There’s a broad truth about solar power – that more energy hits the Earth every morning than every person on it uses in 27 years. It’s the challenge of the harnessing that energy and making it available for everyone that continues to vex.
But buried in an article about wind turbines in the Gulf of Mexico is this little corollary gem:
Wind turbines in the Gulf of Mexico could generate up to 508 gigawatts of electricity, according to a 2020 study by the National Renewable Energy Lab, twice as much energy as Gulf states cumulatively consume. The 700,000-acre area the Biden administration now wants to open up for wind farm development could eventually supply enough electricity for over three million homes, according to a White House fact sheet.
Emphasis added. I mean, come on. There it is, and not to mention other recent stories about have these wind turbines installed by oil rig workers, otherwise known as cowboys already accustomed to working on dangerous platforms out in the ocean.
We’re backing into the climate future/present with woes leading the way. It’s the perfect media framing and supports the status quo – yes everything is awful. We’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas, let’s see how we can keep cheap gas going a little bit longer. It’s this way, in part, because ALL of the progress is boring. For instance, wide bandgap:
Silicon and silicon carbide are useful in electronics because they are semiconductors: They can switch between being electrical conductors, as metals are, and insulators, as most plastics are. This ability makes semiconductors the key materials in transistors — the fundamental building blocks of modern electronics.
Silicon carbide differs from silicon in that it has a wide bandgap, meaning that it requires more energy to switch between the two states. Wide bandgap, or WBG, semiconductors are advantageous in power electronics because they can move more power more efficiently.
Silicon carbide is the senior citizen of WBGs, having been under development as a transistor material for decades. In that time, engineers have started using younger upstart WBG materials, like gallium nitride, or GaN. In the 1980s, researchers used gallium nitride to create the world’s first bright blue LEDs. Blue light comprises high-energy photons; gallium nitride, with its wide bandgap, was the first semiconductor that could practically produce photons with the sufficient energy. In 2014, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for that innovation, which became ubiquitous in devices like TV screens and light bulbs.
Lately, researchers have started using gallium nitride to improve power electronics. The material reached commercial fruition over the past few years in adapters for charging phones and computers. These adapters are smaller, lighter, faster-charging and more efficient than traditional ones that use silicon transistors.
“A typical charger that you buy for your computer is 90 percent efficient,” said Jim Witham, chief executive of GaN Systems, a Canadian company that supplied the transistors in Apple’s gallium-nitride laptop chargers, which were released last fall. “Gallium nitride is 98 percent efficient. You can cut power losses by four times.”
Other cars, lane lines, hopefully*. Traffic lights, parking lots. Some trees, a pedestrian*. A cyclist**.
A sidewalk – don’t stop looking at your phone.
Without a shift in perspective, it’s readily seen how none of this changes until people get out from behind the windshield. And no one will make you – that’s not how this works, at least not here, not yet. The costs could sway your decision-making, you could think about doing something differently. Not because you have to, but because you’re curious. You don’t live out in the country, but you also can’t quite walk to the store, much less to work. Still, you want to check out the view, have a look at the street from up close, from the other side of the windshield.
The prospect of seeing other drivers, reifying our fellow road-users, in recent parlance, into something other than the abstractions that we experience, which allow us to disconnect what we are doing from the consequences of doing it. That abstraction is what has to go. And if it’s only that, maybe we won’t feel like we’re losing so much.
See how fun this is? Fiddling with ways to trick ourselves into doing what’s best. So very child-like, this dependence on unsupportable habits to maintain, to remain in, abstract suspension, protected from the outside and other people, things that don’t actually mean us harm. “But I need to get from here to there,” though I don’t want to re-consider here or there. Just want to stay wrapped in this steel cocoon.
Conveyance. Economic drivers. These notes for later betray an urgency beneath the wheels, outside the windows.
So… one man’s colossal miscalculation is another man’s a planet’s sped-up timeline for addressing climate change? I’m not trying not to see it that way, and energy efficiency guru Amory Lovins doesn’t need to convince me. But the winds are at somebody’s back:
Lovins, an adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, has been one of the world’s leading advocates and innovators of energy conservation for 50 years. He wrote his first paper on climate change while at Oxford in 1968, and in 1976 he offered Jimmy Carter’s government a blueprint for how to triple energy efficiency and get off oil and coal within 40 years. In the years since there is barely a major industry or government that he and his Rocky Mountain Institute have not advised.
But for much of that time efficiency was seen as a bit of an ugly sister, rather dull compared with a massive transition to renewables and other new technologies. Now, he hopes, its time may have come. Lovins is arguing for the mass insulation of buildings alongside a vast acceleration of renewables. “We should crank [them] up with wartime urgency. There should be far more emphasis on efficiency,” he says.
He sees Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine as an outrage, but possibly also a step towards solving the climate crisis and a way to save trillions of dollars. “He has managed to bring about all the outcomes that he most feared, but he may inadvertently have put the energy transition and climate solutions into a higher gear. Whether or not we end up in a recession because of the disruption, [Putin’s war] may prove to be a great thing for climate economics.”
