February 28 2021

February 28 2021

oil companies invest in offshore wind, Biden creates Civilian Climate Corps, the benefits of bamboo, winter storm causes major Texas power outage, coal-fired power doesn’t pencil out

An article in the Guardian notes that BP recently submitted a record-breaking bid to build two giant wind farms in the Irish Sea, indicative of oil companies diversifying into renewable energy. The article notes that even major offshore wind farms are small investments compared to the multi-billion dollar projects routine for oil companies, and “companies with a strong stable of renewable energy projects are beginning to reach market valuations many times the size of their annual earnings, while oil company share prices are grazing multi-year lows.” Grist notes that “oil companies don’t want to be known for oil anymore,” and French oil giant Total is changing its name to TotalEnergies. Whether changes such as these are fundamental or mainly “greenwashing” remains to be seen.

President Biden has established the Civilian Climate Corps, modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps created during the Great Depression by President Roosevelt. An article in the Guardian describes this effort, which could provide job training while building resilience to climate change in urban communities and on natural lands. In addition to repeating the work of the historic CCC, which built hiking trails, planted trees and tackled other forestry related projects, the modern CCC could build green stormwater management systems, install solar panels on homes, help clean up toxic waste sites and develop urban gardens. Grist describes legislation that has been introduced to provide direct funding for this effort. Another article notes that the original CCC was one of Roosevelt’s most popular programs, and many of the public works it created are still in use today.

The New York Times reports on a massive flood event in India caused by the breaking of a glacial dam. It is not uncommon in the Himalayas to have large lakes held back by dams of ice, and they can fail suddenly producing “outburst floods.” One important stress on these dams, and on the rock/ice slopes above them, is warming due to climate change. The fact that this dam broke during winter is evidence of this impact. In Switzerland and some other countries, engineers have built siphons to drain lakes that pose particular threats to communities or infrastructure.

Inside Climate News looks at the carbon drawdown strategy of planting bamboo in degraded lands around the world. A very hardy and fast-growing tree, it can ameliorate local air-pollution problems by providing wind breaks, while sequestering large amounts of carbon when grown in optimal settings with active management. While bamboo trees do not live centuries, a bamboo forest can mature relative quickly, which makes it attractive as a natural carbon solution. The author notes that harvested bamboo has many uses: “…you can wear it, eat it, live in it, and get drunk on it. Bamboo fibers mixed into biocomposites act like plastic — you can 3D print with it. Sliced thin and laminated, you can use bamboo like wood for flooring, siding, or replacing railroad ties. It’s even disrupted a timber-based product that once seemed inviolable: toilet paper.” The article explores fascinating related topics, including building a bamboo industry in the southern U.S., the degraded destiny of the Salton Sea and the secret role of llama poop.

AZCentral reports that heat caused a record number of deaths in Arizona in 2020. The 494 confirmed heat deaths so far greatly exceeds the previous record, which was recorded in 2019. Experts believe all of these deaths were preventable, with around half of the deaths among the homeless population. Across the U.S., more people die of extreme temperatures than all other weather-related causes combined. Last year in Phoenix, there were 53 days with temperatures at or above 110°F.

In National Geographic, Elizabeth Kolbert suggests that we should stop calling events such as the Doe Fire in California or Hurricane Laura “natural disasters” because of the contribution from climate change. She notes that the “choice we face is not whether to change the world; that decision unfortunately has been made. The decision going forward is how are we going to change it?”

The New York Times describes a major winter storm with extremely cold temperatures that struck the midwest and south, and the massive power outages that resulted. The ensuing problems were derived from a lack of preparation for such an event, and the blackouts were made worse by the fact that the Texas power grid is not tied into other state grids (a decision made to prevent federal influence). The failure was also one of mismanagement: after cold snaps in 1989, 2011 and 2014, demands to upgrade vulnerable equipment were mainly ignored by Texas utilities (except in El Paso, which did not suffer major power outages). The Washington Post describes the meteorology behind this event, in which a weakening of the jet stream allowed for Arctic air to dip south.

