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New York. California. Hawaii. Colorado. Maine. All of these states and a few others want to get their electric grids running mostly if not entirely on renewable energy in the next few decades. As they ramp up wind and solar farm projects, they’re also going to need ways to store surplus energy to use when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.
Start-ups focused on energy storage are scrambling for the cash and opportunities to demonstrate that their system will hold more than a few hours worth of charge. Last week, Quidnet, a Houston, Texas-based company, announced that it lined up a contract with the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority to construct a pilot project for its “Geomechanical Pumped Storage” technology.
Quidnet’s system is a new take on pumped-hydro storage, an existing technology that takes excess energy from the grid during periods of low electricity demand and uses it to pump water up a hill from a lower reservoir to an upper reservoir. Later, when energy is needed, the water is released back down to spin a turbine and generate electricity. Pumped-hydro accounts for 95 percent of the existing energy storage used by utilities in the U.S., but most of these systems were built in the 1970s and 1980s. That’s because it’s expensive and politically difficult to set aside enough land in the mountains to build new pumped-hydropower reservoirs.
Joe Zhou, the CEO of Quidnet, said the company’s technology depends on the same supply chains and expertise used by existing pumped-hydro systems, but gets around those stickier land-use problems by pushing the water underground. To “charge” the battery, the system draws excess energy from the grid to suck water from a holding pond into an underground well, where it’s stored under pressure in the rock. When the energy is needed, the water is released and rushes back to the surface, spinning a turbine similar to those deployed in traditional pumped-hydro systems. The pilot project in New York aims to store 10 hours worth of energy.
Zhou said that Quidnet, which is backed by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, could deploy these systems in roughly 60 percent of U.S. power markets today, based on the type and structure of rock required for the wells. The conditions are especially ripe in New York. “There’s a tremendous, tremendous energy storage resource in New York. I think it can really help the state advance its clean energy goals,” Zhou told Grist.
Quidnet is one of several companies piloting new energy storage systems across the country. In Vermont, Highview Power plans to build the first liquid air storage project in the U.S that would store more than eight hours of energy, using power from the grid to liquify air and store it in tanks. One of the most anticipated projects is Form Energy’s “aqueous air battery system” in Minnesota, aimed at storing and delivering 150 hours of power to the grid, though how it works remains a bit of a mystery.
Today, with pilot projects that store just 8-10 hours, each of these storage solutions are in hot competition with cheap, efficient lithium-ion batteries, which average around 4 hours of storage. “The closer you play to lithium-ion’s durations, the more lithium-ion can compete,” said Dan Finn-Foley, head of energy storage at the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie. “The reason that all these alternative technologies think that they can catch lithium-ion is due to how the different technologies scale.”
If you have a grid that depends on wind energy and the wind slows down for weeks at a time, you might need hundreds of hours of storage. Increasing the storage capacity of a lithium-ion system is costly; to double it, you need to install another battery, hence doubling the price. Quidnet’s technology, on the other hand, might be able to scale up more cost-efficiently by increasing the size of a surface pond or the volume of a well. That’s how technology like Quidnet’s could ultimately differentiate itself, Finn-Foley explained.
“The fact that they have a pilot program is encouraging,” Finn-Foley said. “You need to be able to show your price point and show your duration and show your efficiencies and demonstrate it. So that’s the next big step, you know, it puts them into the conversation.”
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The Atlantic Coast Pipeline can cross under the Appalachian Trail, the United States Supreme Court ruled on Monday. By a 7 to 2 margin, the court reversed a lower court’s decision and upheld a permit granted by the U.S. Forest Service that the project’s developers could tunnel under a section of the iconic wilderness in Virginia.
The court took the case after Dominion Energy, one of the largest utilities in the South, appealed a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last year that said the U.S. Forest Service violated federal law when it approved the pipeline to cross the Appalachian Trail. The issue, the lower court ruled: It was the National Park Service’s call to approve that request. (Dominion, based in Richmond, Virginia, is the lead developer on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, or ACP, project; North Carolina utility Duke Energy, as well as Southern Company, also own shares.)
The case looked at whether the Forest Service had authority under the Mineral Leasing Act to grant rights-of-way within national forest lands traversed by the Appalachian Trail. “A right-of-way between two agencies grants only an easement across the land, not jurisdiction over the land itself,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court’s opinion. So the Forest Service had enough authority over the land to grant the permit. The dissent, by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, argued that the “outcome is inconsistent with the language of three statutes, longstanding agency practice, and common sense.”
