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Top Climate Stories 2021 — Part 2

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In this Part 2 of the Top Climate Stories 2021, we look at how subterfuge seemed to be the only way climate action could get done, how renewables became mainstream, how big oil kept ripping off citizens, what the effects of water shortages on far-reaching regions were, and more.

Here is Part 2 — the second and final installment of Top Climate Stories 2021.

Biden’s Executive Actions for the Environment — Part 2, Top Climate Stories 2021

Initially, the news was all good from the new US administration. President Biden signed measures to rejoin the Paris climate accord and block the Keystone XL pipeline. Executive actions slowly undid 50 regressive environmental policies of Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump. The Washington Post’s environmental action tracker noted the pace of 31 new measures and 28 proposals to protect the environment.

Now, in the month of December alone, the Biden administration:

reversed a rule granting manufacturers a waiver from uniform energy-efficiency test procedures
called for the federal government to run on all clean power by 2030, switch to zero-emission cars and light trucks by 2035, and make federal buildings carbon neutral by 2045
revoked a rule that relaxed efficiency standards for shower heads and let them use unlimited amounts of water
announced plans to create new standards to replace millions of underground lead water service lines, while providing billions of dollars to help finance the effort
approved two new major solar projects

Those and other environmental executive actions are necessary because Senator Joe Manchin (D-Coal) singlehandedly weakened climate action in the US in 2021. Build Back Better (BBB) could have become the most significant clean-energy investment in US history, with a $555 billion package of tax credits, grants, and other policies aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, Manchin forced Democrats to abandon a move that would have compelled utilities to switch to clean energy. He didn’t see the need for subsidies for union-made EVs. He fought against a proposed fee on methane.

After promising to support a vote on the act before Christmas, Manchin slow-walked his pledge. Environmental executive actions became the norm due to Manchin’s efforts within a deadlocked Congress and the resulting Democrats’ inability to pass legislation.

But the Biden administration needs to continue to make progress in areas like the Dakota Access Pipeline, sale of oil and gas drilling leases on federal land, and the largest offshore oil and gas leases in US history on more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico.

Renewable Energy Rose in Prominence

The price of renewable energy fell even more in 2021, and a record amount of solar power and wind power was produced. Cleantech made that possible.

According to the Energy Information Administration, wind and solar power made up 62% of new electric generating capacity to come online in 2019 and 76% in 2020. Through September, 2021, these two new energy technologies comprised 74% of the total new technologies.

In October, 2021, solar and wind accounted for 14% of US electricity generation. That’s an enormous percentage for energy sources that were considered novel just a decade ago. Large-scale solar accounted for 37.2% of new US power capacity in the first 10 months of 2021, wind power accounted for 33.2%, small-scale solar accounted for 15.5%, and fossil gas accounted for 13.7%.

Across the US, wind and solar are simply less expensive than dirty fossil fuels. And costs for wind, solar and battery technologies continue to fall.

Oil Infrastructure — Over & Over — Experienced Massive Leaks

In August, Hurricane Ida slammed into the Louisiana coast with near 150 mile-per-hour winds. The trail of destruction included the most oil spills detected from space after a weather event in the Gulf of Mexico since the federal government started using satellites to track spills and leaks a decade ago. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a total of 55 spill reports, including a spill near a fragile nature reserve. These disasters underscore the frailty of offshore oil and gas infrastructure due to intensifying storms fueled by climate change.

Leaking pipeline connected to a California offshore oil platform and operated by Beta Offshore — a Long Beach unit of Houston’s Amplify Energy — produced a 5.8-mile oil plume running from the Huntington Beach Pier to Newport Beach. Over 126,000 gallons spilled from the platform, which is located in federal waters off of the Los Angeles County coast; the waters are overseen by the US Department of the Interior.

The Limetree Bay refinery that rained oil on St. Croix neighborhoods will remain shut down indefinitely after it spewed oil onto nearby predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods twice since reopening in February. The EPA shut down the refinery initially after a release of oil vapor in early February, three days after reopening for the first time in a decade.

