Home Climate and Energy News Roundup: March 2024
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Climate and Energy News Roundup: March 2024

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Our Climate Crisis

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(© Blue Planet Studio – stock.adobe.com)

New research finds that the oceans are hotter than they’ve ever been in modern times—having smashed previous heat records for at least seven years in a row. Higher-than-normal sea temperatures cause sea level rise, stress coral reef systems, accelerate the melting of polar sea ice, redistribute fish populations, and deplete oxygen levels. Hotter oceans also create conditions for extreme weather events.

The Quinault Indian Nation, a native American coastal tribe in Washington state, has spent a decade trying to move its villages out of reach of a rising Pacific Ocean and its increasingly severe high tides. Oceanographers say this gives us a sneak peek of the future for many communities as an ever-hotter climate swells the world’s oceans.

Local restaurants are especially feeling the impact as climate change is taking a massive bite out of the global food supply chain according to recent research. José Andrés, a chef, humanitarian and founder of the Global Food Institute, responds, “This research is more than just a collection of data and insights; it’s a rallying cry for chefs, restaurateurs, food producers, policymakers, and all actors across the supply chain.”

Scientists have long been puzzled by parts of the US south-east where temperatures have flatlined, or even cooled, despite the broader warming trend in the US. This is now attributed to an aggressive US government tree-planting program involving 37million acres of reforested area in the south-east in the early 20th century. Such reforestation, however, is no substitute for the need to drastically cut planet-heating emissions, which hit a new global high last year.

Politics and Policy

The explosion of AI technology is increasing carbon emissions and millions of gallons of fresh water consumption. New legislative efforts in the U.S. and EU aim to assess and regulate AI’s environmental footprint, focusing on energy consumption and resource use.

If states support walking, cycling, public transit, and other clean options, instead of expensive, status quo projects like highway expansion, they can reduce harms and give people of all backgrounds better access to reliable, affordable, and convenient transportation. By investing in these climate-friendly choices, billions of dollars can be avoided in energy, healthcare, and vehicle costs, save lives, and prevent huge amounts of pollution.

Some rural counties in Virginia are pushing back against allowing more solar development. In response, legislation is being introduced in the Virginia General Assembly that would give state regulators the power to approve large solar, wind or battery projects when local officials balk.   Supporters see this as a necessary move because clean energy generation is a statewide issue.

A judge ruled that the lawsuit that seeks to reverse Gov. Youngkin’s administration’s  withdrawal of Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas initiative (RGGI) is allowed to move forward. The Virginia General Assembly voted to join RGGI in 2020 and the Youngkin administration made an executive decision to withdraw at the end of 2023. The lawsuit claims that is illegal because it circumvents current law and the will of the General Assembly.

At least 15% of county governments in the US have effectively halted new utility-scale wind, solar, or both. Even so, a gigantic effort to build green energy is underway. Wind and solar are expected to surpass the amount of electricity made from coal this year. But green energy must increase rapidly to meet U.S. clean energy goals and local governments are making it more difficult.

The US home builder lobby is mobilizing against new state and local building codes that save energy and ease the transition to cleaner technologies by claiming that it adds substantially to the cost of new homes. A recent federal study found that they add at most about $6,500 to the price of a newly built home, not the $20,400 that the lobby claims. These code changes would actually pay for themselves in several years through lower energy costs.

Over the years, utility companies have come under fire for lobbying to stall climate policies and keep fossil fuel plants running. Our monthly energy bills may actually be paying for such efforts. While federal law prohibits utilities from recovering lobbying expenses from customers, those rules lack teeth and aren’t sufficiently enforced. Now, eight states are taking the lead to ban the practice.

Republican House leaders only want to attack Democrats on climate—not develop their own policies. And Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee for president, has shown no signs of moving away from his denial of climate change science and his rejection of major action to reduce emissions. Even so, the Republican Conservative Climate Caucus is trying to show that they care about actively solving the climate crisis.

Energy

The U.S. is slated to build 55% more electric power capacity in 2024 than it did in 2023. Renewables, batteries, and nuclear will add up to 96% of all new power capacity constructed this year. Even so, about 60% of US electricity is still generated by fossil fuels.

U.S. electric vehicles sales are poised to rise a lot this year. Despite some challenges, EV sales were strong in 2023—up 46% from the prior year. U.S. automotive projections show increases in EV sales ranging from about 20% to more than 30% compared to 2023.

U.S. gas producers are racing to sell liquified natural gas (LNG) to Asia and those plans run through Mexico. The recent fracking boom has transformed the U.S. into the world’s largest gas producer and exporter. Piping the gas to shipping terminals on Mexico’s Pacific Coast will cut travel times to Asian nations roughly in half by bypassing the traffic and drought-choked Panama Canal.

