June 30 2023

June 30 2023

carbon-dioxide concentrations rise and temperature records fall around the world, storm drains are now bringing water into low-lying communities, Republicans like EVs too, Texas’ renewable energy survives political onslaught, the challenge of modernizing the U.S. electrical grid

The AP reports that, as expected, carbon-dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere continue to climb. In May of 2023, concentrations reached 424 parts per million (ppm) at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, 3 ppm more than last year’s May average and 51% higher than pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm. This is one of the largest annual increases on record. The Guardian notes that June 2023 has produced record heat in many places around the world. As El Niño conditions develop in the second half of the year, many are predicting that 2023 or 2024 will be the hottest year ever recorded.

The Conversation summarizes recent research documenting “very strong variability in the El Niño-Southern Oscillation after 1960,” which supports the hypothesis that human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions are a cause. The strong variability is associated with more frequent extreme-weather events and, in the future, we can expect more swings from a strong El Niño in one year to a strong La Niña the following year. Even if greenhouse-gas emissions drop precipitously, the heat already stored in the ocean means that more powerful El Niño and La Niña events can be expected for a century. The New York Times explores in-depth the swings in climate that California can expect in the future, and how the natural landscape can be used to help us adapt to the world that is coming.

The New York Times visits the English coast northeast of London, where stronger storms are accelerating coastal erosion. Houses and roads are being lost, and the government has responded by devising a plan that defends some areas but not others. As you can imagine, there are many people frustrated by this approach, but it is a realistic attempt to deal with the problem. The Washington Post visits Santa Cruz, CA, where beautiful West Cliff Drive is falling into the ocean, as are many other places along the California coast (one recent cliff collapse was caught on video). This is a trend that is expected to accelerate in coming decades.

In California, the land below the mean high-tide line is public, but sea level rise raises a question: “What happens when the tide line starts to move inland because of climate change? At what point does private property become public property — and how do we draw that line?” The Los Angeles Times explores this question with Kate Huckelbridge, the Executive Director of the California Coastal Commission.

The New York Times visits the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, which has been sinking and plagued by frequent floods. 40% of Jakarta now lies below sea level. The current President of Indonesia is addressing this problem by building a new capitol on Borneo, the world’s third-largest island, about 800 miles away. The new capital is to be called Nusantara, and is envisioned as a model for adapting to a warming planet. The article explores the ambitious project, which is rife with technical, economic and political complexities. On a more local note, KQED examines the practical problems facing San Leandro, CA, where high tides are starting to flow up the storm-drain system that was designed to transport water the other direction.

Grist reports that the United States has likely passed peak gasoline usage. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, demand for gasoline is expected to be down 7% this year from 2018. Usage could decline by 30% in 2030, which is still not enough to reach climate goals. Experts are advocating for targeting “super users”; the 10% of the population that drives the most and uses nearly a third of the gasoline. A proposed law in Vermont would do just that if signed by the governor. Whether or not we’re at peak gas, pollution from gasoline in the form of leaks from tanks and pipes at gas stations will be with us for decades. More than half a million such leaks have been confirmed around the country, with the clean-up bill estimated to be over $22 billion. As with climate change, oil companies understood this problem for decades, and took a variety of actions to limit their liability for the damage.

The Atlantic describes the challenge of creating an adequate public charging network to support widespread EV use. The author argues that, while EV range used to be the most pressing challenge hindering EV adoption, it is now the availability and reliability of public charging stations. Axios reports that Ford has just announced its adoption of Tesla’s charging standard. This will allow Ford EV owners to access Tesla’s charging network, but moves the industry away from one standard for all EVs. Grist explores the challenges of providing charging infrastructure for medium- and heavy-duty trucks. “One of the largest barriers to building the charging infrastructure needed for electric trucks is finding sites with sufficient power capacity or a utility willing and able to make the upgrades.”

The Washington Post notes that EVs are not just popular among environmentalists and “blue state” elites. Reliably Republican counties in Texas and other areas are showing above-average EV adoption as well. Inside Climate News reports on new research documenting that the increasing market share of EVs is due to the appeal of the cars to consumers, not a deeper moral or environmental rationale. Features helping to drive sales include long battery ranges, fast acceleration, low costs for maintenance and the fact that many consumers find EVs more fun to drive than gasoline-powered vehicles. Grist examines the state of battery recycling in the U.S. The EU has recently mandated recycling of EV batteries by 2030, and there are proposals to do the same in the U.S.

