July 31 2022

July 31 2022

climate policy on a “Manchin-go-round”, EV sales rising quickly, California’s last nuke may operate longer, Alaska burning, old coal plants go solar

In mid-July, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WVA), who the New York Times notes has taken more campaign donations from the fossil-fuel industry than any other Senator, decided to vote against action on climate change. Manchin has made his fortune by selling the dirtiest type of coal to a power plant in West Virginia, and then taking a slice of the revenue from that plant’s electricity sales. After previously rejecting two larger climate-action bills, he decided that he could not support even the pared-down version he requested (an article in the New Yorker chronicles this bad faith negotiating, and Bill McKibben notes this is but another American political failure on climate).

Manchin’s decision signaled that the U.S. will not take meaningful climate action, essentially ensuring the planet will blow past the temperature thresholds identified as dangerous by the world’s scientific community. John Podesta, a former senior counselor to President Barack Obama, remarked: “It seems odd that Manchin would choose as his legacy to be the one man who single-handedly doomed humanity.” In a New York Times op-ed, climate scientist Leah Stokes wonders how Manchin “looks his own grandchildren in the eye.” Also in the Times, Paul Krugman notes that Manchin only has this power because Republicans are unified in their opposition to clean energy, which he sees as the real problem.

But wait! In a last-minute reversal, Senator Manchin changed his position and agreed to a bill that, according to the New York Times, represents “the largest investment in renewable energy in the history of the United States.” Maybe the Senator had a moment with his grandchildren after all. At the time of this writing, it is still unclear what will be contained in the agreement, which Manchin has called the Inflation Reduction Act. Of course, the “Manchin-go-round” could just keep on spinning (and don’t forget the “Sinema-go-round”). I’ll have more on this bill in the next In Brief.

Senator Manchin’s hot air is not the only heat in the news. An article in the Guardian describes heat waves that are hitting parts of China, the U.S. and Europe. In 2020, British meteorologists published a hypothetical 2050 weather report to demonstrate the impact of global warming. Unfortunately, that hypothetical forecast matches the actual forecast for the week of July 20, reports CNN, and this op-ed describes how Britain is unprepared for its hotter climate. Britain declared a national emergency, with its first-ever warning for exceptional heat, and in Europe the heat wave also affected France, Spain and Italy with high temperatures and wildfires (an article from MSNBC notes that, by later in the century, the record-setting temperatures of this heat wave will be relatively common). An op-ed in The Hill reviews the wide-ranging and serious impacts from excessive heat on everything from agricultural yields to mental health, and the Washington Post reports on heat damage to railways, roads, airports and bridges.

The Washington Post reported on July 20th that excessive heat warnings issued in the U.S. were affecting more than 105 million people in 28 states, and it reached 115°F in Texas and Oklahoma. High temperatures will probably remain for a week at least due to a “heat dome” created by a stable high-pressure system in the region. An op-ed in the Washington Post recounts that solar power, which has grown exponentially in Texas, has been a vital part of preventing rolling blackouts during the heat wave. Meanwhile, The Guardian notes that Americans continue to move to cities that are getting hotter and hotter, including Phoenix, San Antonio and Fort Worth. These communities remain far behind in preparing for the impacts of their new climate.

An op-ed in the Washington Post describes a new legal effort to regulate carbon dioxide as a toxic substance pursuant to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Existing legal efforts to control greenhouse gases have used the Clean Air Act, but this novel petition filed by James Hansen and other leading scientists seeks to use the purpose of TSCA, which is to control substances that pose “an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment,” to require EPA to take action. The EPA has 90 days to respond.

The Guardian reports on a recent study concluding that “a total of 7.4 million lives around the world will be saved over this century if the U.S. manages to cut its emissions to net zero by 2050. The financial savings would be enormous, too, with a net-zero America able to save the world $3.7 trillion in costs to adapt to the rising heat.”

Axios notes that EV registrations in the U.S. exceeded 5% of new cars for the first time at the beginning of this year (in the San Francisco Bay area, that number was over 20%!). As governments implement more aggressive policies to encourage adoption of EVs, projections of EV sales are growing significantly. Protocol reports that one study concludes that EVs will amount to 20% of global sales by 2025 and 59% in 2035. Just last year, the same analysts projected that EVs would be only 11% of global sales in 2025 and 45% in 2035. The New York Times describes the robust consumer demand for EVs that is a key part of the transformation of the auto industry. The article quotes an industry analyst: “The energy behind this transition is already at a point where there is no return.” CNBC describes how major auto firms are beginning to build out the EV-charging network, which will have to expand greatly to support the growth of EVs on the road. Reuters reports that Federal Express is starting to scale up its purchases of all-electric trucks for its fleet. Inside Climate News notes advances in solid-state battery production. Solid-state batteries are expected to become the automakers’ battery of choice as they will allow EVs to travel farther between charges.