These and other oil catastrophes fall to public funds to remediate. That’s because the oil and gas industry use their economic power to suspend the laws of economics — they get to avoid taxes on most of their income through a convoluted web of special provisions in the tax code.

Pervasive Drought Reduced Colorado River Allocations

In the US West, federal water managers announced that they had no option but to reduce the amount of water some states receive from the Colorado River. That means the century-old Colorado River Compact is no longer the guiding document on how how water is divided among the states in the greater watershed: Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Today, 40 million people depend on water from the Colorado River Basin even as water resources are diminishing due to a record drought. In late summer of 2021, 99% of the US west of the Rockies was in a state of drought; Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country, was at only 40% of capacity.

Nearly half the world’s population lacks consistent access to fresh water for drinking, irrigation, and basic sanitation, according to a report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). More than 2 billion people are living in countries under water stress and 3.6 billion people face inadequate access to water at least one month per year.

The WMO says that there is a need for urgent action to improve cooperative water management, embrace integrated water and climate policies, and scale up investment in water — a commodity which underpins all the international goals on sustainable development, climate change adaptation, and disaster risk reduction.

Final Thoughts for Top Climate Stories 2021, Part 2

We can still prevent the planet from getting even hotter. It will require all of us reading this article to become climate activists and demand a coordinated effort among countries to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by around 2050.

It is evident in Part 2 of this series that means we need a rapid shift away from fossil fuels — starting immediately. Are you up for it?

Photo collage retrieved from NOAA / public domain

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The Solid-State Energy Storage Dam Is About to Bust Wide Open

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New solid state lithium-ion energy storage technology is still in the R&D phase, and it has already attracted EV manufacturers who love the idea of packing more muscle into smaller spaces while saving on weight, improving performance, and enhancing their safety profile, too. Now it looks like the stationary storage field is also coming over to the solid-state side, too.

QuantumScape Is On A Solid-State Energy Storage Tear

For those of you new to the topic, conventional lithium-ion batteries are based on a liquid electrolyte, which can be a bit testy unless properly engineered.

One emerging solution is to ditch the liquid electrolyte altogether in favor of a solid material, such as a specialized ceramic. The solid-state approach is also a tricky one, but one of the scientists pursuing the solid-state unicorn is famed University of Texas researcher John Goodenough, who is widely credited with inventing the rechargeable lithium-ion technology of today, and that is a pretty good indicator of the quality of the research in that direction.

Solid-state battery materials were a known thing by the early 19th century, but commercial interest in solid-state batteries didn’t really pick up a head of steam until 2020, when the idea took off like a rocket in the electric vehicle field.

The solid-state battery firm QuantumScape currently cites relationships with three automakers, including Volkswagen Group. The two companies began collaborating on solid-state EV batteries in 2015.

They have upped the ante since then, with plans in the works for a pilot manufacturing facility in Germany. In a recent letter to shareholders, QauntumScape described the battery manufacturing plan and issued a progress report on its four-layer solid-state cells, with each layer consisting of “a cathode, a solid-state separator, and an in-situ formed lithium-metal anode.”

Next Steps For Solid-State Energy Storage

QauntumScape is not letting the energy storage grass grow under its feet. Last week the company announced an agreement with the leading energy technology company Fluence, which is the first non-automotive partnership for its lithium-metal battery technology.

That’s a significant development, considering that as recently as last summer the market analyst IDTechEx was assuming that electric vehicles would lead the demand for solid-state batteries, followed by smart phones. Stationary storage could skip right over both of their heads in short order.

“The strategic relationship brings together two companies leading in technology innovation focused on accelerating clean energy adoption and reducing global carbon emissions,” QuantumScape enthuses. “The companies will collaborate on what they believe to be a first-of-its-kind solution to incorporate QuantumScape’s battery technology into Fluence stationary energy storage products as specific technical and commercial milestones are met.”

