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Energy from Heaven
and not from Hell/Exxon.
Amid the torrent of hideous news last week, one item might have skipped your notice: Exxon announced the acquisition—its biggest since picking up Mobil a quarter century ago—of one of the largest fracking operators in the world. As the AP reported, “including debt, Exxon is committing about $64.5 billion to the acquisition, leaving no doubt of the Texas energy company’s commitment to fossil fuels.” In fact, it’s the declaration of conviction that they think they have enough political juice to keep us hooked on oil and gas for a few more decades, even in the face of the highest temperatures in 125,000 years.
Our job is to stop them (see, for instance, the gathering fight to block new export terminals for LNG).
And one way to do that is to point out, over and over, the sheer wonder of the replacements we have on hand. Which is to say, the sun, and also the wind that the sun produces by heating the earth more in some spots than others, creating the breezes that turn the turbines. I wrote last week that we were now adding a gigawatt of solar power daily around the planet, most of it in China. That’s great, but we need more and we need it fast—and so let’s just concentrate for a moment on the almost absurd beauty of the idea that we have learned to power the things we need from the rays of a burning orb that lies 93 million miles distant across the vastness of space. Let me provide just a few facts about where we lie right now with that transition.
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#Every week new data emerges about the rapid fall in the price of solar, which as PV magazine reported this week seems to have “no end in sight.” This is incredibly good news for the poorest people on the planet, almost all of whom live in places with abundant sunlight, and where they are currently shipping huge amounts of money off to the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other hydrocarbon exporters: something like 80% of humans live in countries that have to import fossil fuels. The sun, by contrast, delivers its rays for free each morning.
#So far, the suddenly rapid spread of solar has not dramatically cut the use of fossil fuels, but analysts at the Rocky Mountain Institute said last week that that is coming fast. They reminded us to focus on “flows, not stocks.”
It is frequently noted that fossil fuels account for over 80 percent of global primary energy and this number hasn’t budged meaningfully for decades.
Rarely mentioned is the fact that renewables have been taking an increasing share of the growth in energy supply, and all of the growth in 2019-21. Moving the focus from stocks to flows moves the conclusion from no change to radical change. Concentrating on the size of the fossil fuel system today is like focusing on the large number of horses in 1900 — it was as good a guide then as it is now.
By the end of this decade, the core renewable technologies will all dominate sales in their respective areas; solar and wind already make up over 80 percent of the capacity additions in electricity, and by 2030 EVs will be over two-thirds of car sales. Once renewable technologies dominate sales, it is simply a matter of time and depreciation of the old system before they dominate stocks.
+You can see this beginning to emerge already. A report out this week from the climate think tank Ember predicted that “carbon emissions from the global electricity sector may peak this year, after plateauing in the first half of 2023, because of a surge in wind and solar power.” That is remarkably good news: in fact, the “new report on global electricity generation found that the growth of renewables was so rapid that it was close to the incredibly fast rate required if the world is to hit the tripling of capacity by the end of the decade that experts believe is necessary to stay on the 1.5C pathway.” Read that again if you need a shot of anti-despair.
#But of course we need to up that rate, because we have to be able to provide electricity for pretty much everything that currently requires oil and gas: running cars, trucks, buses; cooking dinner; heating and cooling homes. Some of that new capacity can definitely come off rooftops and buildings; in Australia, where a third of homes now have rooftop solar, there was one day last month when grid operators reported an all-time record low demand for their power plants, because so many people were generating power off the tops of their homes.
#It’s true, as the remarkable Sammy Roth showed in the LA Times, that even in sunny parts of the West rooftop solar won’t be able to provide all, or even most, of what we need. But the good news here is that, even when we have to use some agricultural land for solar farms, it’s remarkably efficient. Indeed, check this out: if you took just the farm fields in America currently grown corn used as ethanol and covered them with solar panels, you’d be able to provide all the power America needs. You wouldn’t be cutting into the food supply because it’s not used for food now—you’d just be letting that soil rest, instead of pouring nitrogen on it every growing season. (In addition, as Matthew Eisenson pointed out recently, “recent research has shown that growing crops, such as tomatoes, in between rows of solar panels in hot, dry climates may increase yields by creating shade, which conserves water, increases humidity, and lowers temperatures.”)
#Of course we don’t want to put every solar farm on ag land; there’s scrub forest, and desert, and oh yes, golf courses, which at least in Japan are now being converted in fairly large numbers to solar farms. We’re in an emergency—that makes sense. Even if you have to use forestland, though, the numbers are impressive. Eisenson again: “An acre of solar panels producing zero-emissions electricity saves between 267,526 to 303,513 pounds, or 121 to 138 metric tons, of carbon dioxide per year. By comparison, according to the EPA, the average acre of forest in the United States sequesters 0.84 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Thus, an acre of solar panels in Virginia reduces approximately 144 to 166 times more carbon dioxide per year than an acre of forest.”
I give you all these statistics in hopes you’ll make use of them. The fight of our time—the fight of the next five or six years—is to build as much renewable energy as we can, and employ as much energy efficiency and conservation as we can. That’s by far the most important part of reining in temperatures—and reining in the death that comes with breathing the pollution from fossil fuel, and the massive damage caused by mining coal and drilling for oil and gas.
We will move to sun and wind to power this earth, because they are cheap and elegant. The only question is if we’ll make that move before we break the planet, and that is up to us.