As he explains, solar and wind are among the cheapest bulk power sources, and Putin’s authoritarian misadventure has put energy externalities in the center of the frame.
Again, it’s the boringest, not-technology solutions that have the greatest effect. And there’s a lot to reckon with in what he says about nuclear:
The most energy-inefficient design of all, he says, may be nuclear power, which is heavily subsidised, costly and pushed by a politically powerful lobby. Using it to address shortages of electricity or to counter climate change, he argues, is like offering starving people rice and caviar when it’s far cheaper and easier to give just rice.
People are shocked! “Shocked” at gas prices. How long have we been having this conversation? Corollary – how long have we been avoiding this conversation?
Obviously, everyone and their mother is mad, mad, mad about the high price of gas, in part because Americans now are back to driving just about as much as they did before the pandemic. We’re not going to the office, but we’re not staying home. From Virginia to Colorado, drivers are liable to pull up to the pump and be greeted with a sticker of Joe Biden, pointing at their total: “I DID THAT!”
A look back at 2011 suggests an interesting counterfactual: What if, facing those high prices, we had made changes on the demand side instead? Believe it or not, this was what some people thought might happen. President Barack Obama took that moment (and the conditions created by the auto bailout) to set new Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, known as CAFE, which put in place ambitious fuel efficiency goals for automakers. “Slowly but surely Detroit is shifting its attention from SUVs to cars,” All Things Considered reported in March of that year.
You won’t believe what happened next! It’s all ugh. I don’t wish anybody ill on this point. It’s certainly not enjoyable to being filling up on $4.39 per gallon multiple times in a week, but come on. The conversation about more roads all-the-time, living rilly rilly far from work, school, shopping goes back quite a bit farther than 2011. It’s not just smaller cars but a whole suite of living conditions that continue to be – ta-da! – unworkable, which should be the new unsustainable. The larger unworkable situation – sprawl, mostly non-existent public transit, and yes, gigantic vehicles – makes $4 gas that much more painful, as well as Groundhog Day all over and over again.
Who ever knew it, but seizing yachts is very popular! And despite the reporting that will tell you that they are impossible to re-sell, as if that makes the seizures moot, taking the oligarchs’ prized possessions scratches a weird itch in the afflicted that actually bothers the comfortable if you know what I mean and I think you do. These are ridiculous manifestations of not only conspicuous consumption, but also conspicuous waste. It also beggars belief that no useful purposes can be devised for these vessels.
Anyway, to the broader situation of Russia, and trying to strangle their economy without strangling the world economy – unless we de-fossilize our energy sources, the former will always be the latter:
This is a coherent platform for left-of-center parties across the globe: a law-and-order crackdown on international kleptocracy, and mass electrification and renewable energy to weaken the repressive and despotic petrostates. It is not a quick fix (though confiscatory wealth taxes ought to work quickly enough), and it is perhaps not as viscerally satisfying to our bloodthirsty pundit class as more fighters and missiles. But in the medium term the “solution” to the “problem” of Russian aggression is not trying to surgically crash their economy while protecting ours (an impossible tightrope to walk so long as high-income nations fail to quit fossil fuels). It may be impossible now to use Apple Pay to ride the Moscow Metro—it may even be impossible, temporarily, for particular Russian-born billionaires to anonymously purchase London pieds-à-terre—but it is still very easy to take the money you made selling natural gas to Berlin and ask a lawyer in New York to explain how to hide it it in South Dakota. The only sensible Russia policy is to make it unprofitable to be the sort of state it is. This approach would also have the side benefit of improving the sorts of states all of us reside in, and perhaps even of saving human civilization. Defeating Russia, by necessity, requires defeating fossil capital.
Or if not to a war zone, in close proximity to one. This seems far less a question at this point than an eventuality, but… will the last vestiges of fossil fuel domination burn furiously right up to the borders of energy transformation? The physical proximity of Russia and Norway hide the light years in distance they are from one another in ways that should make us wonder about the elasticity of time:
a new study by the Clean Cities Campaign, a coalition of non-governmental organizations, which analyzed 36 European cities on factors such as road safety for pedestrians, access to climate friendly transportation and air quality. The research found that Oslo is making the most progress on wiping out mobility emissions, followed by Amsterdam and Helsinki. Naples and Krakow had the lowest scores due, in part, to congestion. The financial hubs Paris and London ranked fifth and 12th, respectively.
Meanwhile, bombs, missiles, troops, and chaos for civilians in Ukraine. We may think this is about a crazy person’s LOOK AT ME obsession and not a ‘war’ for resources, but without the latter, there is no source for the former. His delusions are being fueled by the old standbys, in addition to resentment and authoritarianism.
NBA commentator Jeff Van Gundy’s well-placed, near-extemporaneous “back at the crypt” comment notwithstanding, ubiquitous references to crypto currency range from annoying to cloying. Everything about digital money is either scammy or… that seems to be mostly it. Scammy neatly encompasses the over-hyped, Ponzi-schemed, last-one-in nature of the the collection of binary data that necessarily requires us to put all the usual finance-related terms in quotes: “ownership” “collateral” “token” “transaction.” You could go on.
