Posts with «nature & environment» label

Democratic lawmakers press crypto mining companies over energy consumption concerns

A group of Democratic lawmakers led by Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachuttes has asked six crypto mining companies, including Riot Blockchain, to answer questions about the impact of their operations on the environment and cost of electricity in the US. In separate letters to the chief executives of each firm, the group asks the companies to detail how much electricity they consume, their scaling plans and any agreements they have in place with local utility companies. They have until February 10th to reply.

Lawmakers say they’re concerned about what a dramatic increase in domestic cryptocurrency mining has meant for the environment and consumers. Specifically, they cite a 2021 study from the University of California, Berkeley that estimated crypto mining in upstate New York raised annual electricity bills by approximately $165 million for small businesses and $79 million for consumers, “with little or no local economic benefit.” They also point to the fact that energy consumption related to Bitcoin mining tripled between 2019 and 2021.

“The extraordinarily high energy usage and carbon emissions associated with Bitcoin mining could undermine our hard work to tackle the climate crisis – not to mention the harmful impacts crypto mining has on local environments and electricity prices,” Senator Warren said. “We need more information on the operations of these crypto mining companies to understand the full scope of the consequences for our environment and local communities.”

The group stops short of suggesting regulatory action could be on the horizon for the industry, but clearly the effect of cryptocurrency on other parts of the economy is something lawmakers are thinking about. On January 20th, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing titled “Cleaning up Cryptocurrency: The Energy Impacts of Blockchains.” What’s more, US lawmakers have taken a more board interest in cryptocurrencies in recent months. That was on display in December when the Senate held a hearing on Stablecoins.

Panasonic's higher-capacity Tesla battery could enter production in 2023

Panasonic could start mass producing larger-capacity batteries for Tesla as soon as next year. The 4680 cell is said to boost the range of electric vehicles by over 15 percent. As Nikkei notes, that could boost the range of the Model S from 650km (404 miles or so) on a single charge to 750km (around 465 miles).

Although the battery is said to be twice as big as previous versions, it has a fivefold increase in energy capacity, according to Nikkei. As such, cars need fewer of the batteries, which are already 10 to 20 percent cheaper to produce. It's estimated that batteries account for 30 percent of the cost of EVs. A cost reduction could make EVs more affordable and hasten the transition to electric vehicles. What's more, a longer range means drivers won't need to charge batteries as often.

Panasonic, a long-time partner of Tesla, is reportedly investing around 80 billion yen ($704 million) on new equipment to produce the 4680. It's said to be expanding an existing plant in Japan and making the batteries there to begin with. Nikkei reports the company will start making the cells on a small scale this year to develop safe and efficient processes before entering mass production in 2023. It may mass produce the batteries in other countries later.

The company confirmed to Reuters that it was setting up a test production line in 2022, though didn't say when it will start making the batteries at a larger scale. "We are studying various options for mass production," it said.

Panasonic started working on the cell following a request from Tesla. The head of Panasonic's battery division said in November that the company hasn't ruled out producing the cell for other automakers, though Tesla is its priority. Tesla CEO Elon Musk previously said that although his company plans to make its own batteries, it would continue to source them from other suppliers.

Tesla announced the 4680 at a Battery Day event in September 2020. At the time, Musk said the cell and other developments could enable Tesla to start selling a $25,000 EV.

GM aims to use hydrogen fuel cells for mobile power generators

Automakers have been pursuing the dream of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for decades — who wouldn't want a car that runs on renewable hydrogen and only emits water vapor? But many challenges, from designing cars that can easily hold the fuel, to setting up reliable hydrogen distribution, have made it difficult to turn that dream into a reality. But what if you used those fuel cells to set up a remote EV charging station, or to replace a traditional gas or diesel generator for a large camp? That's what GM is planning to do with its HYDROTEC fuel cell technology, the company announced today.


