Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — In the face of wildfire, thousands stay to fight

Chris Castillo throws a freshly-cut log as he and his cousins clear a wireline along a family member's home in Las Vegas, N.M., Monday, May 2, 2022. Wind-whipped flames are marching across more of New Mexico's tinder-dry mountainsides, forcing the evacuation of area residents and dozens of patients from the state's psychiatric hospital as firefighters scramble to keep new wildfires from growing. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

Thousands of rural New Mexicans told to evacuate in the face of the country’s largest fire are standing fast and fighting the flames instead. 

“If I would’ve left, my house would’ve burned,” Johnny Trujillo told Santa Fe New Mexican, as he mopped up small fires left behind as government firefighters advanced. 

In rural Mora County, more than half of residents have stayed put even as the fire has closed in and electricity has shut off — refusing to abandon their lands, NBC reported. 

“This is their livelihood, this is all they know, so these elderly people, and a lot of the people, our constituents are not leaving,” deputy sheriff Americk Padilla told NBC. 

In motels and high school gyms around the region, those who left are mourning their homes and flocks — and the destruction of a Hispanic community that predates the establishment of the United States, The New York Times reported. 

“I have no idea if my house is standing or if my animals are alive,” Miguel Martinez of El Oro, N.M., told the Times. “I just hope I have a village to go back to.” 

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. Subscribe here. 

Today we’ll take a look at why electric utilities are shutting down solar projects across the country. Then we’ll look at how a hidden tide of plastic is ending up in global oceans and food chains — and why recycling efforts are unlikely to solve the problem. 

Solar import freeze leads to stagnated projects 

A probe by the Biden administration into imported solar panels is leading to a wave of delayed or canceled projects — which is causing some utilities to keep burning dirty energy, while prompting solar installation executives to threaten layoffs. 

Projects shutting down: As of late April, 318 solar projects in the U.S. have been delayed or canceled, according to an industry survey. 

The project cancellations came as a result of a Department of Commerce freeze on imports of solar panels from four key producer countries — Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. 

Unintended consequences: One project deadlocked by the lack of panels is a push by Northern Indiana’s electric utility to convert two of its coal plants to solar, as our colleague Zack Budryk reported on Thursday. 

“Most solar projects originally scheduled for completion in 2022 and 2023 will experience delays of approximately 6 to 18 months,” parent company NiSource wrote in an earnings report. 

‘Going to be layoffs’ — “We’re in a position where we’re going to be laying off people in the renewables industry,” George Hershman of  SOLV Energy, a utility solar contractor, told CNN on Friday. 

Despite Biden’s stated support for the solar industry, the sector in reality is “getting crushed,” according to Hershman.  

“We literally can’t buy a module today,” he said. “It’s so frustrating.”  

CAUSING A FREEZE

The import ban happened in March after Mamun Rashid, CEO of California-based solar manufacturer Auxin, argued that Chinese manufacturers were laundering their panels through front companies in those countries — and thereby pricing his company out of business, The Wall Street Journal reported. 

Evading the wall: The tariffs had been established to help create a protective price wall for domestic manufacturers trying to compete with cheaper Chinese products, the Journal reported. 

But instead, the focus of solar panel production shifted to Southeast Asia — which had lower labor costs and was outside the steep Chinese tariff zone, according to the Journal. 

Wrap it up: On Monday a bipartisan group of senators asked the Biden administration to finish the investigation quickly

“The probe is already causing massive disruption in the solar industry, and it will severely harm American solar businesses and workers and increase costs for American families as long as it continues,” the senators wrote to Biden on Monday.  

The Commerce probe reveals a fault line: On one side, there’s an administration and certain domestic manufacturers that want to build up a strong solar supply chain. And on the other side, there are the utilities and installers that need cheap panels right now to meet their energy goals. 

Tariffs could be worse: “If tariffs are imposed, in the blink of an eye we’re going to lose 100,000 American solar workers and any hope of reaching the President’s clean energy goals,” Abigail Ross Hopper of the Solar Energy Industries Association said last week. 

