Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Distilling vodka from CO2 emissions

A Brooklyn-based startup is on a mission to transform greenhouse gas emissions into luxury vodka, perfume and hand sanitizer. 

“We work with partners that capture that carbon dioxide before it’s emitted into the atmosphere, and then we use that CO2 in our process in creating the alcohols,” Gregory Constantine, co-founder and CEO of Air Company, told CNBC. 

Air Company’s vodka, called Air Vodka, is made of just two ingredients: carbon dioxide and water.  

The process separates hydrogen out of the water through electrolysis, releasing oxygen, and then feeds the hydrogen into a system with captured carbon dioxide, according to CNBC. The end result is ethanol, which becomes a type of vodka when combined with water. 

Air Vodka may cost $65 per bottle, but the company — whose operations are backed by investors like Toyota and JetBlue — is eyeing a variety of other products down the line, CNBC reported.

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 how climate change is worsening an existing maternal health crisis, as well as how the ongoing baby formula shortage is challenging American parents. Then we’ll look at the tension between Texas’s booming Bitcoin industry and its surging energy needs.

Climate change worsening maternal health crisis

Climate-driven environmental issues may be exacerbating an existing maternal health crisis across the U.S., Nexus Media News reported.  

Pregnancy-aged Americans already face unique challenges, as the U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed nations, according to Nexus, a nonprofit climate news site whose story also appeared in Ms. Magazine.  

The U.S. had nearly 24 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2020, the report stated, citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics.  

‘Every family for themselves’: Esther McCant, a Miami-based doula — a professional labor assistant — told Nexus that she has visited clients in sweltering apartments that lack air conditioning. 

She also recalled helping a third trimester client flee a hurricane in 2017.  

“There’s not really a lot of guidance for pregnant moms during those types of situations,” McCant said. “In general, it’s every family for themselves.” 

A universal problem: It’s not just American women who are bearing unique effects of climate change.  

“Women traditionally face barriers and obstacles in normal situations, but they are increased with extreme climate-fueled weather,” Chilean attorney Lorena Zenteno Villa told E&E News. 

Latin American women have pursued several environmental damage lawsuits, including a Colombian case arguing that pesticide use raises the risk of miscarriage, Villa added.  

Some women are worse off than others: In the U.S., Black women are about three times more likely to die while pregnant or shortly thereafter than white women — and are 50 percent more likely to give birth to premature or underweight babies, according to Nexus.  

Hispanic and Indigenous individuals also tend to have worse pregnancy outcomes than their white peers, Nexus reported.  

Extreme weather worsens those inequities: It “disproportionately affects Black and Brown women,” who are more likely to live in urban heat islands, work outdoors and breathe contaminated air, obstetrician-gynecologist Nathaniel DeNicola told Nexus.  

DeNicola, who worked in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and now practices in wildfire-prone Southern California, said that such events tend to coincide with a rise in emergency visits for pregnant individuals.  

Protecting moms and babies: Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) co-sponsored a bill called the Protecting Moms and Babies Against Climate Change Act, which would fund research into the impacts of climate change on pregnancy while boosting postpartum access to Medicaid, Nexus reported. 

A STRUGGLE TO NOURISH THE YOUNGEST AMERICANS 

American parents are scrambling to find solutions to the baby formula supply shortage that has left supermarket shelves empty across the country.  

Formula manufacturer Abbott Nutrition announced on Monday evening that it had reached an agreement with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding the restart of operations at its Michigan plant, our colleague Nathaniel Weixel reported.  

Why were they shut down? The FDA has been looking into whether powdered formula from the site caused four babies to contract a rare bacterial illness — ultimately leading to two deaths.  

The shutdown added to disruptions in an already strained supply chain, forcing many parents to travel for hours to obtain formula, Weixel reported.  

Response in Congress: House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) filed supplemental funding legislation on Tuesday to address the shortage, our colleague Aris Folley reported for The Hill.  

The bill would provide $28 million in emergency funds to help ameliorate the current situation and prevent future such events.  

Looking overseas: The FDA on Monday said it was encouraging overseas manufacturers to apply to ship their formulas to the U.S., The Wall Street Journal reported.  