GM's Mobile Power Generators, or MPGs, are pretty self descriptive: they'd basically let you bring large amounts of electricity anywhere without burning fossil fuels, or expanding a local power grid. It could be useful for concerts, movie sets, or neighborhoods that frequently lose power. (In my town outside of Atlanta, almost everyone owns a gas generator to deal with storm-related outages.) 

The announcement also makes plenty of sense for GM, as it's already bringing its fuel cell technology to trucking, aerospace and rail partners. The company says the MPGs will be able to spit out 60 to 600 kilowatts without producing much noise or heat.

GM plans to show off an MPG-powered EV charging station in the middle of 2022, a project co-funded by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the U.S. Army. Additionally, the California Energy Commission is exploring how MPGs could help provide energy during power shutdowns. GM is also working together with Renewable Innovations to build the EMPOWER rapid charger, which could deliver fast EV charging to existing stations without the need for huge infrastructure improvements. Taking things to an even more extreme level, there's a large MPG implementation that could potentially power large military camps and heavy-duty equipment. (And as a bonus, those camps can actually use the water the MPG emits.)

While it'll likely be years before MPGs can actually deployed, it's heartening to see GM explore uses for fuel cells outside of cars. Battery-powered EVs have evolved so quickly that hydrogen-powered cars don't have much of a future (sorry, Toyota). So it's about time we start considering other ways fuel cells could help.

Amazon sued by family of employee killed in Illinois tornado warehouse collapse

Amazon is being sued by the family of delivery driver Austin McEwan who died in the Edwardsville, Illinois warehouse struck by a tornado last month, CNET has reported. The lawsuit alleges that Amazon was negligent, citing the fact that it told people to keep working through extreme weather warnings. It also makes claims of negligence against contractors who helped build the warehouse. 

McEwan was one of six people killed when the warehouse roof was hit by a tornado and collapsed. The family of victim Deandre Morrow has also retained a lawyer. "Sadly, it appears that Amazon placed profits first during this holiday season instead of the safety of our son and the other five," said McEwan's mother, Alice McKewan in a press conference

"Severe weather watches are common in this part of the country and, while precautions are taken, are not cause for most businesses to close down," Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel told CNET in a statement. "We believe our team did the right thing as soon as a warning was issued." The company said that the warehouse was built four years ago in accordance with building code requirements. 

Edwardsville is in a region known as Wind Zone IV, a part of the US most at risk from tornadoes. The National Weather Service warned of a tornado threat 36 hours before they struck, and the morning before the storms, it cautioned of the "likely threat" of "damaging winds in excess of 60 mph."

During the same incident, an Amazon dispatcher pressured a driver to deliver packages amid tornado alarms, threatening her with termination. Amazon said that the dispatcher "didn't follow the standard safety practice" and should have directed the driver to seek shelter. Meanwhile, Democrats have pressed Amazon for details on the warehouse deaths, saying in a letter that the incident "fit a larger pattern" of Amazon putting safety at risk "in everyday situations and emergencies alike." 

Biden administration announces new measures to upgrade US power grid

With its landmark climate legislation in jeopardy, the Biden administration has announced a series of new executive actions to accelerate the US’s transition to a clean power grid. On Wednesday, the White House said it would allocate billions toward projects that lead to the construction of more wind, solar and geothermal energy across the country.

Specifically, the administration announced it’s moving forward with the lease of six commercial areas off the coasts of New York and New Jersey for use in wind farm projects. On offer is more than 488,000 acres of ocean seafloor for the winning bidders to build an estimated 5.6 and 7 gigawatts of clean power generation. As part of the bidding process, the White House says it will incentivize participants to support labor jobs and to source turbine components from American manufacturers. The New York Bight development is one of the primary pillars of the Biden administration’s plan to build out 30 gigawatts of offshore wind production by 2030.