According to The Washington Post, the plaintiffs in this case, both Dominion and the Forest Service, had argued that other pipelines cross the Appalachian Trail a total of 34 times. “The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will be no different,” Dominion said in a statement after the decision. “To avoid impacts to the Trail, the pipeline will be installed hundreds of feet below the surface and emerge more than a half-mile from each side of the Trail.”
The decision could set an important precedent for public lands, said Greg Buppert, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, or SELC, which is involved in multiple lawsuits against the pipeline. This particular Appalachian Trail section on federal land, which is remote, rugged, and wild, “deserves the highest protection the law provides,” according to Buppert. But this ruling likely signals to developers of the 300-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline that they could have an easier time crossing under the trail at a separate location in Virginia; attorneys for the nearly-complete project called it a “key missing link,” the Roanoke Times reported.
Though this decision is significant, it doesn’t determine the ultimate fate of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. While the Supreme Court has granted the Forest Service the ability to allow the project to cross the Appalachian Trail, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ striking down of the Forest Service’s permit still stands. Dominion is required to look at other routes that avoid parcels of protected federal land, and the Forest Service is prohibited from approving a route across these lands, if reasonable alternatives exist, according to Buppert.
The view west along the Appalachian Trail at Cedar Cliffs, in Virginia, where the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would be tunneled under the historic trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Norm Shafer / Getty Images
Dominion still requires eight more permits for the 600-mile pipeline route, including an air pollution permit from Virginia regulators for a controversial compressor station in Union Hill, a historically black community. It also still needs approval to cross the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway and a new biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about endangered species that were not taken into consideration in the original environmental impact statement. Several landowners along the route through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina are also still fighting to retain their property from eminent domain claims.
That means five-and-a-half years after the project was proposed, Buppert said, “there’s significant uncertainty about what the ACP route even is right now.”
In addition to crossing protected federal lands, the current route traverses steep mountains and many rural, low-income areas and communities of color, including Union Hill, a town settled by freed slaves after the Civil War. “These risks were known when it was proposed, but developers elected to push it forward anyway, and used political pressure on agencies to move their permits through faster,” Buppert said. “Not surprisingly, those haven’t withstood judicial reviews.”
Dominion spokesperson Samantha Norris did not respond to specific questions about the route, but said in an email the company is “working diligently with the agencies to resolve our pending permits so we can resume construction later this year” and complete it by 2022. “We remain fully committed to the project for the good of our economy and to support the transition to clean energy,” she said. “And we do not anticipate any changes to the route.”
Construction officially halted in December 2018 over the Appalachian Trail permit, with less than 10 percent of the pipeline in the ground. Opponents applauded that development, but continue to report problems with some construction sites. On behalf of 15 environmental and community groups, SELC lawyers filed a motion on June 1 asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, to supplement its environmental impact statement from its 2017 approval of the pipeline. The motion states that “substantial erosion, sedimentation, and slope failures have occurred” along the route, and that FERC needs to take climate change and other issues into account in updating its assessment.
The U.S. is in the midst of a historic pipeline boom to create infrastructure for the excess stores of natural gas coming from shale regions in Appalachia and West Texas, and FERC has historically approved nearly every pipeline project that has come across its desk. Despite massive protests breaking out in 2016 to try to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline passing through the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, dozens of new pipeline projects across the country are still being proposed, FERC is still approving them, and state lawmakers have passed laws to crack down on anti-pipeline demonstrations.
Opponents of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline have been fighting the project for six years and have won several important legal cases recently. A federal appeals court last month rejected the Trump administration’s request to revive the Army Corps of Engineers’ nationwide permit program for new oil and gas pipelines. The ruling prohibits the agency from allowing companies to fast-track projects by obtaining a single permit for all its water crossings, rather than individual permits for each one. The decision could further delay the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which had its nationwide water crossings permit suspended in 2018. The project has over a thousand stream, river, and wetland crossings. In the Calfpasture River watershed in Virginia alone, Buppert said, the current route includes 71.
The community of Union Hill has also successfully challenged part of the project on the grounds that it could cause negative public health impacts. Developers plan to build one of three pipeline compressor stations — which keep natural gas flowing through the pipe — there. In January, a federal court ruled Virginia’s Air Pollution Control Board’s review of the station was “arbitrary and capricious.” The judge overturned the permit, saying the “failure to consider the disproportionate impact on those closest to the compressor station resulted in a flawed analysis.” She, along with two of her colleagues, ordered the board to reconsider the case.
Members of the community group Friends of Buckingham County, where Union Hill is located, are concerned residents lack enough information about Dominion’s new air permit application — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic — since many lack broadband access. Chad Oba, one of the group’s organizers, said they are focusing on longer-term solutions, too, like making sure the board is well-versed in environmental justice issues. (In addition, they want to keep the board apolitical: In 2018, Virginia’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, removed two regulators from the board who were leaning against the permit).