And besides the obvious downsides of NFT’s – from terrific money-laundering possibilities to the proliferation of really bad art – we’d be remiss in not noting crypto’s climate impacts:
Crypto’s overall climate impact remains massive, with certain currencies swallowing up entire nations’ worth of processing power from individual computing units and data centers—much of whose power comes from fossil fuels. The most common form of cryptocurrency mining, proof of work, requires a massive amount of processing power. Alternative mining methods have a mixed track record so far, with some ostensibly “sustainable” mining systems still requiring significant amounts of dirty or clean power. And transacting any tokens across the blockchain, whether an NFT or a Litecoin, sucks up the collective energy feeding into the transaction, no matter the product at hand. One estimate claims that a single NFT trade across the much-used Ethereum blockchain uses enough energy that could power an entire house for several days. And this is all so the buyer can have bragging rights about “owning” an image.
Celebrities who are selling NFTs and also claim to care about the environment: What are you doing? Whatever it is, there sure are a lot of you. Here’s a list—surely incomplete—of luminaries who brand themselves as climate-conscious yet have also been hawking NFTs in some form or the other, ensuring this bizarre digital culture product will linger in the public discourse while possibly ruining the art world, the planet, and our collective sanity.
Not even-close-to-exhaustive list of scam-adjacent proponents at the link. Yes, engaging in yet another form of workaround for doing not the things we need to do about global warming: what are we doing? The climate question at the center of everything, that we’ve been needing to ask for decades, that we still need to answer.
Reporters and editors don’t especially like big, boring problems – they can be difficult to explain, taking up a lot of words and lacking dramatic photos and illustrations. So kudos to Slate for pulling out this new EPA rule nugget that actually matters – a lot.
But the new methane rule goes beyond merely undoing the damage of the Trump years. The proposal is broader than its Obama-era predecessors, and once finalized, will apply to hundreds of thousands of previously unregulated emission sources, like wells, storage tanks, and compressor stations. That is because unlike the prior standards, Biden’s rule will cover equipment of all ages. EPA thus avoids a key conceptual error that has undercut agency initiatives for over five decades under administrations of both parties: The old rules regulated only new facilities, while exempting older ones from emission limits. In contrast, Biden’s rule covers new and old emitters alike.
And methane, the primary ingredient in natural gas, is a big problem. The gas has a startlingly powerful greenhouse effect when released directly into the atmosphere, trapping 86 times more heat over a 20-year period than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide. As a result, while methane accounts for only 16 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is responsible for almost a third of current, human-caused warming. And here in the United States, oil and gas installations are the largest industrial source of methane, due both to leaks and intentional venting during the production process.
The Obama administration recognized the need to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector back in 2016 and crafted regulations to do so. But those restrictions applied only to equipment constructed in 2015 or later, leaving the vast majority of the sector’s sources and emissions uncontrolled.
This story was troublingly familiar. Regulating new sources of pollution strictly and existing sources laxly or not at all is known as “grandfathering.” The EPA has engaged in the practice before, with disastrous results. Indeed, we wrote an entire book about the terrible consequences of exempting existing power plants from 1970s emission limits on soot- and smog-forming pollutants.
On the subject of other troublesome old mistakes, the EPA had no comment about toxic emissions emanating from all the crazy uncles still out there. Sources say they continue to study the issue.
Right along the lines of super unexciting infrastructure fixes to crucial bridges, railways, pipes and water mains is the capping of methane-spewing oil wells, of which we have a leaky and abundant surplus:
Curtis Shuck calls the well a “super emitter,” one of many in a wheat field not far from the Canadian border, a part of Montana known as the “golden triangle” for its bountiful crops. Aside from the scattered rusty pipes and junked oil tanks, the field is splendid and vast, its horizon interrupted intermittently by power lines and grain bins. On these plains, Shuck says, you can watch your dog run away for a week.
He is a former oil and gas executive who nowadays leads a small nonprofit — the result of a personal epiphany — and is tackling global warming one well at a time. That is the approach of his Well Done Foundation, plugging this and then other orphaned sites and trapping the methane underground. The effort started in Montana in 2019 but will expand to other states before the fall.
“When we’re done, it will be like this well was never here,” Shuck said, standing upwind as cement was pumped hundreds of feet down, through a series of pipes stuck in the 7½-inch-wide hole like a straw in a juice box.
30K to cap a well. Well done, Well Done. Plant trees, install solar farms, wind farms, stop dumping sewage, limit runoff, cut back on steaks (sorry! but do), refurbish the train lines, live close to work. Listen to ‘Trane while you walk. Live a little.
What’s it going to take? All of it, every last all of it. Everything.
Image: Abandoned oil storage tanks left behind in Montana. (Adrián Sanchez-Gonzalez for The Washington Post)