February 15 2021

February 15 2021

“whole of government” approach to climate change, grid-scale batteries, coal industry collapse, GM goes all electric

President Biden is using his power to initiate a broad suite of actions on climate change by the federal government, over and above the inauguration-day steps that included rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, canceling the Keystone XL pipeline permit and making FEMA money available to build community resilience to climate change. The New York Times describes these new actions, which are being appropriately framed as job-creating efforts to enhance public safety, international relations and national security (or, as Vox notes, a “whole of government” approach to climate action). In the two weeks of his presidency, Biden has taken steps that a Washington Post columnist notes represent “a return to sanity,” generating optimism among climate scientists and joy among activists for science-based decision-making.

Grist reports on the growth of utility-scale batteries, which are key for decarbonizing the grid by storing excess solar and wind power for use when it is needed. The price for utility-scale battery storage in the United States has plummeted, dropping nearly 70 percent between 2015 and 2018, and this is leading to very large battery arrays being built. With 1.5 gigawatts (GW) of storage projects commissioned, California has already passed its 2013 goal of 1.325 GW by 2020.

An excellent article at KQED examines an extremely important but little publicized impact of sea level rise: rising groundwater levels in nearshore areas. Rising groundwater will impact infrastructure such as roads and pipelines (including sewers), and expand the reach of earthquake liquefaction zones. Negative impacts on human health are also likely as the rising waters bring toxic substances from long ago to the surface. As study author Kristina Hill of UC Berkeley notes in the article, “Everything human beings use, they spill,” and decades of spills may come back to haunt neighborhoods susceptible to sea level rise. As with so many of our environmental problems, past injustices have resulted in people of color being more likely to live in areas where exposure is possible. CNN describes a recent flood in Venice that occurred because the new flood barriers were not activated due to a poor weather prediction.

The Guardian describes new fast-charging lithium-ion batteries, which are at the cusp of commercialization. A car with batteries like these can fully charge in the amount of time it takes to pump a tank of gasoline. An article in the Washington Post reports on the development of a novel scientific process that would transform carbon dioxide in the air into jet fuel. While this is an exciting technical development, critics note that there are many challenges to overcome before such a process could be commercialized.

While we don’t know if California’s future climate is going to be wetter or drier, a post on California WaterBlog notes that there are many other things that we do know. These include a decline in the snowpack, an increased fraction of precipitation coming during extreme events, a shorter rainy season, a higher frequency of extremely wet and extremely dry years and a higher incidence of “whiplash” years where an extreme dry year follows an extreme wet year or vice versa. The authors suggest that water managers can begin incorporating some of these less-discussed shifts in hydroclimate into water planning efforts. The Washington Post reports on the prevalence of drought conditions in the western U.S. that grew worse in a very dry January.

CNN’s John Sutter travels to Gillette, WY, the center of the Powder River Basin coal region, and asks an important question. What do climate-action advocates like himself (and me) owe those who have worked for years mining the coal that kept the lights on in large portions of the U.S? These workers, who did not create the misinformation campaigns that fostered climate-change denial, are struggling as the coal industry is collapsing. DW reports on the potential for wind power in Wyoming. Instead of incentivizing development of this renewable resource, the state taxes it. Colorado recently created an Office of Just Transition, recognizing the growing economic impact on coal-mining communities. Wyoming has not taken this step, although it appears most local officials and residents understand that the coal boom that fostered Gillette’s growth has now gone bust. High Country News examines the rise and fall of major coal-fired power plants in the West, and an article at Inside Climate News examines just-transition requests being made of the Biden Administration.

Utility Dive reports that the Governor of Maine proposed a 10-year moratorium on the development of offshore wind in the waters of the State due to concerns expressed by the commercial fishing community. While there is debate regarding the actual impacts, some are unavoidable (such as limited fishing near turbines and cables), and the Governor is seeking a political environment that keeps the fishing industry in planning discussions.

An article in the New York Times describes the announcement by General Motors that it will phase out production of internal-combustion vehicles by 2035 as it transitions to an all electric fleet. This is an extraordinary turnaround for the company that supported President Trump’s 2017 rollback of auto-emissions standards. It is consistent, however, with many trends in the industry. GM’s website has more information about their plans, including a video about rebranding the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant as “Factory Zero.” Now that the Biden Administration has started the process for reversing Trump’s abandonment of automobile fuel-efficiency standards, an article in Forbes by Margo Oge, previous director of transportation programs at the U.S. EPA, describes a policy path for electrifying the transportation sector.

An article in the New York Times examines the plans of the Biden Administration (and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack) to conjoin climate action with economic revitalization of rural communities in general and farming communities in particular. These plans include the promotion of regenerative agriculture, expansion of renewable energy (particularly wind) and control of toxic agricultural runoff. While many progressives are skeptical of Secretary Vilsack’s ties to corporate agriculture, the author suggests that the viewpoint on climate action is changing rapidly among farming and rural constituencies, and Mr. Vilsack (a former governor of Iowa) might be in a unique position to accelerate change. The author interviewed Mr. Vilsack for the Storm Lake Times.

An article in Grist examines the challenge associated with using phrases such as “believe the science” or “listen to the science.” While those making those statements are usually arguing that scientific evidence is important in decision-making, these phrases can imply that somehow science has all the answers when this is not true. Science alone “can’t tell us whether the United States needs a green jobs guarantee, a carbon tax, or warning labels on gas pumps.” Scientific facts can tell us what is happening, but we must use our values and laws to determine what we must do in the face of these facts. When people question science, it is constructive to understand where they are coming from rather than just dismiss them as ignorant or hopelessly biased. I’ve talked to many people who question climate science (see my past blog post, Talking with “Climate Skeptics”), and many of them are motivated by a belief that if they accept the science they will have to take actions that are inimical to their own personal values. It is examining the truth of that belief, rather than the truth of the science, that will be influential in the discussion.