May 15 2024

May 15 2024

heat records continue to be broken, a global coral bleaching event underway, more EV charging stations needed, too much solar electricity in California sometimes, battery costs continue to drop

April 2024 continued 11 months of record-setting heat across the globe. The Washington Post describes heat waves in Africa and Asia as climate change and El Niño combine to push temperatures into uncharted territory. Axios notes that this heat wave is affecting hundreds of millions of people, with temperature records being set in some of the world’s largest cities. The New York Times reports that, based on an analysis of tree rings, the summer of 2023 was the hottest in 2,000 years. As El Niño wanes, it is expected that temperatures will fall below record levels in the latter half of 2024.

Grist reports that, for the second time this decade, a global coral bleaching event is underway, with over half of the world’s reef areas affected. Bleaching, caused by elevated ocean temperatures, is when the coral polyp ejects its photosynthetic partner, resulting in a white or “bleached” appearance. If temperatures stay elevated for too long, the corals will die, imperiling the ecosystems of which they are a foundation, including $11 trillion of human economic activity around the world. This may represent coral reefs going through a “tipping point” where their continued survival becomes impossible. Already, “the Great Barrier Reef, for example, has gone through five mass bleaching events in the last eight years, leaving little chance for recovery. Florida has already lost more than 90 percent of its coral reefs.”

Global warming is reducing the mass of ice sheets and glaciers globally, and most glaciers are expected to continue retreating at an accelerated pace. ZME Science reports that Venezuela has officially lost its last glacier, as the La Corona (or Humboldt) glacier is now “a piece of ice that is 0.4 percent of its original size.” Many other countries will follow, and this will impact drinking water availability, agriculture and river ecology around the world. My post, the The Breath of a Dying Glacier, includes a photo from my trip to one of California’s last glaciers.

The Washington Post notes: “The price of electric cars is plummeting so fast that they’re now almost as cheap as gas-powered cars.” The forces driving this include dropping battery prices, and dealer discounts as demand for EVs softens. Another article describes how EVs on the used market are even cheaper. “Most remarkably, a used Tesla Model 3 is now cheaper than the average used gasoline vehicle.”

The Washington Post notes that, while the Biden Administration has called for the construction of 500,000 new EV charging stations in the country, and provided significantly funding to state transportation departments for this purpose, as of the end of 2023 only seven stations have been completed (ouch!). This is not that surprising given that funding for a new task is being provided to agencies that have no experience with the technology, and that the funding comes with a variety of requirements — including that new chargers operate 97% of the time, provide 150kW of power and be within one mile from the interstate. There are indications that construction will accelerate quickly in 2024 (Bloomberg reports that 1,100 new fast-charging stations were completed during the latter part of 2023, which is certainly more than reported by The Washington Post). An op-ed in The Washington Post suggests that proponents of public spending on infrastructure should expect these kinds of delays and message their programs differently (“Look, we need to start spending trillions of dollars on public investments, and we probably aren’t going to see benefits of it anytime soon, but your children absolutely will.”)

As electricity demand rises, many utilities are proposing to meet it by building more natural-gas power plants. This approach will increase greenhouse-gas emissions when we need to reduce them drastically, and also carries economic risk for consumers as cleaner sources of electricity continue to become cheaper. Utility Dive summarizes a recent report that concludes: “Energy Innovation urged regulators to consider two main approaches for meeting increasing demand: prioritizing energy efficiency to slow the growth and elevating resource and market solutions that can be quickly put in place to bolster resource adequacy.” The article notes that electricity demand in Texas grew about 27%, and the state met this increased demand predominantly with renewables. The authors suggest Texas is a model that utilities and regulators around the country should consider before committing capital to new fossil-fuel plants.

The Washington Post reports on the California grid, where the installation of solar panels has been so successful that they produce more electricity at certain times than the state can use (there is about 15 times as much solar capacity in California as there was 15 years ago). This happens during certain days in the spring, when solar generation picks up with increased sunshine, but the electrical demand from air conditioning has yet to kick in. This results in the “curtailing” (i.e., throwing away) of generated electricity that is not needed. In 2022, about 5% of solar electricity generated was curtailed. This is not an insurmountable problem, but storage solutions (or the ability to transmit the extra electricity to another state) have not caught up with solar installations. California (and other states with large amounts of solar) are cutting back on incentives for residential installations unless batteries are included that allow the electricity to be stored and used during the daily peak in early evening.

Reuters reports that the cost of batteries continues to decline, making them a growing complement for solar and wind power on electrical grids. The International Energy Agency finds that the cost of battery storage will decline by up to 40% by 2030. The cost decline of lithium-iron-phosphate batteries is particularly notable. These batteries are too heavy to use in automobiles, but are effective in utility applications and less expensive than the more widespread lithium-ion batteries that power cars and computers. The New York Times describes the growing impact of grid batteries on the electrical grids in California and Texas.

Inside Climate News visits Centralia, Washington, where the state’s largest coal-fired power plant will be closing next year. A broad group of stakeholders worked together to soften the impact to the community, and this includes the plant’s owner setting up a $55 million transition fund. The disruption is still a challenge for the town, and is but one of many problems facing the community. Despite these challenges, Centralia’s effort to address the issue head-on with collaborative planning is being held up as a model for assisting communities that face similar realities.

The Washington Post describes the new types of sails that are growing in popularity among commercial shipping fleets. The sails, which don’t look much like sails of yore, can cut 10-20% of fuel use, which reduce emissions and fuel costs. After successful demonstrations, the sail industry is scaling up as demand is expected to accelerate. Inside Climate News reports on another clean-energy initiative that is scaling up: electric school buses. There are a myriad of benefits to be had from electrifying school bus fleets (including that “long-term maintenance costs for electric school buses can be around 44 percent cheaper than diesel buses, and charging is significantly less expensive than traditional fuel”), but an electric school bus costs three times as much as a diesel-powered bus. The EPA has a program to help school districts with the cost of electric buses, and the associated charging infrastructure.

The Guardian reports that Vermont is poised to pass legislation that would compel fossil-fuel companies doing business in the state to pay for climate damages caused by their products. The bill “would be required to determine how much money to collect to pay for climate-related impacts to Vermont’s public health, biodiversity, economic development and other damages.” Projects that improve resilience to climate change would be funded with money collected. One Republican state senator was convinced to vote for the measure after testimony that demonstrated “large companies knew about this in the 50s and 60s and so forth and still did nothing to address this.” Nice to see that some Republicans are getting the message.