Briefly

Stuff that matters


It wasn't all a dumpster fire

2016 was a great year for wind and solar, even if nobody noticed.

Renewable energy’s gains this year were incremental and unglamorous, so they had a hard time competing with this:

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LAFD

But even if the media didn’t give clean energy a lot of attention, the progress was notable.

In the U.S., the amount of residential solar installed rose, with no limits in sight. Utilities built solar projects in record-breaking numbers. This chart shows solar PV installations in the U.S.:

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Greentech

Wind energy capacity in the U.S. also continued to rise, though not as dramatically as in 2015:

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Federal tax credits kept solar and wind competitive even when the cost of natural gas (which gets its own subsidies) reached epic lows earlier this year.

America wasn’t the only country to boost renewables and curb CO2 emissions. Worldwide, while the global economy has been growing, CO2 emissions per unit of GDP have been falling. The Paris climate agreement inspired a new wave of private investment in cleantech. Already, solar power is the cheapest form of new electricity in some (mostly emerging) markets, and competitive with coal worldwide.

cost-of-energy-world-average

This is not enough to stave off catastrophic climate change, but it’s a darn sight closer than we were a few years ago.


up in smoke

British Columbia is having its worst wildfire season in recorded history.

More than 2,500,000 acres have burned there since April 1, nearly six times the typical amount for a full year.

B.C. extended a state of emergency on Friday to help speed the flow of aid to affected communities. More than $300 million has been spent fighting the fires so far, and one remote wildfire is so out of control that the B.C. Wildfire Service called it “a force of nature.”

NASA analysis shows that the thick smoke plumes coming from B.C. are so dense they broke records. Smoke like that can “turn day into night,” said Mike Fromm, a meteorologist with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Scientists worry that massive amounts of black soot will head northward toward Greenland, potentially speeding up ice melt there.

A 2013 study found that Earth’s boreal forests — a broad swath from Alaska and Canada to northern Europe and Russia — are burning at a rate unseen in at least 10,000 years. Some climate models show this vast forest may have already switched from a net carbon sink to a source of carbon emissions.

Though fire season is more than half over, there’s still time for the B.C. wildfires to grow. The latest forecast from Natural Resources Canada shows extreme fire danger in parts of British Columbia, with an outlook for above average severity through the end of September.


The Next #NoDAPL?

Minnesota report: Proposed tar sands oil pipeline would harm tribes.

On Thursday, state regulators released their final environmental review of a proposed replacement for an aging pipeline owned and operated by the Canadian company Enbridge. The $7.5 billion project would cut through sacred Native American lands in northern Minnesota.

If approved, tribes have promised the pipeline would face opposition akin to the demonstrations at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The state’s final review expressed significant concern over environmental justice, citing “disproportionate and adverse impacts … to both low-income and minority populations … as well as those populations residing or using lands in the vicinity of the Project, in particular American Indian populations.”

All of the potential routes for the pipeline would slice through lakes used to grow wild rice, a crop sacred to the region’s Ojibwe tribes. Activists opposed to the pipeline, such as Honor the Earth founder Winona LaDuke, want the state to consider a “no-build alternative.”

“I want to trust the government of Minnesota to do the right thing,” Duke told the Duluth News Tribune. After additional hearings and public testimony, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is expected to make a final decision by April 30.


Money Makes The World Go Round

California scientists are calling for the largest U.S. investment in climate research in years.

The sunny state’s been defying the Trump administration’s, er, lax approach to climate action by leading the way on their own since before the inauguration. Now, a cohort of scientists in the state are proposing plans for a climate research institute. It would focus on projects combating the effects of climate change in the U.S.

Upside: With Trump’s consistently dismissive approach to climate policy, California’s initiative would fill an increasingly wide gap in research on climate solutions.

Downside: It’s expensive, of course. While advocates of the institution are considering the state’s cap-and-trade revenue as a source of funding for the institute, the deets on the rest of that cash are still in the works.

While the proposal for the institute will need to clear California legislature, it’s off to a somewhat promising start. Governor Jerry Brown has reportedly given the initiative an informal thumbs-up, and the institute has the support of nearly all of the state’s academic institutions.


Off the hook

Court says pipelines — not Exxon — are to blame for a major oil spill.

ExxonMobil’s Pegasus Pipeline poured more than 200,000 gallons of heavy crude into a neighborhood in Mayflower, Arkansas, in 2013. Twenty-two homes had to be evacuated, and in the aftermath, hundreds of residents complained of nausea, nosebleeds, and respiratory problems.

In 2015, the EPA fined Exxon more than $4 million in penalties over the spill. Separately, a federal pipeline regulator accused the company of violating safety standards and imposed an additional $2 million in fines.

Exxon disputed those punitive damages, arguing that it met legal obligations. On Monday, an appeals court overturned a majority of the violations and fines. According to its decision: “The unfortunate fact of the matter is that, despite adherence to safety guidelines and regulations, oil spills still do occur.”

Exxon, however, was aware of issues with this particular pipeline prior to the Mayflower incident, and an argument can be made that it should have done a better job of planning for an accident. The pipeline was 70 years old at the time of the spill, and Exxon knew it was prone to cracking along its seams. (Pegasus had split open or leaked nearly a dozen times before.)

But you know what they say, “Pipelines will be pipelines.”


Yikes

The world’s largest volcanic region was just discovered in Antarctica.

That’s all kinds of scary. If there’s one place on Earth that would be the worst possible spot for a giant volcanic chain, it’s beneath West Antarctica. Turns out, it’s not a great situation to have a bunch of volcanoes underneath a huge ice sheet.

In a discovery announced earlier this week, a team of researchers discovered dozens of them across a 2,200-mile swath of the frozen continent. Antarctica, if you’re listening, please stop scaring us.

The study that led to the discovery was conceived of by an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, Max Van Wyk de Vries. With a team of researchers, he used radar to look under the ice for evidence of cone-shaped mountains that had disturbed the ice around them. They found 91 previously unknown volcanoes. “We were amazed,” Robert Bingham, one of the study’s authors, told the Guardian.

The worry is that, as in Iceland and Alaska, two regions of active volcanism that were ice-covered until relatively recently, a warming climate could help these Antarctic volcanoes spring to life soon. In a worst-case scenario, the melting ice could release pressure on the volcanoes and trigger eruptions, further destabilizing the ice sheet.

“The big question is: how active are these volcanoes? That is something we need to determine as quickly as possible,” Bingham said.


Will they or won’t they?

The European Union is considering an electric car mandate.

After the United Kingdom and France joined the Netherlands and Norway in putting an end date on the sales of fossil fuel–powered cars, the E.U. may set wide-reaching requirements for electric vehicles.

Per reports from Climate Home, the E.U. governing body is mulling an electric and hybrid car quota for automakers by 2030. Though such a proposal would fit with the E.U.’s overall pro-climate stance, it may or may not happen, according to contradictory accounts that have emerged over the past few weeks. The most recent report suggests a proposal is likely.

“They have made it very clear that it is their intention to go to a zero-emissions mandate,” an unnamed source with knowledge of internal E.U. talks told Climate Home. “The car industry has been told to stop complaining about it and start being constructive.”

Policy aside, recent economic forecasts suggest that electric vehicles may account for more than half of global car sales by 2040. Several European companies, including Volvo, are taking the hint. Even scandal-embattled Volkswagen unveiled four new electric cars in April.