December 31 2020

December 31 2020

Trump’s EPA formally ignores health benefits, reducing the price of carbon capture, modern sailing ships, the essential electrification of trucking, getting to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050

At this blog (and on virtually any news site), you have been exposed to a dismaying array of environmentally destructive and scientifically indefensible actions by the Trump Administration. Now the Washington Post reports on a recent action by the EPA that may be the worst ever. The EPA has formally propagated a rule that will change how the agency estimates the costs and benefits of its regulations, making it standard practice to ignore “indirect benefits.” Richard Revesz of the New York University School of Law summarizes it this way: “They’re basically saying that the indirect consequences of regulation must be taken into account if they’re negative, and should be ignored if they are positive. I mean, there’s no scenario under which an approach like that is rational in any way.” Most observers expect this rule will be overturned, but this will require time and money. Critics are labeling the new regulation nothing but sabotage to public health in order to protect industry.

The Economist looks at the declining coal-fired power industry, noting that its decline is being brought about by government policy, cheaper alternatives and restricted access to capital. The impacts are quite significant. For example, in Britain the share of electricity generated by coal fell from 40% in 2013 to 2% in the first half of 2020. In the U.S., despite the Trump Administration’s pro-coal policies and rhetoric, coal-fired electricity generation was 20% lower in 2019 than in 2016. Portugal, which had planned to be coal free by 2030, now looks to reach that goal in 2021. A new study summarized by Energy News concludes that the vast majority of existing fossil-fuel power plant capacity will reach the end of its typical lifespan by 2035, making achieving a deadline to decarbonize electricity less costly than previously expected.

If we are to meet any of our goals to limit atmospheric temperatures in this century, it is not enough to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. We are going to have to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, a process that is now expensive (and ironically produces carbon emissions). The Atlantic has a great article about an effort to drive down the price of capturing carbon from the atmosphere, sponsored by the internet-payment company Stripe. The company is paying the current (relatively high) price for removing carbon from the atmosphere using four different technologies, helping these technologies cut costs so that they can become more widely available.

At Vox, Dave Roberts reviews a key component of the solution to climate change — electrification of transportation. While electrification of passenger cars is receiving a lot of attention, Robert’s excellent article focuses on medium- and heavy-duty trucks and buses (MHDT). While MHDT were just 6% of the registered vehicles on U.S. roads in 2018, they were responsible for 23% of transportation-sector greenhouse-gas emissions (about 7% of total U.S. emissions), and also a large amount of other air pollutants. Long-haul trucks alone produce about 40% of vehicular particulate pollution, and the impacts of this pollution fall heavily on people of color and low-income communities that live near major roads, rail depots and ports. The auto industry is recognizing electric MHDT as a huge market, and big automakers like Daimler, Volvo, VW and Tesla will be producing multiple models in coming years. Roberts reviews a variety of challenges facing MHDT electrification and policies that could accelerate the transition. Here and Now interviews Mary Nichols, Chair of the California Air Resources Board and global leader in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Nichols was reported to be on the “short list” for the job of EPA Administrator in the Biden Administration.

An article in Reuters notes that major automobile manufacturers, calling themselves the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, have pledged to work with the Biden Administration on advancing the electrification of transportation. The Los Angeles Times auto critic reviews the new Volkswagen ID.4, and concludes that this compact SUV “is the first true mainstream electric car to be offered for sale in the U.S.”

The Guardian takes a detailed look at mining for lithium, which is the key ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries that power electric cars. The need to decarbonize the transportation sector is going to generate enormous demand for lithium, and the article focuses on the plans for mining deposits in central Portugal. Sometimes referred to as “white oil,” open-pit lithium mines will provide vital resources for batteries while causing significant local environmental impacts. The article also discusses the possibility of recycling lithium from used batteries.

Among our most vexing challenges — as we seek to decarbonize transportation — are in the aviation and shipping sectors, as ships and planes travel long distances before refueling. The International Maritime Organization wants to cut 2008 climate-changing emissions from shipping in half by 2050, requiring less-polluting ships. Reuters reports on the modern use of wind power to reduce emissions from the shipping industry. Shipping accounted for 2.9% of greenhouse-gas emissions in 2018, but low-carbon ship designs — such as the Oceanbird automobile carrier — are beginning to arrive. These “new sailing ships” benefit from new technologies and materials inspired by racing yachts in the America’s Cup. (Oceanbird has wing sails, likely to be built from aluminum, steel and composite materials, that will be over 300 feet above sea level, making it one of the tallest ships in the world.)

An article in the New York Times describes how many refineries are retooling to produce diesel fuel from used cooking oil and other organic wastes. This “renewable diesel” is processed in a manner that allows it to be used as a direct substitute for petroleum diesel, and there are federal and state incentives for its manufacture. It has a significantly smaller carbon footprint than conventional diesel, allowing it to qualify as a “low-carbon fuel” in California. This means manufacturers will be generating carbon credits that can be sold on the California market. The City of Oakland has been using renewable diesel in all of its diesel-powered equipment, including fire department apparatuses and off-road equipment, since 2015.

Yale e360 describes the extraordinary growth in utility-scale battery storage projects around the world. These facilities are key components of an electrical grid that will operate smoothly with large amounts of intermittent generation like solar and wind. The cost for large battery storage declined almost 70% between 2015 and 2018, as this industry “piggybacks” on the advances in lithium-ion batteries being driven by the investments in electric vehicles and consumer electronics.

The University of Houston reports that attitudes about climate change are shifting in Texas, where 81% of people surveyed believe climate change is happening. This percentage is similar to national levels. 93% of those surveyed were willing to pay more for carbon-neutral energy, with 75% saying they would pay between $1 and $5 more per gallon for gasoline.

Robert Socolow of Princeton University, a well-respected leader in the field of climate adaptation, has written an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists about the next 25 years. He describes some key actions that need to be advanced and the major challenges we face. Topics he reviews include energy efficiency, nuclear power, the role of the fossil-fuel industry and geoengineering.

A major study completed at Princeton University has concluded that the U.S. can reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. This good news, which echoes the results of a recent study by the United Nations, is tempered by the reality of the scale of construction required for the transition, as summarized by the New York Times (and by the Washington Post). By 2030, this year’s record-setting rate of solar- and wind-power installation will need to double, our electrical grid will need to expand by almost 60% and 50% of new cars sold will need to be EVs (up from 2% this year). Many other similarly sized changes are required for the industrial sector, home heating and other energy uses currently supplied by fossil fuels. As one of the lead authors noted, “We can do this, we can afford this, but now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and figure out how to get it done.”

A great attitude for 2021! Happy New Year to all.