The pandemic has also thrown a wrench in the work of Friends of Nelson County, another Virginia group that opposes the pipeline. About 45 miles of the Appalachian Trail cross through the county; this the contested crossing is on its border in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “The most important thing we do is to inform and educate the public about all dimensions of the pipeline and related matters,” said president Doug Wellman. The organization does a lot of in-person outreach at farmers’ markets and public meetings. Now they’re trying to do it all virtually. Later this year, they plan to launch a major campaign about the major potential dangers of the pipeline, including primers on landowner rights and eminent domain.
Due to the delays in its construction, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s price tag has swelled by at least $3 billion to a total of $8 billion. Since federal regulators allow pipeline companies up to a 14 percent return on investment, payable by its customers, Dominion and Duke, who are the buyers of the natural gas in addition to being the project’s developers, can turn a profit by passing construction costs onto ratepayers in a region where they have monopolies.
These costs “will take decades to recover,” said Ryke Longest, co-director of the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke University. And while they wait to be made whole, utilities like Dominion will eschew investing in other programs like energy efficiency and renewables, even as states in the region, including Virginia and North Carolina, move forward with clean energy and climate change legislation.
“The real problem with the structure of our energy system is that it encourages large-scale construction projects,” Longest said. “It’s not thinking of energy as a public service business, which is what it’s supposed to be.”
Lyndsey Gilpin is Durham, North Carolina-based journalist and the editor of Southerly, an independent, non-profit media organization that covers the intersection of ecology, justice, and culture in the American South.
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The writers behind New Scientist explore the baffling concept of nothingness from the fringes of the universe to our minds’ inner workings. It turns out that nothing is as curious or as enlightening as nothingness itself. What is nothing? Where can it be found? The writers of the world’s top-selling science magazine investigate—from the big bang, dark energy, and the void, to superconductors, vestigial organs, hypnosis, and the placebo effect. And they discover that understanding nothing may be the key to understanding everything: What came before the big bang—and will our universe end?How might cooling matter down almost to absolute zero help solve our energy crisis?How can someone suffer from a false diagnosis as though it were true?Does nothingness even exist if squeezing a perfect vacuum somehow creates light?Why is it unfair to accuse sloths—animals who do nothing—of being lazy?And more! Contributors Paul Davies, Jo Marchant, and Ian Stewart, along with two former editors of Nature and sixteen other leading writers and scientists, marshal up-to-the-minute research to make one of the most perplexing realms in science dazzlingly clear. Prepare to be amazed at how much more there is to nothing than you ever realized.
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The U.S. oil market was in a tailspin when dozens of oil tankers began approaching California’s coast in late April. The vessels, some as long as three football fields, were filled with millions of barrels of oil that suddenly had no place to go.
Amid the combined effects of a price war between oil-rich states Saudi Arabia and Russia and the COVID-19 pandemic’s curbing of demand, American refineries slashed production while onshore facilities filled to the brim. As a result, U.S. oil prices plunged to negative levels for the first time in history.
Tankers are still anchored near southern California today, and as they wait, they’ve switched from running their primary diesel engines to smaller auxiliary engines. While idling doesn’t create the carbon emissions of actually transporting cargo, the fleet is still generating the equivalent daily footprint of driving roughly 16,000 passenger cars. The giant ships burn fuel to keep lights on, power equipment, and heat the large volumes of crude oil resting in their tanks. Given the turbulent economy, oil analysts say the tankers might sit in suspended animation for weeks or months.
In recent days, as many as 32 tankers were anchored near Los Angeles and Long Beach, with some vessels leaving and new ones arriving as oil very slowly trickles in and out of ports. On May 11, 18 tankers filled designated spots as if in a “truck stop parking lot” three miles offshore, said Captain Kit Louttit, who monitors port traffic for the Marine Exchange of Southern California. That is about triple the typical number of tankers in those spaces.
Tankers along the U.S. West Coast, mainly off of California, held some 20 million barrels of oil on Monday, or nearly enough to satisfy a fifth of the world’s daily oil consumption, according to market data firm Kpler. The floating supply glut should gradually clear once new deliveries from the Middle East and Asia stop arriving.
But while the idling ships remain near California, they “could pose an ongoing risk to air quality,” said Bryan Comer, a senior researcher at the environmental think tank International Council on Clean Transportation, or ICCT. “Especially because you have these ships lumped together.” The cluster, he noted, concentrates the pollution that drifts ashore.
