December 15 2020

December 15 2020

pandemic drives temporary drop in greenhouse-gas emissions, Trump’s legacy of climate damage, Biden elevates climate change to center of U.S. policy, enhancing the U.S. electrical grid, the largest solar power plant in U.S. history

The Washington Post reports that U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions will drop 9.2% in 2020, reaching their lowest level in at least three decades. This is due to the slowing of the economy because of the pandemic, with 14% of the drop attributed to reduced air travel (AP notes that the European Union is similarly expecting an 8% drop in emissions in 2020). Unfortunately, fully one-third of the reduction was offset by the emissions of carbon dioxide from forest fires. Emissions are expected to rebound in 2021, although it is expected that reductions in the electricity-production sector will continue to decline as renewable generation replaces coal and natural gas. This shows how difficult it will be to meet even the modest targets of the Paris Accord without a concerted effort by consumers and policy makers.

An op-ed in the New York Times argues that a Biden Administration can move aggressively to take action on climate change regardless of which party controls the U.S. Senate. While much more can be done with Senate support, throughout the campaign Biden has made it clear he believes that climate action is now a winning political issue. If he decides this issue will be an important determiner of his legacy as President, we may see the federal government take broad action on many fronts.

Another article in the New York Times argues that climate damage may be the most enduring legacy of the Trump Administration. Because greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere, the impact of the emissions caused by Trump’s regulatory rollbacks will remain for decades, regardless of future changes in policy. These were four critical years when the U.S. could have been leading the world away from fossil fuels. Instead, our example led other nations (like Brazil and Australia) to double-down on fossil-fuel burning (Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil called efforts to control global warming “a plot by Marxists to stifle economic growth,” and Reuters reports that deforestation in Brazil has jumped to a 12-year high due to lax enforcement by the Bolsonaro government).

InsideClimate News reports on the recent decision by the Trump Administration to support small modular nuclear reactors designed by NuScale Power. These reactors have some inherent design features that make them different from the larger pressurized-water reactors that are operating now, and nuclear power has great potential as a carbon-free source of electricity. However, it is not clear what the final cost of these reactors will be, or if they can be built quickly enough to be a meaningful part of grid decarbonization. As I noted in my blog post, The Nuclear Mirage, for many reasons I do not expect nuclear power to be a large part of our future electrical grid.

Meanwhile, an article in Anthropocene notes that decarbonizing the U.S. electrical grid by 2035 may be easier than you might think, primarily because so much of our fossil-fuel-powered electrical capacity is old. By 2018, 13% of this generation capacity had already reached the end of its useful life, with another 60% doing so by 2035. So only 27% of capacity would need to be retired early, a problem that can be addressed with financial planning and support to impacted communities and companies.

An article at Utility Dive reviews some ideas for enhancing the U.S. electrical grid, which will be essential as we move electricity generation to renewables and electrify transportation. A key step is building more interconnection across the “seam” in the middle of the country between the eastern and western grids, which should save consumers money and allow much more shared use of available solar and wind resources and reserve power. It has been suggested that transmission could be relatively easily added along the right-of-way lands of existing highways and rail lines. More information is available at the American Council on Renewable Energy’s Macro Grid Initiative.

Anthropocene Magazine reports on recent research that has developed a prototype window that darkens in the sun’s glare and also acts as a solar panel. An article in Grist reviews two micro-hydro technologies, one that makes electricity from the flow of small streams while another generates electricity from excess pressure in municipal water pipes.

The AP examines a proposal from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a seawall to protect downtown Charleston, S.C., a city vulnerable to sea level rise and storm events and that is seeing recurring flooding. The 12-foot-high wall and other measures would cost upwards of $2 billion and protect only part of the city. The proposal has provoked a challenging conversation about resilience in the face of sea level rise, a conversation that is starting in coastal communities all over the world. Meanwhile, NBC describes how the pandemic has interfered with preparing for sea level rise in the Bay Area by delaying key projects.

AP reports that President-elect Joe Biden has appointed John Kerry as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. The position is on the National Security Council, underscoring Biden’s commitment to tackling climate change and his intention to treat it as a serious national security issue. Reuters notes that Biden has named Brian Deese to head the National Economic Council, and Deese will be key to designing and implementing Biden’s domestic climate-action agenda (this will be spearheaded by former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who CNN reports will be serving as Biden’s “climate czar.”). While great resistance to climate initiatives will continue from Republicans, these appointments clearly elevate climate change to the very center of U.S. national policy.

Extreme storms, Alaska edition: Anchorage Daily News reports on recent extreme rain storms in southeast Alaska, where Juneau recorded its wettest day since record-keeping began in 1936. Particularly hard hit was the town of Haines, where the rainfall triggered avalanches and mudslides that destroyed homes and cut off the town from its port where fuel for its emergency diesel generator is stored. The mayor noted that repairs will take months, but unfortunately the forecast was for more rain. ABC News looks at what will happen in California with a repeat of the Great Flood of 1862, and Grist summarizes 20 records across the West related to extreme weather in 2020.

Heavy rainfall in Alaska is, in part, a signal that this is the latitude where the jet stream is currently flowing. The jet stream striking the northern part of the U.S. is characteristic of the La Niña conditions presently in force, and is leading to a very dry beginning of the rainy season in California. AP reports that the State Department of Water Resources is projecting to deliver only 10% of contracted water supplies next year. The water levels of California’s major reservoirs are currently below their historical averages for this time of year.

The New York Times reports on research showing that drowning deaths are increasing exponentially in areas with warmer winters. Global warming is increasing the risks of winter activities such as skating, ice fishing and snowmobiling, as the milder climate results in ice that is not as thick or strong as it used to be.

An article in The Hill describes the largest solar power project in U.S. history, which will be completed in 2023 at a site in north Texas. Developed by Invenergy, the $1.6 billion Samson Solar Energy Center is designed to have 1,310 megawatts (MW) of solar and wind capacity. Its partners include McDonald’s, AT&T, Home Depot, Honda and Google, demonstrating how corporate interest in renewable energy is accelerating development of facilities like this one. CNBC reports on the second-largest offshore wind-power facility in the world (752 MW), which is now operational southwest of the Netherlands. While the European offshore wind industry (22,000 MW) is much larger than that of the U.S. (40 MW), the American industry is growing rapidly. An article in Reuters notes that a U.S. shipbuilder has announced construction of the first vessel built expressly for installing and servicing offshore wind turbines.

I highly recommend reading Bill McKibben’s reflection on the climate-change dilemma in the New Yorker, which draws on his 30-year-plus career as a scholar-activist (Al Gore also has a perspective in the New York Times). The evidence of our changed climate, and the challenges we face, is unyielding and daunting. Undeniable as well, however, is the evidence of change across human society as the cost of fossil-fuel alternatives drop faster than analysts imagined and people (and corporations) step-up to address the problem. As I noted in The Breath of a Dying Glacier, the world we had is already gone, but we can still choose our future world. How ambitious and visionary we are in the coming decade will decide what that world is like.