Climate Action Alliance of the Valley climate, energy news update
Climate Action Alliance of the Valley Steering Committee member Earl Zimmerman brings us this latest installment of Climate and Energy News. For an archive of prior posts, visit the CAAV website.
“All our major energy challenges are connected in complex ways both globally and nationally. Energy security, energy affordability, and the protection of the environment, the three pillars of energy policy, are inextricably linked.”—Neil Hirst, The Energy Conundrum: Climate Change, Global Prosperity, and the Tough Decisions We Have to Make
After two decades of climate negotiations, we all got a reality check at the recently concluded COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow. The climate has already heated by 1.1°C above preindustrial levels and there is a fifty-fifty chance that global warming will exceed 1.5°C in the next two decades. It is estimated to reach 2.7°C at the end of the century. To keep global warming to the 1.5°C limit proposed at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015, we will need to halve global carbon emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. But achieving these goals requires an effort unlike any that humanity has undertaken before.
The African continent is already suffering and will continue to suffer the worst economic and social effects of rising temperatures in the coming decades. This will especially affect children and youth, as half of Africa’s population is under the age of 20. Yet little was accomplished at the Glasgow Climate Summit to address how to compensate African countries for the damage created by centuries of fossil fuels and other emissions in rich countries. It also failed to agree on a meaningful plan to help African countries alleviate that damage while sustainably developing the capacity to meet their own rapidly growing energy demands.
Using language normally applied to conventional adversaries like China and Russia, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin recently described the climate crisis as “a profoundly destabilizing force for our world.” To counter this threat the Department of Defense will have to mobilize its capabilities as if preparing for a major war. This will not be an easy task because the Pentagon is the nation’s leading institutional consumer of fossil fuels and the single largest institutional producer of greenhouse gases in the world. The U.S. cannot, therefore, reduce its national greenhouse gas emissions rapidly without a sustained drive by the Pentagon to abandon carbon-based fuels in favor of renewable energy.
Experiencing a climate disaster and living with climate change as a constant threat on the horizon creates climate anxiety and changes how we think about our own existence. Yale psychologist Sarah Lowe advises:
- Planning for a potential climate event can be empowering because it exerts some sense of control.
- We will want to own our ecological grief as a valid emotion because it’s sad to see ecosystems change.
- We should seek help when we experience signs of clinical depression such as loss of appetite, sleeplessness, or an inability to concentrate.
- Anxiety serves a purpose. It can motivate action and help those who are most vulnerable.
Politics and Policy
Following the COP26 climate summit, President Biden has submitted a treaty fighting climate super-pollutants for Senate approval. These hydrofluorocarbons, widely used in refrigeration and air conditioning, are hundreds of times more potent than carbon dioxide. There appears to be broad bipartisan congressional support for this effort.
During his campaign, Virginia governor-elect Glenn Youngkin said that he wouldn’t have signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, saying it was too costly and “puts our entire energy grid at risk.” Even so, energy experts say he will find it hard to significantly weaken or slow down the law, given its ongoing support in the State Senate and the staggered board terms at two key regulatory agencies. He would not only have to contend with a Democrat-controlled Senate but also Republican legislators who favor the law and an electorate that broadly supports it. Furthermore, he has spoken favorably of renewable energy and has expressed support for offshore wind in Virginia.
Sea level rise and more frequent intense rainstorms are putting pressure on communities in Virginia, especially in the Eastern Shore and Hampton Roads regions. Some state officials are, therefore, pushing for the creation of a state flood board to better coordinate and utilize more than $64 million in funds earmarked for flood protection, which Virginia has received in 2021 from its participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an 11-state cap-and-invest carbon market on the East Coast of the United States.
Our changing climate is playing havoc with our transportation system, buckling concrete and flooding roads. The federal Infrastructure Bill recently signed into law includes $7.3 billion for states to spend on transportation resilience projects. Another $1.4 billion for competitive grants would give cities and counties federal help to adapt their road networks.
Climate migrants are roiling politics across the United States. People displaced by Hurricane Maria in 2017 have changed the political demographics of the Orlando area of Florida where the Puerto Rican population has grown by more than 12%. Less dramatically, people in low-lying areas of Virginia are moving to less flood prone areas. Of the quarter million Louisianans who fled New Orleans for Texas after Hurricane Katrina, about 40,000 stayed bringing more non-white and Democratic voters to formerly conservative precincts. And people in Boise, Idaho, are concerned about the political ramifications of migrants from California who are relocating because of drought and wildfires.
