September 15 2023

September 15 2023

emissions reductions falling short of goals, fossil-fuel subsidies continue, enhanced geothermal shows great promise, surge in sea level on the Gulf Coast, California meets renewable-energy goal two years early

A key assessment completed by the U.N. has concluded that countries are falling far short of the emissions reductions needed to slow global warming. The New York Times reports that, despite a slowing in the rate of global emissions increases — which means that many of the worst-case scenarios considered 15 years ago are no longer likely — the world is still on its way to around 2.5°C of warming. Given what we have seen this summer with only 1.2°C of warming, it is clear that further emissions reductions must occur to avoid a calamitous future.

One of the reasons emissions are not slowing enough is revealed in The Guardian, which reports that the G20 countries delivered over $1 trillion in direct subsidies for fossil fuels in 2022. This was over twice the amount provided to renewable energy, and more than double the subsidies in 2019. The increase was due in part to governments interceding in the market to protect consumers from fuel-price spikes due to the war in Ukraine. When you include the “implicit” or “indirect” subsidies, which are costs incurred due to the climate and health impacts of fossil fuels, the International Monetary Fund concludes that annual subsidies totaled $7 trillion. While the “power of the free market” is often cited as a preferred way to change our energy system, a market warped by such subsidies will not provide the price signals to bring about the change required.

The New York Times has a three-part story on the rise of renewable energy. The first article describes how renewables are expanding faster than anyone thought possible. Most Americans don’t realize that 23% of our electricity is expected to come from renewable sources this year, up 10% in ten years. In Britain, roughly one-third of electricity is generated by wind, solar and hydropower. In May, for the first time ever, wind and solar power in the E.U. generated more electricity than fossil fuels. China, which produces more wind and solar power than any nation, is expected to double its capacity by 2025, five years ahead of schedule (unlike the U.S., however, The Guardian reports that China also continues to add coal-fired power).

Across the world, investors are expected to put more money this year into solar ($380 billion) than into drilling for oil. Key incentives for this investment are The Inflation Reduction Act (along with the CHIPS and Science Act and the Infrastructure Act). “Originally estimated to cost roughly $391 billion between 2022 and 2031, the tax breaks are proving so popular with manufacturers and consumers that estimates now put the cost as high as $1.2 trillion over the next decade.” The three laws have prompted companies to announce at least $230 billion in manufacturing investments so far. In the New York Times, Paul Krugman discusses the success of these new laws, pointing out how they address a key chicken-and-egg problem and give private investors confidence that other investors will come along to fund key components of the new industrial system (e.g., EV manufacturers need investment in charging stations).

The Washington Post reports that Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), a key vote for the Inflation Reduction Act, is very unhappy with its implementation and is fighting the Biden Administration to make interpretations more favorable to fossil-fuel companies. The Post also presents, in a series of charts, the challenge we face due to climate change, and the evidence that we are (albeit too slowly) responding to the challenge.

One of the most under-told stories of the renewable-energy revolution is the potential for geothermal power to contribute in a much greater way to the world’s supply of carbon-free electricity. Existing geothermal power is generated at locations where naturally occurring hot water or steam can be easily brought to the surface. The New York Times reports that technical advances and cost efficiencies in drilling and sensing technology, borrowed from the fracking industry, are demonstrating the potential for generating electricity from hot rock without natural sources of steam. Known as enhanced geothermal, this technology expands almost infinitely the places where geothermal energy can be used to generate electricity (for those who are interested, a Volts podcast examines the potential of enhanced geothermal in more detail). In addition, this allows companies and their employees that drill for oil and gas to be directly involved in the renewable-energy revolution, which is a valuable political development.

The Washington Post reports that there has been “an abnormal and dramatic surge in sea levels along the U.S. gulf and southeastern coastlines since about 2010." Data from New Orleans indicate that sea level is eight inches higher than in 2006, a rate of rise that is more than double the global average. Studies indicate that damages from Hurricanes Michael and Ian, two of the strongest storms ever to hit the United States, were worse because of this additional sea level rise.

Wired Magazine has an excellent explanation for why the rates of sea level rise vary across regions. The article focuses on the United States, and points out that differences in coastal subsidence rates and coastal water temperatures are important sources of the variability. Consequently, sea level will rise faster on the Gulf Coast because the warm ocean water takes up more space, and that coastline is subsiding. Conversely, sea level is actually projected to decline slightly in Anchorage, because the land there is rising slowly. The Guardian has a good background article on sea level rise, which notes that we’ve already guaranteed that the seas will rise for centuries. The only question is how fast, and that depends upon how quickly we reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and whether natural processes work to accelerate the melting of ice.