Auxin says the probe was necessary: “I don’t think we could have ever imagined how aggressively China would want to dominate the market, and that’s been very tough to contend with,” he told the Journal. 

While “some people are hoping for our demise,” he added, “we’re doing the right thing.” 

Recycling isn’t keeping plastics out of global oceans 

Recycling is the plastic industry’s longtime pollution solution of choice — but it isn’t doing much to stop an unregulated source of ocean contamination. And those pollutants are finding their way into both food webs and human bodies. 

A hidden tide of plastic: About 200,000 metric tons of nurdles — the lentil-sized building blocks of all plastic products — end up in the ocean every year, Vox’s Recode reported. 

Oil spills in solid form: Louisiana’s plastics manufacturers are “making these nurdles and basically spilling oil, just in a different form,” Louisiana State University oceanographer Mark Benfield told Recode. 

“No one notices it, and no one seems to do anything about it,” Benfield added. 

A blind spot: The tide of oceanic plastic pollution like nurdles suggests a big blind spot around how we deal with plastic waste — and particularly around the role of recycling. 

A dismal record: The U.S. recycled between 5 and 6 percent of plastic waste in 2021, according to a study released on Wednesday by two environmental nonprofits, The Wall Street Journal reported

How effective is our recycling system anyway? It has yet to become a cure-all.  

“The truth is: The vast majority of plastic cannot be recycled,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D) said at a press conference last week, while announcing a state probe into oil-giant Exxon’s role in “the global plastics pollution crisis.” 

Exxon pushed back: “Meritless allegations like these distract from the important collaborative work that is underway to enhance waste management,” a company spokesman told Reuters.  

The spokesman advocated instead for a “circular economy” — or one in which all plastics are recycled. 

But even 100-percent recycling wouldn’t catch nurdles. That’s because most of the 10 trillion or so nurdles that end up in oceans every year never make it to becoming plastic bags or soda bottles that can be recycled— instead, they leak from supply chains, rolling down drains or off trains and ships, Recode reported. 

PLASTICS ARE FUSING WITH THE FOOD WEB

Plastic production is expected to triple by 2050, and oil and gas companies are relying on it to maintain revenues as the energy sector moves toward renewables. 

That means ever more plastic-stocked container ships heading out into the world’s seas, which in turn could mean more disasters like last year’s sinking of X-Press Pearl burned and sank off the coast of Sri Lanka, it lost 87 shipping containers of burning nurdles

Breaking down and breaking in: As plastics stew in the sun and seawater, nurdles and microplastics “act as toxic sponges,” Tom Gammage of the Environmental Investigation Agency told The Guardian in 2021, following the Pearl disaster. 

“Pollutants can be a million times more concentrated on the surface of pellets than in the water,” he says.  

Into the food chain: The process of nurdles breaking down provide homes for tiny plankton that release the gas dimethyl-sulfide — the seashore-smell of decomposing seaweed, according to a 2019 study in Marine Pollution Bulletin.  

That smell attracts sea life to eat them, helping them enter the food chains, from which they can move into humans, the Bulletin found. 

Unseen and unregulated: Despite health concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t regulate nurdles, Recode reported. 

What do we do? That’s a tough call — in many regions, plastics are just part of the oceans now. 

In certain ecosystems plastic pollution is already so omnipresent that some animals are coming to depend on it — even as it kills others, according to a preliminary study from University of North Carolina. 

That complicates cleanup plans:  “I think we need to be really careful,”  study co-author Rebecca Helm of University of North Carolina told the New York Times on Friday. 

Study it first: The rich ocean life she found among the Great Pacific Garbage Patch “really emphasize the need to study the open ocean before we try to manipulate it, modify it, clean it up or extract minerals from it,” Helm said. 

Follow-up Friday 

In which we revisit stories from earlier in the week. 

The U.S. Forest Service is short-staffed going into summer’s high fire season 

Forever chemicals and other toxins lurk in half of car seats 

Amid climate-change driven heat wave, India turns back to coal 

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you next week.

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