ICCT gathers annual emissions and fuel-use data for the world’s shipping fleet. By its estimates, the largest oil tankers burn nearly 4 tons of petroleum-based fuel every day they’re at anchor. That means each ship emits more than 11 tons of carbon dioxide per day — the equivalent of driving nearly 800 passenger vehicles. Anchored tankers also emit about 15 pounds of sulfur dioxide and 8 pounds of particulate matter daily, contributing to smog and air pollution. (Those global data points hold true even off the coast of California, Comer said, despite cargo ships of all kinds having to meet some of the strictest air-quality rules in the region.)
Worldwide, shipping regulators are cracking down on sulfur pollution, which is linked to heart and lung disease — and is thought to raise the risk of dying from COVID-19. As of this past January, oceangoing vessels can burn fuel with only 0.5 percent sulfur content, a significant drop from the previous limit of 3.5 percent. However, since 2009, California has required ships sailing within 28 miles of its coastline to use lighter “distillate” fuels with just 0.1 percent sulfur content. (A similar rule now applies to most coastlines in the United States and Canada.) Still, even the cleaner-burning distillate fuel has nearly 70 times the sulfur content of on-road diesel fuel.
It’s not yet clear how the tankers will affect shipping pollution overall — especially in light of pandemic-induced disruptions across the industry. Container ships and other cargo vessels are sailing far less frequently to ports around the world as measures taken to slow the spread of coronavirus upend trade flows and squeeze consumer demand. In Los Angeles, home of the busiest U.S. container port, cargo volumes fell by 15.5 percent in the first four months of 2020, with no growth expected in the near future. Comer said researchers haven’t yet calculated the net effect of fewer trips and idling tankers on shipping-related emissions.
Much like in California, oil tankers are crowding ports in places like India, Singapore, and the U.S. Gulf Coast, serving as temporary storage units or waiting indefinitely for customers. With cities and countries on lockdown, global oil demand fell sharply in April to levels last seen in 1995, according to the International Energy Agency. Russia and Saudi Arabia only agreed last month to cut output to ease the glut.
According to ICCT’s Comer, some of these stranded vessels pose pollution concerns beyond air quality. Certain tankers burn dirty bunker fuel — a byproduct of the petroleum refining process — and use “open-loop” scrubbers to reduce the ship’s sulfur output in line with regulations. The scrubber systems mix water with exhaust gas, filter it, then dump the resulting washwater — an acidic mixture that contains carcinogens like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals that can harm marine life. ICCT estimates that large vessels emit nearly 40 tons of scrubber washwater every hour.
This particular problem doesn’t apply to California, where state regulators prohibit scrubber use. And while anchoring so many massive tankers could raise the risk of collisions and spills, Capt. Louttit said that every vessel’s movement is monitored and planned in advance to prevent such a catastrophe. The U.S. Coast Guard also flies helicopters over California’s San Pedro Bay to ensure the vessels aren’t leaking oil or dumping trash or sewage.
The California Air Resources Board, or CARB, which monitors air quality in the state, said that given the tankers’ “fairly low” power needs while idling, their emissions “are not likely as high as” when the ships are at berth and running pumps to load crude oil onto ships or shore. Nevertheless, storing the excess crude at sea doesn’t come without some environmental cost.
“We are experiencing a unique and extraordinary situation,” CARB spokesperson Karen Caesar said about the tankers. “We are closely monitoring the situation and tracking these ships.”
The reduction in driving, flying, and industrial activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic has cleared the air in typically smog-choked cities all over the world, inspiring awe in residents who are seeing more blue skies and starry nights than ever before. While the drop in pollution doesn’t necessarily mean we’re making progress in mitigating climate change, it’s now proving to be a boon for solar energy generation.
Pollution blocks solar radiation, and the fine particles spat out during combustion can settle on the surface of solar panels, reducing their efficiency. Smog-free skies, along with a lucky combination of sunny days and cooler temperatures, which boost panel efficiency, have helped solar panels break records in the U.K., Germany, and Spain this spring. The trend points to the potential for a positive (and hopeful) feedback loop — as polluting energy sources are replaced by solar panels, those solar panels will be able to generate more energy.
In Germany, a record that was set in March was broken again on April 20, when solar generated 40 percent of the country’s electricity, while coal and nuclear power generated just 22 percent. It’s actually not unusual to see solar generation records this time of year, when new panels installed in the winter get their first time to shine in the spring weather. While the added capacity explains some of solar’s grid takeover, the drop in electricity demand right now due to the pandemic has also inflated its proportion in the total mix.