The Washington Post visits southern Louisiana in a video essay that describes the accelerated loss of wetlands and its impacts on the region. It also reviews some major efforts to divert the Mississippi River back into the wetlands to deliver sediment vital to preventing them from drowning as sea level rises. The Post also describes coastal erosion in North Wildwood, New Jersey, and an acrimonious political and legal battle around protecting beaches in this area. The city has taken unilateral actions to try to prevent beach erosion, while the state claims that these steps have been illegal. Beach replenishment projects in New Jersey have cost more than $2.5 billion (adjusted for inflation) over the past century. But to maintain these beaches requires more and more sand in ever-more expensive projects. While the federal government has picked up most of the tab so far, this process is clearly not sustainable in the long term. The New York Times visits Oceanside, California, which just sponsored an international contest for ideas on how to preserve and enhance its beaches, which are disappearing due to erosion.

The Washington Post reports on its investigation of how a Saudi company has been growing alfalfa in Arizona using an unmeasured amount of ground water, and then exporting the grain to Saudi Arabia to feed dairy cattle. The article notes that “Arizona’s lax regulatory environment and sophisticated lobbying by the Saudi-owned company allowed a scarce American resource to flow unchecked to a foreign corporation.”

Canary Media reports that Ford and GM have decided to adopt Tesla’s fast-charging technology for their new EVs, as opposed to an alternate standard that is used by major European manufacturers and some other auto makers. This may allow Ford and GM drivers to access Tesla’s fast-charger network, which is presently more than twice as large as the fast-charging stations available from all other providers in the U.S. combined. Grist tells the story of Ford’s CEO recognizing that it would be easier to charge his EV if it could use the Tesla network. The AP describes a newly announced joint project from General Motors, BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes and Stellantis to build a fast-charging network in the U.S. to rival Tesla’s. The Union of Concerned Scientists explores the world of bi-directional charging, where EVs can both accept or deliver electricity. This opens up remarkable opportunities for both EV owners (to charge at low prices and deliver electricity when prices are high) and grid operators who need to cover peak power. SB 233 would require that all EVs sold in California support bi-directional charging by 2030.

Hurricane Idalia rapidly intensified in late August and struck the Gulf Coast of Florida. The New York Times reports that the storm “could have been far worse. By a stroke of meteorological good fortune, the hurricane came ashore in a marshy and thinly populated part of Florida, southeast of Tallahassee.” (And it was “good fortune,” unless you live in one of the 4,000-6,000 homes that were damaged.) Despite striking a less populated region, The Guardian notes that Idalia may still be the costliest climate disaster in the U.S. this year, with serious implications for the insurance and risk-management industries. The storm also caused damage in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

Meanwhile, in what is becoming a commonplace occurrence in our new climate, extreme rainstorms struck Greece, Libya and Hong Kong. The AP reports that some parts of Greece received twice their annual average rainfall in just 12 hours, and this video shows streets in Hong Kong turned into powerful rivers. Initial reports suggested 2,000 dead due to historic floods in Libya but, at this writing, The Guardian notes that two dams failed in the city of Derna and it is possible this event could be “disastrous beyond comprehension” with over 10,000 dead. One government official stated that “25% of [Derna] has disappeared.” The Climate Brink reminds us that climate impacts are non-linear; if floodwaters reach 2 inches below the levee in front of your house, you have no impacts. But if they rise an inch over the levee, the damage is enormous.

The AP reports that “batteries in older Nissan Leaf electric vehicles are getting a new life as portable power sources that can be used to run gadgets on the go or deliver emergency power in disasters.” TechSpot describes the world’s first solar-powered truck being tested on the roads in Sweden. Reuters examines some of the challenges associated with repurposing old EV batteries for use on the grid.

The State of California has announced that electricity production from solar increased almost twenty times since 2012, notes CleanTechnica. “During the same period, wind power generation increased 63%. Fossil-fuel use in the state’s energy mix declined in the same time frame. Coal use was almost entirely eliminated and natural gas electricity production decreased 20%.” The state met its renewable-energy goal of 34% two years early.