The two firms are eyeballing a hot growth rate for stationary energy storage in the coming years. Fluence already has a track record in deploying energy storage to improve transmission networks and replace new gas peaker plants, so look for the partners to zero in on those areas as well as others.

As a partner company that links Siemens and the utility AES, Fluence is in a good position to speed those lithium-metal batteries to market whenever they come rolling off the assembly line.

More Solid-State Batteries For More EVs

Meanwhile, last spring Ford and BMW also hooked up to the solid-state battery train last year. Mercedes-Benz and Stellantis caught the solid-state bug, too. GM dropped a hint about its future solid-state battery ambitions last month when it formed a partnership with the Korean firm POSCO Chemical. Toyota and Hyundai are also reported to be on board.

That’s an awfully big field of energy storage players scrambling for technology that probably won’t hit the market until 2025. However, it does give the R&D folks time to work out any remaining kinks.

One especially interesting development recently popped up in a study published in the journal Nature, which describes a “a class of elastomeric solid-state electrolytes with a three-dimensional interconnected plastic crystal phase.” The new electrolytes demonstrate “a combination of mechanical robustness, high ionic conductivity, low interfacial resistance and high lithium-ion transference number” along with “a powerful strategy for enabling stable operation of high-energy, solid-state lithium batteries.”

The research is a collaboration between the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

In a press release on the new study, GIT explains that elastomers are common synthetic rubbers. Rubber is not the first material that comes to mind when the topic turns to next-generation energy storage materials, but the research team gave their elastomer a high tech twist that transformed it into a “superhighway for fast lithium-ion transport with superior mechanical toughness, resulting in longer charging batteries that can go farther.”

“The key breakthrough was allowing the material to form a three-dimensional interconnected plastic crystal phase within the robust rubber matrix. This unique structure has resulted in high ionic conductivity, superior mechanical properties and electrochemical stability,” explains GIT.

The new electrolytes prevent the lithium dendrite growth that bedevils their liquid counterparts. GIT also notes that fabricating the new electrolyte is a relatively simple, low temperature process that yields a high quality result.

But…What About The Lithium?

Yes, what about it? EV supply chain observers have been watching the lithium supply chain like a hawk. The general consensus is that there needs to be a serious uptick in availability as the energy storage market takes off.

Solid-state technology can assist, partly by introducing more robust batteries with a longer lifecycle, and by decluttering the recycling pathway. However, the global lithium supply chain still has to pump itself up as the demand for batteries accelerates.

Lithium mining and brine extraction are two solutions at hand, but they can easily run afoul of environmental and cultural preservation goals. A more promising area of lithium R&D is geothermal extraction without the use of large evaporation lagoons.

Last June our friends over at the US Department of Energy produced a blueprint for lithium supply in the US and noted that “The worldwide lithium-battery market is expected to grow by a factor of 5 to 10 in the next decade.”

“The U.S. industrial base must be positioned to respond to this vast increase in market demand that otherwise will likely benefit well-resourced and supported competitors in Asia and Europe,” they added.

Game on!

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EVs Beat Diesels As Electric Car Sales Ramp up in Europe

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Auto analyst Mathias Schmidt tells the Financial Times that sales of battery-electric cars in Europe and the UK were higher than sales of diesel-powered cars for the first time in December. “The diesel death march has been playing on repeat since September 2015 when ‘Dieselgate’ was first unveiled — causing VW to draw up the first plans of the ID.3 within 30 days of the scandal coming to light,” he said. The December data indicates 176,000 battery electric vehicles were sold in December — 6% more than in December, 2020 — as opposed to 160,000 diesels.

The Financial Times goes to some lengths to point out to its readers that the boom in electric cars is largely attributable to generous government subsidies and draconian emissions rules that force manufacturers to build low and zero emissions cars. That approach, of course, is anathema to “free market” advocates. If it weren’t for the fact that the world is hurtling toward a climate catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, such market machinations might be condemned and rightfully so.