In other energy and climate news:
+The good people at Beyond Plastics make a compelling case for banning vinyl chloride before we have more accidents like East Palestine, Ohio
Vinyl chloride is manufactured in low-income communities and communities of color in Louisiana, Texas, and Kentucky, where it threatens the health of workers and residents. The PVC plastic made from vinyl chloride is used to make everything from the iconic rubber ducky and other toys to piping, flooring, siding, shower curtains, raincoats, and food packaging. PVC plastic is hazardous to manufacture and dispose of. Fortunately, there are safer alternatives to PVC available to us right now.
+Point of personal privilege—the Catamount ski trail runs the length of the state of Vermont, and right by my house, and this is a lovely movie about what’s happening to it as the climate warms.
And while we’re on the culture beat, New Yorkers might want to reserve seats for next May’s premiere of a song cycle, Songs for a New Generation.
The project is a half-evening length song cycle, approximately 30 minutes, for tenor, string quartet, and piano. The work centers around poet Claire Wahmanholm’s prize-winning poem “O,” which took second place at the Academy of American Poets’ inaugural Treehouse Climate Action Poem Prize. The poem is described by the judges as “an original and powerful evocation, using a single letter of the alphabet to name the wonders that are at risk of being no more…The voice is prophetic and unrelenting: a lament, an elegy, and a clarion call to action!”
I helped judge that poetry contest and can’t wait to see what’s been done with this fine poem
+Perhaps you’d like some tiny scrap of good news from the Mid East: Here’s an account of how activists, engineers and diplomats managed to get a wrecked oil tanker offloaded on the Yemen coast before it could cause an ecological disaster.
“A lot of people were saying, ‘Yes it’s a problem for all of us,’” the U.N.’s resident coordinator in Yemen, David Gressly, who in 2021 stepped in to broker the stalled collaboration to prevent a spill, told Mongabay. “But when it’s a problem for all of us, it’s actually a problem for no one. And nobody owned it.”
Transfer of the oil to a seaworthy vessel was partly funded thanks to pledged donations from 23 of the 193 U.N. member states. Pledges that states have honored so far cover $93 million of the $143 million tab, with another $10 million yet to materialize. The oil industry and other private parties, including a group of children, donated nearly $20 million.
Safe disposal of the nearly empty tanker still needs to be paid for, and delays to completing the salvage operation may push the final budget up by as much as another $10 million, according to the U.N. Gressly expressed surprise at “the hesitation by the majority of oil and gas producers to contribute, including those that historically operate in Yemen.”
The outstanding $22 million required to pay back the loan is “very modest compared with the very good profits they are making these days,” Gressly said, “and unfortunately the industry itself has put the Red Sea at risk.”
+I continue to think the e-bike may turn out to be the sleeper device of the energy transition. Here’s a lovely piece about them from Michael Coren, the Washington Post’s “climate advice columnist” (which is a job title it would have been hard to imagine not long ago)
But the appeal of e-bikes, especially among people who haven’t ridden a bike in decades, may help change cities’ car-centric ways. Cities are under growing pressure to reinvent themselves after the pandemic shifted how we live and work. From New York to Cleveland, city officials have rolled out measures to prod drivers to leave their cars at home, from closing streets to traffic to creating “15-minute cities” where life’s essentials are just a walk, bike or transit ride away. Vast networks of safe bike lanes are becoming mainstays of downtowns and business districts.
As cities build protected bike lanes, research shows, more people like Kawthar Duncan are likely to ride, especially women and low-income residents, increasing the demand for cities that serve people using two wheels, not just four.
“I’ve been able to go anywhere, anytime,” says Duncan. “It’s the new minivan.”
+Here’s the kind of headline that portends serious trouble: “Amazon rainforest port records lowest water level in 121 years amid drought.”
The water level at a major river port in Brazil's Amazon rainforest hit its lowest point in at least 121 years on Monday, as a historic drought upends the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and damages the jungle ecosystem.
Rapidly drying tributaries to the mighty Amazon river have left boats stranded, cutting off food and water supplies to remote jungle villages, while high water temperatures are suspected of killing more than 100 endangered river dolphins.
Lahore, Pakistan, already an epicenter of human ills linked to climate change, could surpass that survivability threshold for two or three weeks out of the year by the middle of the century, for example, the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found. Under the most dramatic global warming scenarios, it could last for months.
In the Red Sea port of Al Hudaydah, Yemen, such oppressive conditions are expected to last a month or two — or, at the highest levels of global warming projections, would endure for most of the year, scientists found.
+From Michigan, an interesting tactic: removing hundreds of old and obsolete dams that back up the state’s rivers and streams, raising water temperatures
Climate-driven warming is already evident in Michigan’s rivers, said Matt Diana, a DNR fisheries biologist in southwest Michigan.
“We’re seeing things like two-to-three-degree increases in water temperature, pretty commonly,” he said.
The harm of that warming is expected to be most acute for coldwater fish like trout and salmon, which prefer temperatures well below 70 degrees. There are about 10,000 miles of cold water streams in Michigan. But a 2016 study estimated that the vast majority will become too warm to qualify by midcentury, endangering fish species.
Beyond raising temperatures, dams make it impossible for fish to migrate into rivers’ upper reaches where the water tends to be naturally cooler, said Dana Infante, a Michigan State University professor who researches rivers.
“They can't escape from the stress,” Infante said.
Warm, stagnant water is also more prone to algae blooms, which are at best a nuisance and can sometimes be toxic to humans, pets and wildlife.
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