In the U.K., record solar power generation also helped coal plants set a major record, but the opposite kind. The entire U.K. energy system ran with zero coal-fired power plant generation for more than 18 days, the longest streak in more than a century. Britain has just four remaining coal plants, all of which are scheduled to close by 2025.
The COVID-19 pandemic has touched renewable energy in myriad ways, and not all good. In early March, it became clear that the virus was disrupting supply chains and financing, which will delay new solar and wind projects in the U.S. For the first time in decades, we probably won’t see increased growth in U.S. renewable energy capacity this year. But even if growth is slower, a new report from the International Energy Agency released Thursday predicts that renewables will likely be the only energy sector to see any growth in demand this year, and that coal is set for the largest decline in demand since World War II.
While it’s still hard to say how the industry will emerge from the rubble of a massive recession — especially as efforts to help it domestically have been a nonstarter in Congress — a new study by clean energy research firm BloombergNEF paints an optimistic picture that the renewable energy takeover will continue on a global scale. The financial research firm found that utility-scale solar farms and onshore wind farms now offer the cheapest source of electricity for about two-thirds of the world’s population.
The study finds that falling costs, more efficient technology, and government support in some parts of the world have fostered larger renewable power plants, with the average wind farm now double the size it was four years ago. The larger the plant, the lower the cost of generation. The price of electricity from onshore wind farms dropped 9 percent since mid-2019, and solar electricity prices likewise declined 4 percent.
The pandemic has depressed the price of coal and natural gas, so it remains to be seen whether and how quickly wind and solar will push them off the grid. But Tifenn Brandily, an analyst at BNEF, said in a statement that solar and wind prices haven’t hit the floor yet. “There are plenty of innovations in the pipeline that will drive down costs further,” he said.
Stay-at-home orders and other social distancing measures have dramatically improved outdoor air quality in cities around the world, but a new study published Tuesday shows that indoor air quality may pose acute risks of its own — especially now that the novel coronavirus has us all spending so much time at home.
The UCLA Fielding School of Public Health study found that after just an hour of using a gas-fired stove or oven, levels of nitrogen dioxide — one of a group of gases that contribute to smog formation and are considered harmful to human health — inside California homes reached levels that exceeded both state and national ambient air-quality standards. The compromised indoor air quality caused by gas-powered furnaces, stoves, and water heaters could increase the likelihood of respiratory and cardiovascular disease and premature death, according to the study.
“The goal of this report is to provide information to Californians on how pollution from gas-fired appliances affects the air they breathe, and the related health effects,” Yifang Zhu, the study’s lead researcher, said in a statement. “California’s state agencies often focus on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts, but there has been much less focus on how fossil fuel use in household appliances can adversely impact indoor air quality and public health.”
The research, commissioned by Sierra Club, comes as recent studies have linked air pollution to higher rates of COVID-19 mortality. Inhaling nitrogen oxides poses especially acute risks to children and the elderly. Meanwhile, residential gas appliances emit approximately 16,000 tons of nitrogen oxides to outdoor air each year — which Rachel Golden, deputy director of Sierra Club’s building electrification program, notes is more than twice the NOx emissions from all of California’s gas-fired power plants combined.
Air pollution concentration matters a great deal, so residents of smaller homes and apartments often have it worse. Researchers found that after an hour of cooking in a small household, more than 90 percent of smaller residences had peak levels of nitrogen oxides that exceeded national ambient air quality standards. As Grist’s resident advice columnist Eve Andrews reminded us last week, indoor air quality isn’t always better than what you’re breathing outdoors.
The study also highlights environmental justice issues, since low-income households tend to have less space and more unmet maintenance needs, which can increase indoor emissions on top of being more at-risk for poor outdoor air quality. These factors may contribute to higher rates of respiratory challenges among low-income communities — particularly communities of color — which in turn may make residents more vulnerable to developing serious complications if they contract COVID-19.
To decrease indoor air pollution, the study proposes that households transition to zero-emission electric appliances. If all residential gas appliances in California were immediately replaced with clean energy alternatives, the resulting decrease in pollution would result in approximately 350 fewer deaths, 600 fewer cases of acute bronchitis, and 300 fewer cases of chronic bronchitis annually.
Without a massive public intervention, however, it seems unlikely that these appliances will be replaced at that scale, at least not in the homes of many low-income residents that could benefit the most. Golden says that policymakers can prioritize a just transition by focusing on efforts to reduce pollution and lower energy bills for vulnerable households, especially given the economic fallout from COVID-19.
“State agencies have a central role to play in helping people replace polluting gas appliances with clean, pollution-free electric alternatives like heat pumps and induction stoves,” Golden told Grist.
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