The humanitarian impact of this storm was intense. The New York Times reports that many Texans were without enough food or water, and that 13 million residents (44% of the population of the country’s second largest state!) were told to boil water before drinking. The Wall Street Journal reports that over 80 people are dead as a result of the cold storm in Texas, and that number is expected to rise.

The extreme cold affected all major generating facilities in Texas, including gas-fired, coal-fired and nuclear power plants and wind turbines. The Texas Tribune reports that, according to the operators of the Texas grid, the main problem was the lack of natural-gas generating capacity. However, if you watched Fox News, you instead heard that the problem was solely due to failed wind turbines and that you should therefore fear the Green New Deal (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had something to say about that, and Helaine Olen argues persuasively in the Washington Post that the Texas debacle is a great example of why the Green New Deal is necessary). A video of a helicopter de-icing a wind turbine went viral and was widely distributed by Republican officials as proof of the problem, even though the video is from 2014 in Sweden.

Instead of understanding the event and proposing solutions (electric grids will increasingly face novel and extreme weather events that go beyond historical conditions), Fox News and right-wing politicians used it as just another opportunity to tell viewers to hate and fear liberal policy (Chris Hayes at MSNBC summarizes the entire problem in an excellent video). In the Washington Post, Paul Waldman notes that this is “a disturbing preview of the miserable debates we’ll have over restoring our infrastructure and dealing with climate change.” We really don’t have time for this nonsense. I have provided a perspective on this misinformation and the danger it poses in a new post.

In light of the failures of the power and water systems in Texas, the New York Times has an excellent review of how climate change is going to make much of our infrastructure vulnerable to failure or malfunction. Electrical grids, water treatment plants, dams, sewer systems, roads, bridges… it is a long (and expensive) list. Understanding that we can’t use our past climate as a guideline for future threats, planners are focused on building infrastructure that is “resilient” to these impacts. Particularly challenging are compound risks, where one impact leads to others in a causal chain. For example, intense fires denude hillsides that are more susceptible to landslides in heavy rains, and higher wave heights and sea levels erode coastal hillsides — combine these threats together and a big piece of Highway 1 falls into the ocean. In the New York Times, Ezra Klein notes that the events in Texas and other places indicate that neither our physical, political or social infrastructure is ready for the challenges posed by climate change.

Inside Climate News reports that Jim Robo, CEO of NextEra Energy (the largest utility in the country), told investors: “There is not a regulated coal plant in this country that is economic today.” Many utilities are closing plants, and operating the ones that are open much less frequently. In fact, it is only in states where regulations allow all operating costs to be passed on to consumers that coal plants remain at high levels of operation. Despite that coal-fired electricity has been in decline in the U.S. and other major countries, the Guardian reports on the expansion of this sector in Mexico under the leadership of President López Obrador.

The National Academy of Sciences just published Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System. This report concludes that deep decarbonization is technologically feasible, energy spending during a net-zero transition will be manageable (and less than historical expenditures) and creating a net-zero-emissions energy system could revitalize the U.S. economy. The report contains a myriad of policy recommendations for accelerating our nation’s transition away from fossil fuels. An article in Utility Dive reviews the conclusions of a recent report that outlines several feasible paths for the U.S. to create a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. The report authors note that the country should first focus on decarbonizing its electricity sector, as this then leads after 2030 to multiple paths to full decarbonization. The authors warn that an earlier rush toward full decarbonization could be detrimental in the long-term, as it could force transition before the most cost-effective solutions are identified, and “could also trigger societal resistance if the transition takes place so quickly that it disrupts the economy by putting fossil-fuel-dependent companies out of business before they and their employees have a chance to adapt.”

An informative post on the blog of the Union of Concerned Scientists explores hydrogen as part of the clean-energy revolution. While there is much promise — assuming that the hydrogen is manufactured without releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere — there is a lot of hype as well. The author reviews the many details that must be considered to understand the potential contribution of hydrogen to a future energy system free of fossil fuels.