The Financial Times reports the German government is about to revisit the wisdom of tax credits for diesel fuel that make it 14 cents per liter cheaper than premium gasoline. The love affair with diesel in Europe began after the OPEC oil embargoes in the 1970s.

Diesel engines do squeeze more miles out of a gallon of fuel than gasoline engines, and so there was a reason to promote the sale of diesel-powered vehicles at that time. The mechanism most countries chose was to increase taxes on gasoline and decrease taxes on diesel fuel. The justification for doing that has long since evaporated, however.

According to SwissInfo, sales of electric vehicles — including plug-in hybrids and conventional hybrids — reached a “tipping point” in 2021, particularly at the end of the year. For the period from September to November, fully electric vehicles accounted for 18.3% of new registrations. Including plug-in hybrids, that figure rose to 28% according to the Touring Club Switzerland. The Tesla Model 3 leads all other EV models in sales in Switzerland. The Volkswagen ID.3 is in second place, with less than half as many cars sold.

“Given the ongoing technological advancements, increased social acceptance and the ever-increasing choice of electric vehicle models, the development of electromobility is progressing faster than expected. The 50%-mark for fully electric vehicles, which most experts expected only around 2030, should therefore be reached significantly faster than expected,” TCS said.

While Switzerland’s EV charging infrastructure is on par with that in other European countries — a total of 8,497 public charging stations were available across Switzerland as of the end of 2021 — there are still too few chargers available for apartment dwellers and those who park on the street. “The hurdles for home charging are still too high for tenants, owners of apartments and residents who park on the streets,” says Krispin Romang, managing director of the Swiss eMobility association.

Switzerland is implementing new laws designed to slash carbon emissions by 50% in 2030 as compared to 1990. They include tightening tailpipe emission standards to make them similar to those imposed by the EU. Fines imposed by the new law will be used to pay for charging infrastructure upgrades.

The Takeaway

The Financial Times may harrumph about government subsidies and regulations, but they are working. If they smack of socialism to some, so be it. Socialism is preferable to extinction any day.

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Extreme E Sustainability Award Goes to Team X44 (Video)

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X44 have become the first winners of the Extreme E Sustainability Award after topping the standings in the series’ inaugural Count Us In Challenge. The Extreme E Count Us In Challenge is a simple way for people to take practical and impactful steps that reduce their carbon footprint — and challenge governments, cities, and businesses to accelerate progress on climate action.

Extreme E aims to accelerate the adoption of clean and electrified transport to help protect people and the planet, with the Extreme E Count Us In Challenge also supporting the UN’s Race To Zero campaign. Race to Zero is a global campaign to rally leadership and support from businesses, cities, regions, investors for a healthy, resilient, zero carbon recovery that prevents future threats, creates decent jobs, and unlocks inclusive, sustainable growth.

Extreme E is a challenging racing expedition, a global odyssey, taking 100% electric SUVs to extreme environments. They have a single goal in mind — to highlight the destruction of our planet and to inspire people, companies, and locations to urgently change course and go on the positive journey we must all take. The racing series hopes to inspire everyone to change course for the good of our home planet.

Fans vote for the Extreme E Sustainability Award by supporting their favorite team through making healthier lifestyle choices for themselves and the planet. They set up a profile with Count Us In to keep track of the carbon they are saving. The tracking also adds steps to all the steps people make on the Extreme E platform.

Alejandro Agag, founder and CEO of Extreme E, congratulated X44 as the winners of the Extreme E Sustainability Award via the series’ first-ever Count Us In Challenge. “Sport is an incredible platform to not only raise awareness of the climate crisis,” Agag said, “the single biggest threat to our planet today, but also inspire action to tackle it. At Extreme E we will continue to push the boundaries and shine a spotlight on the issues we face, along with the need to act now to help protect our futures.”

Lewis Hamilton, founder of X44, explained that Extreme E, as a new sustainability initiative, “brings my vision for a more sustainable and equal world to life. Extreme E really appealed to me because of its environmental focus. Every single one of us has the power to make a difference, and it means so much to me that I can use my love of racing, together with my love for our planet, to have a positive impact.”