In Yale Climate Connections, meteorologist Jeff Masters reviews a new book about climate-driven migration in the United States, The Great Displacement, by Jake Bittle. Using the personal experiences of people from around the country after major storms and fires, the author describes the inevitable decline in property values, and the challenges facing communities heavily threatened by wildfire, hurricanes and sea level rise. Remarkably, as of today, high-risk areas like Florida and south Texas are still seeing an enormous in-migration of people (in Phoenix, home prices are up 53% since January 2020). Eventually this pattern will have to reverse itself, and some indicators show that this is already beginning to happen. Sierra Magazine takes an in-depth look at the growing impact of climate change on the real-estate market.

An op-ed in Salon extols the climate virtues of nuclear power, explaining that if we only had committed to building thousands of nuclear power plants we wouldn’t have a climate problem. This author argues that, because there’s never been a massive accident, nuclear power is safe, and that we should not be worried about the safety of existing plants in the U.S. because they are a different design than Chernobyl. Simply ignored are the problems of how nuclear power encourages the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the high costs of nuclear power despite massive subsidies and the extraordinary risk of low-probability, high-consequence events. Imagine our world if Iran, Nigeria, Egypt and Indonesia possessed nuclear weapons because they had isolated plutonium from spent nuclear fuel rods like Pakistan and India. I have previously explained why I don’t think nuclear power can be considered a climate solution, as does a recent op-ed at CNN. Energy Monitor reviews the prospects for the expansion of nuclear power, and also reaches a pessimistic conclusion. The AP reports that the only new nuclear reactors to join the U.S. fleet in decades, Vogtle Units 3 and 4 in Georgia, will begin operating over the next year — seven years late and $17 billion over budget.

An in-depth look at the U.S. wind-power industry by Canary Media makes clear the importance of federal clean-energy policy for this sector. The major manufacturers, the communities in which they are located and the many other businesses in the supply chain have historically relied on federal tax policies to compete with fossil fuels (which have been subsidized for decades). The Inflation Reduction Act has extended important tax policies, and sent a strong signal of federal support for clean energy, and this has rejuvenated the U.S. industry. It is interesting to note that many of these industrial facilities, including battery and solar-panel manufacturing, are being developed in states whose senators voted against the IRA.

The May 31, 2023 In Brief described a series of bills proposed in the Texas legislature that would create disincentives for renewable energy and subsidize fossil fuels, noting that the proposals “demonstrate both the political power of the fossil-fuel industry and the unfortunate capture of energy and climate policy by the culture wars.” David Wallace-Wells reports in The New York Times that these bills have failed, an important indication that the economic revolution in renewable energy is now generating political coalitions that can counter the power of the fossil-fuel industry. Wallace-Wells notes that this coalition of environmentalists, industry organizations and business groups — including more than 50 Chambers of Commerce — focused mainly on the cost for electricity consumers and gains for the Texas economy to make their case.

As Texas endures a major heat wave, the power grid has proved up to the task, and renewable energy is part of the reason. The New York Times reports that, in Texas, electricity generated by solar cells has doubled since the start of last year, and is projected to double again by the end of next year. About 7% of the electric power used in Texas has come from solar this year, and 31% from wind. In addition, batteries have been essential to keep the grid operational. The heat triggered malfunctions at large coal and nuclear power plants, causing them to go off-line, making the generation from renewable sources essential to prevent rolling blackouts.

It is well-established that the United States must greatly expand its electrical grid in order to be able to bring carbon-free electricity from where it’s generated to where it’s needed. The New York Times examines the complications associated with making this happen. While we talk about a national grid, there are actually three separate grids in the U.S. that are only connected in spots, and do not exchange much electricity. Grid modernization and expansion is often compared to building the interstate highway system but, unlike for highways, there is no single national entity planning the electrical grid. Thousands of proposed wind and solar projects are facing multi-year delays and rising costs because of bottlenecks connecting to the grid. The article notes that “in many parts of the country, existing power lines are often so clogged that they can’t deliver electricity from wind and solar projects to where it is needed most and demand is often met by more expensive fossil fuel plants closer to homes and businesses. This problem, known as congestion, costs the country billions of dollars per year and has been getting worse.”

Anthropocene Magazine describes advances in “biosynthesis,” where scientists are using bacteria to create products that are traditionally manufactured with fossil fuels. “Scientists have, for instance, engineered microbes to produce ammonia fertilizer, and key ingredients for making nylon and other plastics. The problem is that biology lacks many of the reactions that are available to synthetic chemists. So using biosynthesis gives a narrower range of products than synthetic chemistry.”

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson tells recent graduates of Middlebury College to “be tenacious on behalf of life on Earth,” and to recognize that the only way to address today’s multiple crises is to move through them with a focus on transformation and possibility. While it is unfortunate that her speech (reprinted by Time Magazine) is necessary, it is a beautiful call to action.