Another significant facet of today’s announcement is the “Building a Better Grid” initiative. Pulling from the $65 billion Congress set aside for power grid upgrades when it passed President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the initiative earmarks $2.5 billion toward funding the installation of new transmission lines. It’s putting another $3 billion toward an expansion of the Smart Grid Investment Grant Program, which supports projects that increase the capacity and flexibility of existing electrical infrastructure.

The administration notes it will also allocate $10 billion in grants to states, tribes and utility companies to help those groups strengthen their local transmission lines. Taken together, the investments will help modernize the country’s power grid, making it easier to transport renewable energy from remote generation sites to where it’s needed most. It will also harden the power grid against the kind of extreme weather events that have become more commonplace as the effects of climate change have worsened.

Today’s announcement sees the White House putting forward meaningful climate policy, but if the Biden administration is to have a chance of meeting the president’s ambitious goal of decarbonizing the country’s power grid by 2035, it will need to bypass the legislative gridlock that has left the Build Better Back Framework in limbo. Much of that will depend on whether the White House can convince Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia to support the approximately $1.75 trillion climate and social spending bill.

China's Chang'e-5 probe finds on-site evidence of water on the Moon's surface

China’s Chang’e-5 lunar lander has found water on the surface of the Moon, marking the first-ever time scientists have found on-site evidence of the substance on Earth’s satellite. In a study published in Science Advances, Chinese researchers claim the lander detected signs of water molecules or hydroxyl, a close chemical cousin of H2O. Chang’e-5 used a spectrometer to analyze the composition of regolith in close proximity to its landing site. It found that most of the soil had a water concentration of less than 120 parts per million, making the surface of Luna much drier than that of the Earth.

Honglei Lin et al.

Chinese scientists believe most of the molecules came to the Moon through a process called solar wind implantation. Charged particles from the sun drove hydrogen atoms to the lunar surface where they later bonded with oxygen to form water and hydroxyl. The study builds on findings NASA published in 2018 when it found evidence of water on the sunlit surfaces of the Moon using an airborne infrared telescope. For decades, scientists had believed the Moon was completely dry due to its almost nonexistent atmosphere. With no atmosphere, the thought was there was nothing there to protect water molecules from the sun’s harsh radiation.

US greenhouse emissions increased by 6.2 percent last year

Over the last year, US greenhouse emissions increased by 6.2 percent compared to 2020 levels, according to a new report from the Rhodium Group. The jump puts the country further behind meeting the reduction targets put forward by the Paris climate agreement. Under the deal, the US has pledged to reduce its greenhouse emissions between 50 percent and 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. As of last year, they were 17.4 percent below that benchmark. That’s a step back from the 22.2 percent reduction the country had achieved the year prior.

Behind the increase in overall emissions were corresponding jumps in pollution generated by the country’s transportation and power sectors. Compared to 2021, those sectors generated an additional 10 percent and 6.6 percent of greenhouse emissions. Driving those increases was a 17 percent increase in reliance on coal-generated power and more people driving after a pandemic-related downturn.

The report underscores how important is it is for the US to clean up its power grid and transportation sector. Another recent study found that wind and solar could meet 85 percent of the country’s current electricity needs. So much of whether the US will meet its Paris Agreement commitments will depend on if the country can mobilize investment as part of policies like President Biden’s Build Back Better Plan. The fate of the bill is uncertain, but what is clear is that the technology is there to enable a clean transition. Until recently, natural gas had never been more affordable, and yet it was still more expensive than renewable sources of energy

Goodyear unveils a prototype tire made from 70-percent sustainable materials

In 2020, Goodyear pledged to develop a new tire made entirely of sustainable materials within the next decade. Today the company has unveiled a tire with 70 percent sustainable material content, which shows the progress it has made towards achieving its ultimate goal. The tire features 13 ingredients across nine different tire components, including three different carbon blacks that are traditionally made by burning petroleum products.

