 19th century. Instead, he asserts that “radical advisers in the White House are so worried about angering climate activists that they refuse to speak up about these accomplishments.” In reality, these “radicals” are worried about the future of the country and the planet. Manchin simply ignores this critical reality, which is immoral and irresponsible. We will all pay for this type of willful ignorance, and the younger you are the more you will pay.

The New York Times reports on the launch of MethaneSAT, a satellite conceived by the Environmental Defense Fund that will provide a public record of methane emissions around the world. In recent years, it has become clear that methane emissions are being under reported, including some enormous sources (two fossil-fuel fields in Turkmenistan have been annually emitting as much methane as all of Britain). 155 countries have pledged to reduce methane emissions by 30% from 2020 levels by 2030, although increases in atmospheric methane appear to have a significant contribution from natural sources such as wetlands. These natural emissions may be growing due to global warming, as the higher temperatures promote more microbial production of methane. Gina McCarthy, ex-Administrator of the EPA, notes in The Guardian that “trash, organic waste decomposing in landfills, is the third largest source of human-caused methane pollution in the United States.” The EPA is required by the Clean Air Act to revisit its landfill standards this summer, and McCarthy argues that the EPA should quickly adopt a rule that reflects the latest best practices in methane monitoring and control.

Canary Media describes the organized misinformation efforts, funded by fossil-fuel interests, that are attempting to block or delay the rollout of renewable-energy projects. These efforts have been particularly focused on offshore wind, where whale deaths (likely due to ocean temperatures from climate change) are being blamed on wind developments that haven’t even started (Science Friday has an excellent interview with a journalist covering this issue). One anti-wind activist tweeted “wind power made the trans-Atlantic slave trade possible.” Onshore-wind power is facing similar problems, with misinformation campaigns leading to the adoption of setback ordinances that are 10 times larger for wind turbines than for oil and gas projects, and similar tactics are being used to fight utility-scale solar projects. Grist reports that a bill awaiting the signature of Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida would “ban offshore wind energy, relax regulations on natural gas pipelines, and delete the majority of mentions of climate change from existing state laws.”

Salon interviews Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State, about climate disinformation and his efforts to fight it. He notes that “people have the right to express their own opinions about climate and the underlying science, and good faith challenges are actually an important part of science. They help science move forward. But what is not a good faith sort of criticism or engagement is making false, libelous accusations about scientists, or comparing them to convicted criminals,” which is what happened to him. With the advent of AI, we are going to see “more convincing, more human-like armies of bots whose role again is to infect our public discourse and to create confusion and disagreement and dissension in such a way as to impede any meaningful policy progress on climate.”

The New York Times describes the conclusions of two new reports that examine how much grid capacity could be expanded in the U.S. through widespread adoption of “re-conductoring,” in which the power cables on existing transmission lines are replaced with advanced materials. “Replacing existing power lines with cables made from state-of-the-art materials could roughly double the capacity of the electric grid in many parts of the country, making room for much more wind and solar power.” The Texas-based utility, AEP, needing to get more power into the lower Rio Grande Valley, re-conductored 240 miles of wires in less than three years and increased the carrying capacity of the lines by 40%. The article notes that re-conductoring is much more advanced in Europe, as U.S. utilities lag behind due to “their unfamiliarity with the technology as well as regulatory and bureaucratic hurdles.”