May 31 2021

May 31 2021

multi-year drought in the West, longer fire and hurricane season, importance of electric F-150 pickup, lithium mining, growth of offshore-wind industry

An article in the New York Times discusses the deep, multi-year drought in the Southwestern U.S. and the concomitant severe fire season that is threatening the region. In the first four months of 2021, the area burned in Arizona already equaled that burned in 2020. The author notes that climate change has altered precipitation patterns across the Southwest, drying out soil and vegetation. The Los Angeles Times argues that this is not a drought, but rather our new climate, stating "the years of steady and predictable water flow are over, and there is no sign of them coming back in our lifetimes. This is it. We have to build, and grow, and legislate, and consume for the world as it is, not as we may remember it." An op-ed in the New York Times compares the construction and filling of Lake Mead with its subsequent drying out, suggesting that the limits of human engineering are forcing their way into the consciousness of our society.

Inside Climate News describes the impact of the drought in California’s Central Valley. Particularly hard hit are poor communities in the Tulare and San Joaquin basins, where groundwater pumping to maintain agricultural production has lowered the water table, resulting in shallower drinking-water wells going dry. There is also more reliance on groundwater that is contaminated by nitrates and other pollutants.

California must adjust to the fire season beginning in May, given the Palisades Fire that erupted on May 14 in Southern California (possibly the result of arson). The New York Times notes that Californians should be bracing for a serious fire season. Last month was the driest April in Sacramento since official record keeping began in 1877, and the snowpack in the Sierras currently contains just 5% of historical norms. The AP reports that a giant sequoia in the path of last year’s Castle Fire continues to smolder this spring, another indicator of how dry the winter has been.

Just as the fire season is longer, the same is now true for hurricanes. The Washington Post reports that tropical storm Andrés formed in the eastern Pacific on May 9th, the earliest storm formation on record for the region. An article in the New York Times notes that NOAA just released its annual prediction for the hurricane season, which calls for an above-average number of storms between June 1 and November 30 (sub-tropical storm Ana formed in the Atlantic on May 27th, before the "official" start of hurricane season).

The Guardian has an article about the efforts to combat hotter temperatures in Athens, which is one of the hottest cities in Europe. The mayor is working to bring trees and parks into a city that has been developed with little thought to either. Inside Climate News reports that many climate models may be underestimating the short-term threat to areas most vulnerable to extreme heat — densely populated tropical regions. Also underestimated may be the compound risk of heat waves combined with power outages. The Washington Post describes a new position in the Miami-Dade County government, the Chief Heat Officer, who will “coordinate our efforts to protect people from heat and save lives.” Meanwhile, record-high temperatures were hit in Moscow and many Russian towns above the Arctic Circle in mid-May.

The New York Times reports that solar power has become the only source of electricity to many people in war-torn parts of Syria. Often thought of as an option for the wealthy concerned about climate change, solar power is becoming essential in communities across the globe. “Solar energy is a blessing from God,” says a Syrian businessman who has stopped selling diesel generators due to the popularity of solar panels.

A key goal of U.S. plans for decarbonization is to electrify the transportation sector. While we certainly have the technology available to us, an excellent article in the Atlantic examines the critical question of whether Americans will adopt this technology (like they adopted SUVs). The article focuses on a test drive of the new all-electric Ford Mustang Mach-E, and it is worth the read for EV owners and non-owners alike.

CNN captured President Biden’s test drive of the electric Ford F-150 pick-up truck, and Rachel Maddow describes the market power of the Ford F-150 and its potential to impact our transition to EVs (the Union of Concerned Scientists notes that one in 20 cars sold in the U.S. is an F-150). An op-ed in the Washington Post says that "it looks as good as or superior to its traditional combustion-engine cousin in almost every way." One interesting feature: the truck has a 110 V circuit, allowing you to plug in an extension cord to power tools, recharge devices or power a household (according to Ford) for up to three days. The Guardian notes that one major drawback could be reduced range when fully loaded or towing a trailer, information that Ford has yet to provide.

The New York Times reports on the major surge in lithium mining in the U.S. There is clearly a growing market for this element given its importance in powering batteries for EVs and other applications. In just the first quarter of 2021, nearly $3.5 billion in capital has been raised for lithium mining (seven times the amount raised in the prior 36 months), as demand is projected to increase 10-fold in the coming decade. However, mining can have serious environmental impacts, including solid-waste generation, water use and groundwater contamination. There are consequently alternative extraction efforts underway, including obtaining lithium from hot brine brought to the surface for geothermal electric-power production (and then re-injected underground). This process, which proponents see as a modern alternative (calling traditional mining the "Fred Flintstone" method), has other environmental impacts (including the production of iron salts) that must be addressed. Automakers are interested in "low-impact" sourcing for the lithium in EV batteries.

New York Magazine notes that the U.S. eastern seaboard may become a major energy center for the country through the development of offshore-wind power. This is because, as the industry has grown, the costs to produce electricity have dropped significantly. The first offshore-wind array proposed over ten years ago, Cape Wind, was projected to produce power at 20 cents per kilowatt hour. The recently approved Vineyard Wind array is coming in at 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour. A recent study projected that the cost of wind energy will fall 50% between now and 2050. In addition, this power is produced relatively close to major population centers, and the shallow offshore continental shelf in the Atlantic allows for the use of well-established construction techniques. There is a major wind resource offshore the Pacific coast as well, but it will require a new technique in which floating turbines are tethered to the ocean bottom. The New York Times reports that the Biden Administration has taken the first steps toward the development of floating wind-power arrays off of two parts of California (Morro Bay and Humboldt County).

Inside Climate News reports on the concept of a "just transition" for fossil-fuel workers and their communities, focusing on the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn that is transitioning to a hub for the growing offshore-wind industry. The detailed article looks at many aspects of this developing industrial sector, including unionization, training for local communities, major oil company attitudes and the vision of state regulators. The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Utility Workers Union of America investigated the cost of a just transition for coal workers and their communities that included five years of wage replacement, health coverage, continued employer contributions to retirement funds or pension plans and tuition and job-placement assistance. They concluded that such a program would cost roughly $33 – $83 billion over a 15 – 25 year period. This is only a small fraction of the cost for transitioning our energy system away from fossil fuels.

Reuters reports that the U.S. has just approved the Crimson Solar Energy Project, one of the largest in the U.S. This 350 MW array will be constructed on federal land near Blythe, CA, and will include battery storage. An editorial in the Washington Post notes that, according to the International Energy Agency, reaching our goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 in the U.S. is feasible, but hard. By 2030, we would need to be adding solar capacity every day equal to the largest solar-power plant currently operating, a quadrupling of the current pace. There is enormous growth in the renewable energy industry around the world — governments must adopt policies that continue this acceleration.