It is difficult to exaggerate just what a sea change has taken place in the discussion of renewable energy in recent years.
Oldsters like me remember when the idea that (unsubsidized) renewable energy would be able to compete directly with fossil fuels was downright utopian. As late as the early 2000s, people were debating whether it would happen this century, or at all.
But the extraordinary progress of renewables in the past two decades has moved that hoped-for future closer and closer. And now, unbelievably, it is right on our doorstep.
It’s one thing for advocates or energy analysts to say that, of course. It’s something else to hear it coming out of the mouths of energy executives. But these days, residents of the C-suite are discussing renewable energy in terms that would have made hippies blush a decade ago.
Teenagers like to take long showers. They can easily spend 20 minutes in there, idling away their time as well as the family’s hot water. I’d done a few rounds of knocking on the bathroom door. I’d even taped photos of baby Arctic seals on the door to remind the kids of the consequences. Didn’t seem to get the point across.
When one night came where one of the kids drained the hot water from our tank I knew desperate measures were needed. I threatened to switch out the nice Delta showerhead with a miserly spray one, guaranteed to save water at the price of a miserable shower experience. Certainly that would get the point across but I knew I’d soon have to swap it out. You know, the Geneva Convention and all.
I began to ponder how a proper geek might solve the problem. I am a Site Reliability Engineer in my day job and I love gathering metrics on the computers I wrangle. What if there were a way to track my kids’ use of water? Wouldn’t it be great to show them how much water their showers actually use? I began to dream up a product I could create that would do just that but then some clever Googling showed me one was already out there: the Water Hawk.
China’s refusal to accept American recycling could lead to a drastic change in consumer habits. Perhaps we will finally have a discussion about our throwaway society.
For decades, we were sending the bulk of our recycling to China—tons and tons of it, sent over on ships to be made into goods such as shoes and bags and new plastic products. But last year, the country restricted imports of certain recyclables, including mixed paper—magazines, office paper, junk mail—and most plastics. Waste-management companies across the country are telling towns, cities, and counties that there is no longer a market for their recycling. These municipalities have two choices: pay much higher rates to get rid of recycling, or throw it all away.
A good analysis on which mode of transportation is the greenest.
One question we’ve fielded lately with the release of our US airline efficiency ranking is how the fuel efficiency, and therefore carbon intensity, of aircraft compare to other modes of transportation. Vehicles meet a variety of transport needs, in terms of what is transported (people vs. goods), distance traveled (short intercity trips vs. transoceanic transport), and speed (12 mph on a bike vs. Mach 0.85 in a long-haul aircraft). Typically, travelers choose between different transport modes based upon a variety of criteria—cost, speed, comfort, even safety—with carbon footprint generally only a secondary consideration. But, for those relative few who would consider planning a trip with carbon dioxide emissions in mind, here are some preliminary thoughts.
Insects are the most abundant animals on planet Earth. If you were to put them all together into one creepy-crawly mass, they’d outweigh all humanity by a factor of 17.
Insects outweigh all the fish in the oceans and all the livestock munching grass on land. Their abundance, variety (there could be as many as 30 million species), and ubiquity mean insects play a foundational role in food webs and ecosystems: from the bees that pollinate the flowers of food crops like almonds to the termites that recycle dead trees in forests.
Insects are also superlative for another, disturbing reason: They’re vanishing at a rate faster than mammals, fish, amphibians, and reptiles.
“The pace of modern insect extinctions surpasses that of vertebrates by a large margin,” write the authors of an alarming new review in Biological Conservation of the scientific literature on insect populations published in the past 40 years. The state of insect biodiversity, they write, is “dreadful.” And their biomass — the estimated weight of all insects on Earth combined — is dropping by an estimated 2.5 percent every year.
In all, the researchers conclude that as much as 40 percent of all insect species may be endangered over the next several decades. (Caveat: Most of the data was obtained from studies conducted in Europe and North America.) And around 41 percent of all insect species on record have seen population declines in the past decade.