Carbon black is typically used as a filler to reinforce tires, as well as other rubber products, and to lengthen their lifespan. Instead of using carbon black produced using petroleum, Goodyear used ones that were made using methane, carbon dioxide and plant-based oil. The company says the methods of production its suppliers used to create the sustainable carbon blacks generated less carbon emissions than traditional processes. 

Goodyear has also been using soybean oil for certain tire lines instead of petroleum oil, and this one is no different. Soybean oil allows tires to remain pliable in changing temperatures with added traction benefits. The company had been aiming to use 100 percent soybean oil in four of its tire lines in 2020, but it fell short due to production issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Goodyear's new tire uses a variety of silica, which improves tire grip and help lower fuel consumption, made from rice husk ash, as well. Rice husk ash is a by-product of rice milling, and it's pretty abundant in rice producing countries. Researchers have ben looking into its use as an alternative for cement and and as a source of silica, and according to Goodwill, it was able to produce high-quality silica from the waste material. In addition, the company broke down polyester materials recycled from plastic bottles and other plastic wastes into their base chemicals. They were then turned into technical grade polyester used for tire cords that maintain the shape of the tire. 

Chris Helsel, chief technology officer at Goodyear, said the 70 percent sustainable tire "is an exciting achievement that demonstrates [the company's] commitment to increasing the use of sustainable materials." That said, it was manufactured as a demo product, and the company has yet to reveal whether it will be released to the public.

Denmark pledges ‘green’ domestic flights by 2030

The prime minister of Denmark, Mette Frederiksen, is pledging that the European nation’s domestic flights would be “green” by 2030. As part of her New Year’s Address, she said that (translated) “by 2025, Danes must have the opportunity to fly green on a domestic route.” She added that “by 2030 at the latest, we must be able to fly completely green when we fly domestically in Denmark.” It was part of a broader commitment by the leader to toughen measures against polluters and to jump-start the country’s green transition.

There are, however, reasons to be concerned that such an ambitious deadline can be reached, given the lack of ready alternatives. Electric planes may never succeed, and hydrogen flying, while much more promising, is nowhere near ready to be rolled out to a major airline’s fleet. Not to mention, of course, that only hydrogen produced as a result of electrolysis, powered by excess renewable energy, can be called truly “green.” EnergiWatch has said that Denmark’s standing policy of waiting for magic bullet technologies to come to fruition is not going to help it reach its international commitments on climate emissions.

That said, Denmark has made more steps than some countries to help make the transition toward zero-carbon technologies. The country has already issued a hard deadline to end oil and gas exploration and is a big player in the wind power industry. At the start of 2021, it committed to build an artificial island which could collect and store power from Denmark’s wind farms, enough to supply 10GW. At the same time, the country hopes that any excess wind power can be used to drive an electrolyzer, helping it develop a nice sideline as a producer of guilt-free Hydrogen.

What we learned this year about how to avoid a climate catastrophe

COP26 was not a fist-in-the-air moment, and not the victory against climate change that humanity had been banking on. Sadly, politics and commerce put a hard thumb on proceedings, limiting the action possible. Commitments to “phase down” coal, rather than a firm pledge to eliminate it outright, show how far we still have to go. But the event also served to highlight the extent of what needs to be done if humanity’s going to survive beyond the next century.

One “victory” out of the event was the belief that ensuring global warming held at 1.5 degrees was still possible. It’s worth saying, however, that 1.5 degrees isn’t a target to meet so much as an acceptance of impending disaster. In October, the IPCC explained that such a temperature increase will cause significant upticks in the frequency of extreme heat waves, monsoon-like rainfall and widespread droughts. Extreme weather events that may have taken place once every 50 years a few centuries ago could become a regular, and fatal, occurrence.

All the while, the facts of the matter are unchanged: Humanity needs to avoid adding new carbon emissions while also tackling those we’ve already emitted. That means an aggressive reduction of every man-made carbon-emitting process everywhere on Earth, the total reformation of agriculture and an unprecedented rollout of carbon capture and storage technology. And, ideally, that process should have begun the better part of two decades ago.