Fan support for X44 through the Extreme E Sustainability Award must come as solace to Hamilton, who lost the Formula 1 driving championship in 2021 when the FIA chose the final race and title winner. Mercedes conceded that “it’s going to take a long time for us to digest” the Formula 1 end-of-2021 season results, revealing that “we will never overcome the pain and the distress” that the final lap decisions caused.

What’s Behind the Extreme E Sustainability Award

Motor racing is a constant hub of transport innovation, and Extreme E represents the latest clean technology, running X Prixs in some of Earth’s most remote and stunning locations while raising awareness for the climate crisis. Extreme E and Count Us In joined forces ahead of Season 1 to launch the Extreme E Count Us In Challenge — a campaign using the power of sport and the excitement of motor racing to inspire fans to take practical steps on climate change. The sport for purpose series asked fans to take real pledges to lead a less carbon intensive lifestyle to reduce their carbon footprint.

The Extreme E Count Us In Challenge includes a variety of actions available to fans to contribute towards a greener future, including not using single-use plastic, walking and cycling more, eating more plant-based foods and driving an electric vehicle. Each step is attributed to the fans’ favorite team, and the team with the most steps at the end of Season 1 would win the inaugural Extreme E Sustainability Award.

The specific steps that Extreme E recommends to its fans are:

Drive electric: Make your next vehicle purchase electric.
Fly less: Reduce your air travel to dramatically reduce your carbon pollution.
Grow some trees: Grow trees to capture and store carbon.
Speak up at work: Come together with colleagues to make change at a bigger scale.
Volunteer: Donate your time and skills.
Dial it down: Turn down the heating in your home by a degree or two.
Switch your home: Move your home to a green energy supplier.
Tell your politicians: Ask your politicians to act or invest in infrastructure to support a step.
Cut food waste: Reduce the amount of food that is wasted or thrown away in your home.
Eat sustainable fish: Eat sustainably sourced fish.
Drink tap water: Stop buying bottled water.
Walk and cycle more: Travel by foot or bike whenever possible.
Talk to friends: Start a conversation about Count Us In and encourage others to take a step.
Buy sustainable palm oil: Look for products that use sustainable palm oil.
Use less plastic: Make plastic-free choices to reduce carbon pollution.
Eat more plants: Reduce the amount of meat in your daily diet.

The greatest fan support for the Count Us In Challenge was achieved by X44, who claimed the Award with 792 steps pledged, with JBXE (749 steps), and Rosberg X Racing (RXR) (422 steps) completing the top three. In total, the Extreme E Count Us In Challenge inspired 1,231 fans to take 3,207 steps saving 1,241,223 KG CO2.

Final Thoughts

Extreme E will continue on to Season 2 to go further in taking climate action and increasing fan interest in the Count Us In Challenge. In 2022, Extreme E will continue to race across the world’s most remote environments to demonstrate the performance and benefits of electric vehicles and clean technology, while highlighting the impact that climate change is already having on these ecosystems, such as melting ice caps, deforestation, desertification, retreating mountain glaciers, and rising sea levels.

Sébastien Loeb, X44, said: “I was very happy to learn that X44 won the Extreme E Sustainability Award for 2021. I joined the team hoping to discover more about the environment while doing what I love, and I have learned so much from the series and the different places we visited — in fact, I even bought my first electric car last year! To know that our fans have come on this journey with us and are making their own commitment to have a positive impact on the planet is inspiring, and I feel good about what we can achieve when we work together.”

When teams and fans take meaningful, simple steps in their own daily lives, they not only reduce their own carbon emissions — they’re added to a growing movement of people and communities showing leaders it’s time to accelerate progress on climate action.

Extreme E Season 2 begins in Neom, Saudi Arabia (19-20 February), before heading to Sardinia, Italy (7-8 May), Senegal or Scotland (9-10 July), Antofagasta, Chile (10-11 September), and Punta Del Este, Uruguay (26-27 November).

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