“We estimate the current proportion of insect species in decline … to be twice as high as that of vertebrates, and the pace of local species extinction … eight times higher,” the authors write. “It is evident that we are witnessing the largest [insect] extinction event on Earth since the late Permian and Cretaceous periods.”
The United States has over 90,000 metric tons of nuclear waste that requires disposal. The U.S. commercial power industry alone has generated more waste (nuclear fuel that is “spent” and is no longer efficient at generating power) than any other country—nearly 80,000 metric tons. This spent nuclear fuel, which can pose serious risks to humans and the environment, is enough to fill a football field about 20 meters deep. The U.S. government’s nuclear weapons program has generated spent nuclear fuel as well as high-level radioactive waste and accounts for most of the rest of the total at about 14,000 metric tons, according to the Department of Energy (DOE). For the most part, this waste is stored where it was generated—at 80 sites in 35 states. The amount of waste is expected to increase to about 140,000 metric tons over the next several decades. However, there is still no disposal site in the United States. After spending decades and billions of dollars to research potential sites for a permanent disposal site, including at the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada that has a license application pending to authorize construction of a nuclear waste repository, the future prospects for permanent disposal remain unclear.
On its 60th anniversary, the civilian age of nuclear power in America appears to be almost over. But with the country awash in radioactive waste and plutonium stockpiled for warheads, the task of managing this atomic legacy grows ever more urgent. Opening a long-delayed waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is imperative.
President Dwight Eisenhower formally opened America’s first commercial nuclear power station at Shippingport, Pa., near Pittsburgh, on May 26, 1958. He declared it would “put the atom to work for the good of mankind, not his destruction.” His nuclear cheerleader, Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, had promised power “too cheap to meter.”
Today, with cheap gas and falling prices for wind and solar energy, nuclear power is often now too expensive to sell. Six plants closed from 2013 to 2017. At least seven more — from the Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey to the Diablo Canyon plant in California — have been earmarked for final shutdown, often years before their operating licenses expire. About a quarter of the nation’s nuclear power plants don’t cover their operating costs, according to a recent analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Callan report can be found here. [PDF]
Repair cafes. What a brilliant idea!
We were at a “repair cafe” inside the Elkridge Library in Howard County, Maryland. Instead of silence, we were surrounded by the buzzing of power drills and the whirring of sewing machines. Goedeke was one of the “master fixers” there. He doesn’t like the term, though; he says it should be reserved for the professionals. “We’re all just amateurs at this, and we’re just having fun, mostly,” the 67-year-old retired engineer said.
Around the room, 10 others were helping residents repair everything from tables and lamps to jewelry and clothing. In one corner, a handful of vacuums had begun to accumulate. These were things people normally threw away when they malfunction. “[Our society] has been inculcated in the last 50 years with this disposable concept and to buy the best and the latest,” Goedeke said. “We just don’t expect to keeps things around.”
Terrifying accounts of escape from the California Camp Fire.
The fire caught up to Jolly on Pearson Road, blasting her car with heat. She reached for the stethoscope slung around her neck and flinched as the metal burned. Her steering wheel was melting — the plastic stuck to her hands.
As her car caught fire and began to fill with black smoke, she called her husband. “Run,” he told her.
Jolly fled for safety to the car ahead of hers, but it too was abandoned. She ran on.The rubber on her shoes melted into the asphalt. The back of her scrubs caught fire, blistering her legs. She tried another car, but it wasn’t moving.
“I can’t die like this,” she told herself. “There’s no way I’m going to die sitting in a car. I have to run.”
Insects around the world are in a crisis, according to a small but growing number of long-term studies showing dramatic declines in invertebrate populations. A new report suggests that the problem is more widespread than scientists realized. Huge numbers of bugs have been lost in a pristine national forest in Puerto Rico, the study found, and the forest’s insect-eating animals have gone missing, too.
In 2014, an international team of biologists estimated that, in the past 35 years, the abundance of invertebrates such as beetles and bees had decreased by 45 percent. In places where long-term insect data are available, mainly in Europe, insect numbers are plummeting. A study last year showed a 76 percent decrease in flying insects in the past few decades in German nature preserves.