There are many dispiriting facts about the world, but one that always hurts is the fact that coal plants are still being greenlit. Global Energy Monitor’s data has plants currently being permitted or under construction in (deep breath) China, India, Indonesia, Turkey, Mongolia, Vietnam, Singapore, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Poland, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Brazil and Mexico. As Reuters says, each plant will be expected to run for at least 40 years, severely damaging efforts to go Carbon Negative. Not only is it in everyone’s best interest that these plants don’t go online, but wealthier nations have a moral obligation to help provide the funding to help at least some of those names move toward clean energy.

Tunvarat Pruksachat via Getty Images

The problem is that electricity is going to be the most important resource of the 21st century, especially if we’re going to tackle climate change. Many key technologies, like transportation, will ditch fossil fuels in favor of electricity as their primary source of fuel. The world’s demand for energy is going to increase, and we’re going to need to generate that power cleanly. The US Center for Climate and Energy Solutions believes that, by 2050, the world’s power needs will jump by 24 percent. So where will we get all of this clean power from?

Fusion has, forever, been held up as a magic bullet that will totally eradicate our worries about energy generation. Unlike Nuclear Fission, it produces little waste, requires little raw fuel and can’t produce a runaway reaction. Unfortunately, Fusion remains as elusive as The Venus de Milo’s arms or a good new Duke Nukem game. ITER, the internationally-funded, French-built experimental reactor won’t be finished until 2025 at the earliest and is still just a testbed. If successful — and that’s a big if — we’re still a decade away from any serious progress being made, at which point mass decarbonization will already need to be well underway.

That means any power decarbonization will have to come from the renewable technology that’s available to us today. Nuclear, Wind, Solar, Geothermal and Tidal power all need to be ramped up to fill in the gap, but the scale of the task in the US alone is staggering. According to the EIA, the US generated just short of 2,500 billion kWh using fossil fuels in 2020. If you wanted to, for instance, replace all of that with nuclear power, you’d need to build anything in the region of 300 reactors, or increase the number of solar panels installed in the US by roughly a hundred percent — and that’s before we talk about intermittency.

James Trew / Engadget

One thing we can do, however, is to reduce our demand for energy to lessen the need for such a dramatic shift. That can be, for instance, as easy as better insulating your home (in cold climates) or improving the efficiency of AC systems (in warm climates). Another smart move is to ditch the car in favor of public transportation, walking, or getting on your bike. There is evidence that e-bike adoption is becoming a big deal, with Forbes saying that sales are tipped to grow from just under 4 million annually in 2020 to close to 17 million by 2030.

None of this, however, will matter much unless we can also find a way to pay off the debts humanity has racked up over the last century. The IPCC believes that we need to extract up to one trillion tonnes of atmospheric CO2 in the near future. This can be done with massive tree planting works, more of which needs to be done, but also this process may need a little help.

That’s why a number of startups have been working on industrial processes to extract CO2 from the atmosphere. Right now, such a process is very expensive, but it’s hoped that as the technology improves, the cost will start to tumble. There’s also a concern, of course, that running schemes like this will give polluting companies and nations a free license to avoid reform.

As much as we can hope that this technology matures quickly, the rate of progress needs to get a lot faster a, uh, lot faster. For instance, Climeworks’ Orca, its new flagship carbon capture plant in Iceland, will extract 4,000 tons of CO2 per year. If we’re going to reach the point where we can avert a climate catastrophe using extraction alone, we’ll need this capacity to increase by about a hundred million times.

The point of this is, broadly speaking, to outline how much more sharply our attitudes toward the climate need to shift. If we’re going to succeed at defeating climate change then we’re going to need to go onto the sort of war footing – where resources are devoted to nothing but solving the crisis – that few can ever imagine undertaking. But, as most of the resources point out, the only way that we’re going to stave off the damage after dragging our feet for so long is to go all-out in search of a solution.