As more and more EVs are sold, the need to recycle used EV batteries grows as well. At the moment, battery recycling lags far behind EV manufacturing. Canary Media reports that “a number of startups are commercializing cleaner and more efficient recycling techniques, and building dedicated lithium-ion battery recycling factories at an unprecedented scale.” The article describes the approaches of five different companies that are working to recycle batteries by separating out key components that can be provided to battery manufacturers more cheaply than virgin materials. Protocol notes another problem with expanded sales of EVs: the export of used fossil-fuel-powered cars to Africa and other places where these vehicles’ emissions continue. Without policies to discourage this practice, overall emissions reductions from the U.S. transitioning to EVs will be smaller than expected.

The Guardian examines the future of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, the last such facility operating in California. The plant supplies about 10% of California’s electricity. Scheduled to be shut down in 2025, mainly for economic reasons, many analysts are suggesting that the plant’s contribution to California’s need for carbon-free electricity has been undervalued. The New York Times describes a Stanford/MIT study of the power plant, which concludes that “keeping Diablo Canyon open for 10 years could reduce the California power industry’s carbon emissions by more than 10 percent from 2017 levels and reduce reliance on natural gas. It also could save $2.6 billion in electricity costs and help prevent brownouts.” Governor Newsom and Senator Feinstein have called for keeping the plant operating. Wired Magazine reports on how the European heat wave is reducing the output of nuclear power plants in France due to a lack of adequate cooling water. Combined with maintenance issues, this has resulted in a 50% reduction in electricity from the country’s nuclear plants this year.

Major wildfires have been burning this year in Alaska. As of mid-July, over 260 fires were burning in the state. From 2001–2020, wildfires burned over 2.5 times more acres in Alaska than during the previous two decades. Axios notes that Alaska continues to face unusually warm, dry conditions. The Guardian reports that extreme aridity is leading to projections of a severe fire season across the U.S. for 2022. “Already, the amount of acreage burned by this point in the year has eclipsed previous years, standing at roughly 220% higher than the 10-year average.”

A recent study from Stanford University concludes that, in 145 countries examined, a transition to safe, clean and cheap renewable energy is possible. A key reason for this result is that an all-electric economy driven by renewable sources is more efficient that one driven by combustion. An op-ed by the study’s lead author in The Hill describes the results, and notes that the global investment of $62 trillion for the transition has a six-year payback because of the value of the fuel savings (the benefits of less climate change and fewer health effects, which are significant, were not even included in the calculation).

The New York Times describes how climate change has altered the snow and ice of the Dolomites, leading to the recent collapse of a glacier on Mt. Marmolada that left at least 10 people dead. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle has remarkable video of another glacier collapse (this one in Kyrgyzstan), and a discussion of where such collapses might happen in California (more on these glacier collapses from the Washington Post). Inside Climate News notes that, while we can model the long-term disappearance of glaciers in a warmer world, we know very little about how that ice loss occurs. These collapses make clear that it is an error to assume glaciers will just gradually melt away.

After worrying about the possibility of a drought earlier this month, St. Louis was hit with record rainfall that caused flash-flooding. The New York Times reports that the downpour “transformed interstates and neighborhood streets into roaring rivers that collapsed roofs and forced residents to flee their homes in inflatable boats.” Intense flooding has hit southern China as described by the New York Times. Surging rivers have “disrupted the lives of almost half a million people in southern China,” collapsing over 1,700 homes and causing more than $250 million in damage. The New York Times reports as well on record-breaking monsoon rains in Pakistan. The damage from these extreme storms has been severe in the capital city of Karachi, which is experiencing severe flooding for the second time in three years. An op-ed in the Washington Post explains the current impacts and future threat to Pakistan from climate change, and an article in Grist describes recent research that suggests why intense rainfall — projected for later in this century — is falling now.

Anthropocene Magazine reports on research into solar thermal fuels. These are substances that store energy when exposed to sunlight, and then release it as heat when exposed to a catalyst. In theory, these substances could be valuable ways to store solar energy for use when the sun is not shining, but there are still some technical hurdles to overcome.

The New York Times describes how shuttered coal-fired power plants are finding new life as solar/battery facilities because of the existing connection to the electrical grid at these sites. “In Illinois alone, at least nine coal-burning plants are on track to become solar farms and battery storage facilities in the next three years. Similar projects are taking shape in Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, North Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and Maryland.” Two retired coal plants along the coast in Massachusetts and New Jersey are being repurposed to connect offshore wind turbines to the regional electrical grids. Not only do these projects benefit from the existing grid connections, but they also allow reinvestment in the communities that lost the economic benefits of the operating power plants. The article notes that a retired coal plant in Wyoming is going to be the site for an advanced nuclear reactor being developed by TerraPower (founded by Bill Gates), which will take advantage of the grid connection and the cooling system of the old plant.