December 15 2021

December 15 2021

sea level continues to challenge low-lying areas of Atlantic coast, fire and then floods in British Columbia and Australia, largest-ever order for solar panels in U.S., parking lots and landfills as solar-energy producers, federal government starts decarbonization push

An article in Grist revisits Tangier Island, in Chesapeake Bay. The island is slowly disappearing because of sea level rise and coastal erosion. These processes appear to be accelerating, and the latest study suggests that the island will be uninhabitable by 2051. The mayor of the island, James “Ooker” Eskridge, had a famous interaction with Al Gore during a CNN town hall when the mayor insisted that sea level rise was not a thing. Eskridge, a supporter of Donald Trump, said that Trump told him "not to worry about sea-level rise. Your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.” AP reports that Charleston, South Carolina, experienced the fourth-highest tide in 85 years of recording. What’s remarkable is that the other three highest levels happened during tropical storms or hurricanes. Another AP story describes the results of a recent election in Virginia Beach, where voters approved a new tax to support adaptation to rising sea level and intense flooding. This is evidence of the growing understanding that the problems of climate change are real.

A storm dropped a month’s worth of rain in two days across parts of British Columbia as described in an article in the Guardian. Said one resident, “Things that we just thought would always be there like highway bridges that were built 30 years ago that were part of our life — were absolutely destroyed. Mountainsides just collapsed onto roads. The level of destruction is really difficult to comprehend.” This storm was one of several atmospheric rivers to strike the region recently. This type of precipitation event, which is replicated weekly across the planet now (i.e., Australia), is becoming more and more likely due the physical fact that a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture. It is particularly dramatic to have these storms happening in southern British Columbia and Australia, areas also recently hammered by major heat and wildfire events.

An article in the Atlantic describes how nuclear power is receiving a lot of interest because of its potential to produce carbon-free electricity. This includes standard reactors being built in China (and soon in France), plus some newer designs. There are also new incentives (including in the recently passed infrastructure bill) to keep existing plants operating. Inside Climate News reports on efforts to build new reactors in Washington State. As I’ve noted previously (The Nuclear Mirage), I have doubts about the future contribution of nuclear power due to issues of cost and safety (including potential terrorist strikes and proliferation of nuclear weapons). Utility Dive reports that the only nuclear plant under construction in the U.S. — the Vogtle plant in Georgia — is now scheduled to start operations seven years late and at double its original cost.

An article in Grist describes the growing efforts to reclaim lands damaged and polluted by coal mining. Efforts include extracting iron from waters to restore streams (iron oxide is sold as paint pigment), cleaning up and reusing land for commercial and residential purposes or for building solar-power plants. Biden’s infrastructure bill includes $11.3 billion to support reclamation programs like these. An op-ed in the Guardian describes the ecological importance of fungi in the soil. Fungi sequester a significant amount of carbon globally and perform an essential public good by promoting soil and plant productivity.

The closing of coal-fired power plants can have major economic impacts in the small communities in which many of these facilities are located. The Guardian explores this issue with a focus on Nucla, Colorado, where a plant closure meant the area lost its largest employer and half of its property tax revenue. Advance planning has helped Nucla adapt, but not all communities are so successful.

Utility Dive reports on the largest-ever order of solar panels for a U.S. company. First Solar will supply up to 5.4 gigawatts (GW) of solar panels to BP and solar-energy developer Lightsource BP through 2025. The companies plan to deploy the panels in projects to be built in Arkansas, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas, according to Monday’s announcement. The exploding growth of the solar industry is seen in the fact that the second- and third-largest solar-panel orders occurred earlier this year.

An article in Energy Monitor examines the challenge of creating enough renewable energy to meet decarbonization targets. At the moment, wind-energy production is on track to be 29% below what is projected to be required, and wind-turbine manufacturers are responding by modularizing their products to make transport, installation and maintenance even easier (and thus cheaper). This will also allow for turbine capacity to be upgraded without complete reinstallation of a new system. The article also describes commitments and actions by major firms in the industry to be carbon neutral and sustainable.

Old landfills and parking lots have a secret: they can be part of the renewable-energy revolution. Canary Media reports on the growing deployment of solar panels at old landfill sites not suitable for other uses. A recent analysis concluded that, of the 10,000 closed landfills identified across the country, 4,000 of them are suitable for solar arrays that could generate 63 GW of electricity, and there are likely many more such sites in the U.S. The limited acreage and unstable soils that characterize most landfills mean development costs are a little higher, but these projects can also bring benefits to marginalized communities where landfills are often located, making these projects worthwhile.

Yale e360 notes the potential of siting solar arrays over parking lots. Over half of utility-scale solar facilities are in deserts, 33% are on croplands and 10% are in grasslands and forests. Just 2.5% of U.S. solar power comes from urban areas. While development of smaller urban projects can be more expensive per installed watt than a larger project on open land, the latter has many other potential uses that have to be sacrificed for solar development, while already-developed land does not. The article notes that if Walmart installed solar at the parking lots of all 3,571 of its U.S. super centers, the total capacity would be 11.1 GW of solar power — roughly equivalent to a dozen large coal-fired power plants. A solar canopy at the Evansville, IN, regional airport generated a $310,000 profit in its first year of operation. A Yale School of the Environment study finds that solar canopies on parking lots could provide a third of Connecticut’s power. Other solar-siting options including panels floating on water ("floatovoltaics"), old golf courses and installations on grazing and agricultural lands.

In Salon, an article examines a key impact of wildfires — that burned forests do not always grow back. These forests were established under a climate with different temperature and precipitation patterns and less-frequent fires. With our current climate, the ecosystem that develops after fires is often grassland or scrub land. While some mature trees can survive the fires, seedlings cannot grow, especially on south-facing slopes that are hotter and drier.

From the innovation department: Anthropocene Magazine reports on a new experimental solar reactor that creates kerosene from the carbon dioxide and water in air. This could theoretically be used to create fuel in remote locations. The problem is that, at the moment, this kerosene — even at a projected commercial scale — would cost 3-5 times more than that made from crude oil.

The New York Times reports that "In a series of executive orders, Mr. Biden directed the government to transform its 300,000 buildings, 600,000 cars and trucks, and use its annual purchases of $650 billion in goods and services to meet his goal of a federal government that stops adding carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2050." An article in the Guardian describes innovations designed to reduce the environmental impact of the EV revolution, including new mining techniques, battery designs and recycling/reuse of spent batteries.