Dangerous mining conditions, political gamesmanship, and corruption plague the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to the world’s largest supply of cobalt, a key ingredient in electric cars. A Chinese company bought two of the country’s largest cobalt deposits over the past five years while both the Obama and Trump administrations stood idly by.
Norilsk, a Siberian city, which is one of the most polluted places on earth, now aims to ramp up production to sell the high-purity metals needed for batteries and other technologies of the clean energy economy. In another development, the state of Alaska has approved building a highway to facilitate mining for minerals used for solar panels and other green energy. The highway, which has no other purpose, will endanger a pristine Alaskan wilderness above the Arctic Circle.
Ever larger offshore wind turbines are driving down costs, making it competitive with the costs of electricity from natural gas power plants. (Onshore wind and solar are still cheaper than all other alternatives). Another benefit is that offshore wind farms can be built close to major population centers. This is especially encouraging for states like New Jersey and Virginia, which have laws requiring the construction of offshore wind.
Despite the green image, putting acres of solar panels on undeveloped land is environmentally problematic. In contrast, the benefits of installing them as canopies on parking lots are that they are abundant, close to customers, largely untapped for solar power generation, and on land that has already been stripped of much of its biological value. Even so, solar canopies are barely beginning to show up in our country’s endless acreage of parking lots but that is beginning to change. For instance, the Washington, D.C., Metro transit system has just contracted to build its first solar canopies at four of its rail station parking lots, with a projected capacity of 12.8 megawatts.
European countries searching for a long-term and constant source of energy to complement the intermittent energy of wind and solar green sources are increasingly looking to nuclear power to help them reach their ambitious climate goals. France and England are looking to the next-generation technology of small modular nuclear reactors that supporters say are safe, cheap and efficient. Eastern European countries especially see such nuclear power as an alternative to their long-standing dependence on coal. Alternatively, Germany is at the head of a group of other European nations that want to defuse efforts to include more nuclear power in Europe’s green energy mix because of their concerns about safety and radioactive waste.
Reductions in home energy use and residential greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved in a variety of ways, including through modifications to improve the efficiency of existing structures, and standards and building techniques that promote better energy performance in new homes. Policies that Local Housing Solutions proposes to achieve this include:
- Housing trust funds and other sources of local funding can be used to support energy-efficiency upgrades.
- A range of policies can be used to create and preserve dedicated affordable housing near public transit stations and job centers.
- Employer-assisted housing programs can create opportunities for residents to live closer to their workplace.
- Zoning and building codes can facilitate development of higher-density and lower-cost housing types that support the creation of homes that consume less energy.
The sustainable industrial revolution is just getting started but there are some promising initial developments. Heavy industries like shipping, steel and plastics contribute 40% of global carbon emissions, but have long opted out of climate action. This is starting to change. For example, electric motors consume about half of the world’s electricity. Infinitum Electric, a start-up company in Texas, is now developing a new efficient motor design that replaces the copper wire and laminated iron core found in conventional motors with a printed circuit board stator, making the motor smaller, lighter and much more efficient. In another promising breakthrough, the Swedish steel maker SSAB has begun developing a fossil fuel-free steel making process where iron ore is refined, or reduced, with green hydrogen and renewable energy. The iron is then shaped into finished steel with electric arc furnaces.
Ann Arbor, Michigan has set an ambitious goal of being carbon neutral by 2030. This goal is especially audacious given that the city’s electric provider DTE Electric remains tethered to coal and natural gas. To work around that, Ann Arbor plans to set up its own sustainable community-based electric company which will generate renewable power, incorporate battery storage and tie homes and businesses to micro-grids.
Ithaca, New York, also just made an unprecedented move to tackle its carbon footprint with the goal of being carbon neutral by 2030. Its electric grid already receives 80% of its power from renewable sources, so instead, they will focus on the full decarbonization of city buildings which consume 40% of the energy in the city. Because it would be impossible to fund such a huge effort with the city budget and other public funds, they have initially lined up $100 million in private financing through their private equity partner Alturus to fund the work of BlocPower, their building energy efficiency partner.
Compiled by Earl Zimmerman, CAAV Steering Committee