March 15 2023

March 15 2023

massive snowfall challenging California, moving towards electric trucks, electric grid not ready for the renewable-energy revolution, atmospheric scientists adapt as volcano erupts, North Dakota may sue Minnesota over renewable-energy law

It is a physical fact that warm air holds more moisture. This is a key reason our warming world is facing more extreme precipitation events. While we tend to think of these events as rainfall and subsequent flooding, massive snowfall can also be dangerous and damaging. The New York Times describes the impacts of massive snowfall in southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains, which are proving to be far-reaching (update). People cannot get to their homes, people cannot leave their homes, medicine, groceries and other supplies are not available, fire hydrants are encased in ice, grocery stores with already limited supplies have to close as their roofs collapse — the list goes on. We all must recognize that this is our new climate, and that we’ll have to live in this climate even if we engineer a fast and thorough transition away from fossil fuels.

Salon notes that, despite a snowpack that is almost twice the average, California is not out of the drought. Analysts say that it would take three or four winters like this one in a row to alleviate the drought, including rebuilding groundwater supplies and returning soil- and vegetation-moisture content to pre-drought conditions. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle describes a major risk that the state now faces because of the large snowpack: warm rainstorms that result in a fast and extensive snowmelt, generating major flooding. Warm rainstorms were at the heart of major floods in California, including the 2017 Feather River flood that damaged the Oroville reservoir, the 1997 flood on the San Joaquin River and the Great Flood of 1862. The New York Times quotes U.C. Davis Professor Jeffrey Mount, who notes that we are in “uncharted territory,” as the water content of the snowpack in the southern Sierra is the largest ever recorded. “It is worth remembering that almost all of our flood management infrastructure is more than a half-century old and designed around the climate of the past.”

Mother Nature decided to prove the point as a relatively warm atmospheric river struck California on March 9-10, with warnings that conditions “could get ugly.” The area around Fresno was expecting particularly heavy rain that would melt snow (flood warnings were issued on March 10). The Guardian quoted a representative of the National Weather Service (NWS): “We want everyone to be prepared for conditions we’ve never experienced before.” I think that should be considered as a NWS motto going forward. While it will take more than one warm rainfall to melt the deep snow pack higher in the mountains, as the rainfall freezes in this deep snow it adds weight. The New York Times describes the increasing stress on Sierra residents’ roofs as the snow depth grows, and how levees are failing in the lowlands as rivers flood.

The good news is that reservoir operators in California are taking advantage of our improved ability to project atmospheric rivers by releasing water ahead of the storms, increasing their capacity to capture a pulse of melt-water and reduce downstream flooding. There are also new plans in place to deliver more water to wildlife refuges and other locations that support groundwater recharge.

Grist reports on the efforts to electrify trucking in California. Currently, these programs are focused on short-haul trucks that operate around the ports, which tend to be older vehicles with the highest emissions (the part of the industry known as “drayage”). This focus is key due to the environmental injustice perpetrated on nearby communities: “Long Beach residents closest to the ports and freeways have a life expectancy 14 years shorter than those who live further away. Many neighborhoods in the nearby communities of Carson, Wilmington, and West Long Beach rank in the 99th percentile in the state for emergency room visits related to asthma.” The state’s proposed Advanced Clean Fleets rule will require fleet operators to purchase electric trucks starting next year, but many in the industry feel that this is an unrealistic goal. A continuing bottleneck is the number of charging stations available and the length of time required to recharge an electric truck.

CNBC reports on the vital need to modernize our electrical grid. Over 70% of the U.S. electricity grid is more than 25 years old, and this aging system was only designed to transmit energy from fossil-fuel-powered plants to energy users. As renewable energy replaces fossil fuels, sources of electricity production will become more widespread and longer-distance transmission will be required. And, as we electrify everything, we’ll need more transmission capacity (demand for electricity will rise 14-19% in the coming decade). The existing grid design is quickly becoming outmoded and a new transmission grid is required.

Expanding the grid by siting new lines can be an extraordinary challenge due to local resistance, as I’ve noted before, and now states are beginning to take action to limit local land-use power. Inside Climate News reports that California, New York and now Illinois have taken away the ability of local governments to limit or ban wind and solar installations. Proponents of the law claim that the regulatory system needs to err on the side of allowing renewable-energy development, even if that means reducing local control. “Many of the claims made by opponents of wind power are not supported by evidence, and are part of what clean energy advocates say is a torrent of misleading information.” Others are concerned that this type of action will only increase the level of acrimony and controversy.

Right now, as The New York Times notes, more than 8,100 renewable energy projects wait to be connected to the grid. This problem is not only due to limited physical capacity on the grid, but also that the process for approving new connections is overwhelmed. “It now takes roughly four years, on average, for developers to get approval, double the time it took a decade ago,” and many proposed projects fail due to this delay. It’s imperative that barriers are lifted soon: “New federal subsidies for clean energy could cut electricity emissions in half by 2030. But that assumes transmission capacity expands twice as fast over the next decade.”

The Guardian describes how the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is changing the political landscape in Republican-headed states, as many of these states have claimed the lion’s share of new renewable-energy and electric-vehicle initiatives since the legislation was enacted. Republican-held Congressional districts are hosting more than 80% of all utility-scale battery, wind or solar projects currently in advanced development, according to an analysis cited in the article. It goes on to note that Texas could see $131 billion in IRA-linked investment this decade, with $62 billion in Florida and $16 billion in Georgia.

An op-ed in The New York Times notes that IRA spending, $379 billion over ten years, has been described as “massive.” When compared to the GDP over that same time period, which is expected to be $300 trillion, the IRA spending is only a little more than one-tenth of 1%. IRA funding is coming at a critical juncture in technological development, however, so its impact will be large. In addition, if many businesses and consumers take advantage of the tax-credit opportunities, the actual spending could be two- or three-times the $379 billion figure. The article also points out, as was noted above, that the impact of the IRA will be stunted if the U.S. electrical grid is unable to support the expansion of renewable-electricity generation required to satisfy energy demands.

The New York Times describes how scientists are working to maintain the long-term dataset on carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that has been collected at the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. The eruption of Mauna Loa last year closed the road to the NOAA observatory, and has required temporary sampling from the Mauna Kea volcano to the north. The article describes the various steps being taken before confidently combining the data from these different locations into a single record.

The Washington Post continues to follow the challenges faced by the Colorado River, and includes a great observation: “There’s too little supply and too much demand,” said Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University. “Ultimately, I think what we’re going to see here is some major rewriting of Western water law.” Another analyst noted, “the crisis is here.”

Grist reports that North Dakota is getting ready to sue neighboring Minnesota due to the latter’s adoption of a renewable-energy standard. The Minnesota law requires a diminishing amount of fossil-fuel-derived electricity on its grid, and this is bothering North Dakota because 50% of its coal-fired electricity is presently sold to Minnesota. Legal analysts suggest that, since Minnesota is making the requirement apply equally to in-state and out-of-state power plants, North Dakota’s lawsuit will likely fail.

Inside Climate News interviewed Al Gore, who delivered quite a rant at the Davos Economic Forum.