Dominion Energy received the final two federal approvals needed to move forward with the construction and operation of its $9.8 billion, 176-turbine offshore wind farm off the coast of Virginia Beach. Construction is expected to begin in May. Once fully constructed in late 2026, the installation will produce 2.6 gigawatts of energy, which would power about 660,000 homes.

Can power plants burn clean hydrogen to make electricity? Utilities say the fuel can potentially help them achieve a carbon-free grid. Some environmentalists worry that it opens up a morass of waste and greenwashing that may impede better solutions. One impediment is the availability of affordable green hydrogen. Another is that specialized turbines that can burn 100% hydrogen are still in the developmental stage.

Americans bought 21% more heat pumps in 2023 than gas furnaces.  Even though sales were down for both heat pumps and gas furnaces, heat pumps continued to widen a lead that first emerged in 2022, when they surged ahead of gas furnaces by 12% and topped 4 million units sold for the first time.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced the selection of three projects that will receive up to $60 million to demonstrate the efficacy and scalability of enhanced geothermal systems (EGS). The pilot projects will use innovative technology and a variety of development techniques to capture the earth’s abundant heat resources. They also support the DOE’s goal of cutting the cost of EGS 90% by 2035.

Startup Koloma is searching for underground reservoirs of naturally occurring hydrogen that have been largely ignored or lain undetected until now. They just raised an eye-popping $245 million in venture funding to develop tools and technologies to locate and eventually extract the now-coveted gas from the earth. Hydrogen is the gas of the moment because it could replace fossil fuels in certain applications, particularly in energy-intensive industrial processes.

Climate Justice

Newly unearthed documents reveal that the fossil fuel industry funded some of the world’s most foundational climate science as early as 1954. This includes the early research of Charles Keeling—famous for the so-called “Keeling curve” that has charted the upward march of the Earth’s carbon dioxide levels. This makes a mockery of their public denial of climate science for decades and their funding of ongoing efforts to delay action on the climate crisis.

Vermont, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York are launching a multi-state effort to hold Big Oil accountable for the expensive damage wrought by climate change. Bills on the docket in all four states demand that oil companies pay for a climate Superfund to fund climate actions such as energy efficiency retrofits, water utility improvements, solar microgrids, and stormwater drainage.

Stolen Indigenous land is the foundation of the U.S. land-grant university system. Climate change is its legacy. In 2022 alone, these trust lands generated more than $2.2 billion for these schools. Most of that money comes from fossil fuel extraction and mining.

Climate Action

You’re probably underestimating the willingness of people to take action on our climate crisis. This erroneous perception could hamper climate action. According to a new survey of people in 125 countries, nearly 70% would give up 1% of their household income to stop climate change.

Climate activists are preparing for a long battle over liquified natural gas (LNG) exports even as they celebrate the White House’s recent announcement that it will pause the approval of new export facilities while they study their environmental impact. Export terminals that have already been approved will have the capacity to double those exports.

With Earth at its hottest point in recorded history, a growing number of scientists are proposing various geoengineering fixes. The latest is creating a huge sunshade and sending it to a faraway point between the Earth and the sun to block a small but crucial amount of solar radiation, enough to counter global warming.

Cheap Level 1 EV chargers may be the fastest way to get people into EVs. They’re slow (filling batteries at a rate of about 5 miles an hour) but use a standard 120-volt electrical outlet. That’s doable because most drivers leave their cars parked for at least 12 hours a day and don’t drive more than about 40 miles daily. Installing electrical outlets for Level 1 chargers at apartment complexes, condos, and workplaces is affordable and makes sense.

Parking reform is helping to transform cities. Bad parking policy, such as required parking spaces, inhibits affordable housing, neighborhood walkability, and the prospect of having a greener, cleaner city. By focusing more on housing, and less on the place to park, the barriers to a better urban environment are beginning to fall away.

Local Climate News

Harrisonburg City Public Schools recently received its first two electric school buses. Gerald Gatobu, director of the Harrisonburg Department of Transportation, said that purchasing the buses was made possible by a grant from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and was a part of the city’s recent push for sustainability.

The Harrisonburg City Council approved plans to install a 50-kilowatt solar system on the Turner Pavilion rooftop where the farmers market is located. The project will offset all energy usage for the pavilion, in addition to generating surplus energy that would be returned to the electrical grid as “community solar.”

Compiled by Earl Zimmerman of the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley.

Contributors

Contributors

Have a guest column, letter to the editor, story idea or a news tip? Email editor Chris Graham at [email protected]. Subscribe to AFP podcasts on Apple PodcastsSpotifyPandora and YouTube.