January 31 2024

January 31 2024

fires both a product and source of global warming, a large battery under construction in Utah, getting “grid services” from renewables, drought affects operation of Panama Canal, the unintended impacts of sea walls

The Guardian reports that the massive fires in Canada in 2023 tripled that country’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions. This is an example of a possible tipping point related to forests, where ecosystems that traditionally have been carbon sinks turn into sources of carbon (a New York Times article notes that recent satellite measurements confirm the importance of undisturbed lands as carbon sinks). As emissions from major fires further heat the planet, it becomes more likely that forests will continue to burn, resulting in more emissions. The loss of wetlands (including bogs) in the boreal forest, a result of hotter and drier conditions caused by climate change, has also made massive fires more likely.

While fire is a natural part of forest ecosystems, the scale of the fires we are seeing now is unprecedented, driven by climate change and historical forestry practices. The New York Times describes how megafires, such as those last year in Canada, are transforming the landscape. Some are referring to the age in which we now live as the Pyrocene, given the size and frequency of these megafires. The World Resources Institute concludes that, annually, fires now burn twice as much tree cover as they did 20 years ago.

Yale e360 notes that “the boreal forests and unglaciated polar lowlands are Earth’s most lake-rich biome, hosting nearly half of the planet’s lakes by surface area.” Like the forests, the lakes have been a carbon sink as sediments accumulate in their cold waters where there is little decomposition. However, as these regions warm, researchers are finding that decomposition is increasing. The author accompanies researchers to visit several lakes in Greenland where the scientists expected their measurements to reveal the lakes to be sinks, but the field measurements determined all the lakes to be sources during the record heat of 2023.

The New York Times reports on a large battery project being constructed in rural Utah. Instead of using classic chemical batteries, the project will be using excess solar and wind energy (particularly available in the winter and spring) to power large electrolyzers that generate hydrogen gas. The gas will be stored in local salt caverns. In the summer, when electricity needs spike, the gas will be burned to generate electricity. In a few years, this project will be replacing a major coal-fired facility in that location. There will be definite reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, although the new power plant will be using some natural gas to supplement the hydrogen. If completed as projected, the energy storage at this new site will be much greater than all the existing chemical-battery storage at U.S. power plants. Projects like this are also expected to reduce the cost of electrolyzers in the future, which will expand the opportunities for hydrogen power.

For those interested in some of the nuts and bolts about how we decarbonize our electrical grid, Canary Media reviews the roll-out of the Kapolei Energy Storage system on Oahu. This plant has allowed Hawaii Electric to retire an old coal-fired power plant, but the process is not as simple as turning one on and turning the other off. To replace the value of a coal plant, a battery plant needs to not only supply energy (an amount of electricity per year) and capacity (delivering that electricity when necessary), but also grid services (stabilizing functions for the grid as electrical demand and supply vary). The article provides an excellent summary of these challenges, and how the battery plant uses a combination of hardware and software to achieve its goals. Doing so makes it feasible to replace the old coal-fired facility. This is an important achievement, as in many places fossil-fuel plants are kept operating for grid services, which produces greenhouse gases while available renewable electricity is wasted.

DesignBoom describes a student-led effort at MIT to create a hydrogen-powered motorcycle. The video accompanying the article is a great look at how engineering students are getting involved in the energy transition as part of studies that build a career and a more sustainable world. MIT is expected to make the plan for the motorcycle available online, so that riders and mechanics can create their own versions of the vehicle.

A Washington Post editorial notes that drought in Panama is limiting the water available to operate the Panama Canal. Freshwater in a key reservoir used to operate the locks on the canal has reached extremely low levels. Drought has also hindered waterborne transportation along the Amazon, the Mississippi and the Rhine in Germany. The editorial argues that the impacts of climate change on the global economy are an important reason to aggressively reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The New Yorker reviews the problems associated with protecting coastal land with sea walls. The article notes that our current predicament was predicted in 1985, when a group of scientists meeting in Skidaway, GA, concluded that, as sea level rises, “we face economic and environmental realities that leave us two choices: (1) plan for a strategic retreat now, or (2) undertake a vastly expensive program of armoring the coastline and, as required, retreating through a series of unpredictable disasters.” Since then, the number of Americans living near the coast has doubled and, by 2018, 40% of Americans lived in coastal counties. The article describes some of the unintended consequences of sea walls that introduce new risks and dilute their benefits, including deflection of waves to neighboring properties and enhancing coastal erosion. It is argued that we should build as few walls as possible, and only when they protect what matters most (of course, this latter criterion is open to debate). Given the expense of sea walls, it seems likely that only wealthy communities can afford such protection, making unfairness another impact to consider. The California Coastal Commission has concluded: “In an era of sea level rise, the long-term effect of sea walls is to temporarily protect the property behind them, at the permanent expense of public sandy beach space.”