Nonetheless, it could be weeks before these products appear on U.S. store shelves, as the FDA will first need to conduct a quality assurance review, according to the Journal.  

And if you can’t find formula in the meantime? Pediatricians told The Washington Post that there are several options, but stressed that some choices might not be right for every baby:  

  • Switch to different or generic brands, unless the baby has milk protein allergies. 
  • For babies over six months old, boost solid foods — aside from foods that are choking hazards or raw honey.  
  • Use donor breast milk from reputable milk banks.    

But absolutely never dilute formula or try to make homemade formula — as the former can harm infants’ kidneys and the latter can cause severe illness, the Post reported.   

Amid emergency, Texas gets more Bitcoin miners 

An energy-intensive Bitcoin mining operation is opening in Texas in the midst of an unseasonal heat wave that has put the state grid on emergency footing for nearly three weeks. 

The announcement highlights the tension between three big drivers of electricity demand: The state’s booming cryptocurrency industry, its growing population and its rising temperatures. 

Miners head West: On Tuesday cryptocurrency mining company Mawson Infrastructure announced the creation of a new facility that would allow it to run the complex computations that “mine” new Bitcoins, according to crypto trade site Coindesk. 

Energetic demands: The facility will require about 120 megawatts of power, Yahoo Finance reported. 

That’s enough to power about 24,000 houses on a hot day, according to data from The Houston Chronicle. 

Dicey timing: The announcement comes just after a weekend in which the Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), Texas’s energy regulator, asked citizens to push their thermostats up to a sweaty 78 degrees to avoid crashing the state grid, The Texas Tribune reported. 

Crypto crunch creates caution: ERCOT has been cautious about the impacts the state’s cryptocurrency industry could have on the grid. 

To avoid overtaxing state electricity supplies, the regulator ruled in March that new Bitcoin facilities would have to seek “approval to energize” before beginning operations, The Dallas Morning News reported. 

Miners seek alternatives: ERCOT’s announcement drove leading Bitcoin miner Marathon Digital to announce on an earnings call earlier this month that it would be considering diversifying out of Texas

What about this deal? Mawson isn’t sure yet where it’s going to get that electricity — though the company has signed a deal with the-Wyoming-based firm JAI Energy, Coindesk reported. 

JAI uses “wasted” methane (another name for excess natural gas from drilling sites) to power Bitcoin rigs — which are like server farms devoted to the computations that occasionally yield bitcoins, according to the company. 

That’s a limited fix: While it could avoid directly straining the grid, wasted methane isn’t any different from or more renewable than normal methane — which is the same as what the state’s power plants burn, CNBC reported. 

Methane reliance feeds the larger problem: The widespread use of methane for power is one of the biggest drivers of runaway global warming, according to a report released on Monday by the Environmental Defense Fund. 

Takeaway: In addition to generating competition for both grid capacity and fuel, cryptocurrency’s reliance on methane for power is helping drive the need for more air conditioning — and therefore exacerbating the broader conflict over electricity supplies. 


BETTER WIND FORECASTS SAVE CUSTOMERS MILLIONS 

Wind energy customers saved $384 million over the last decade — thanks to advances in weather prediction technology, a new study has found. 

The savings were enabled by updates to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s (NOAA) wind prediction algorithm, according to the study, published on Tuesday in the American Institute of Physics. 

Knowing when to shut down: The advances allowed grid operators to better calibrate when to keep their turbines on, and when to shut them off and draw energy from other sources — saving customers money, according to NOAA. 

A natural experiment: The agency’s scientists update their wind prediction model every few years. But they also leave the old one in place for a year to see how the two compare. 

“We were able to compare these models, side by side, and see when one model makes a better prediction than the other,” author Martin Shields of Colorado State University said in a statement.  

Better over time: “What we see over time is that the models get better at predicting wind, and that generates additional savings for utility consumers,” Shields added. 

VIRTUAL EVENT INVITE

The Opioid Crisis & the Criminal Justice System, Wednesday, May 18 at 1 p.m. ET

According to SAMHSA, nearly 20 percent of incarcerated individuals have reported regular opioid use. Yet only a small percentage of them are receiving medication-assisted treatment in jails and prisons. How do we improve access to addiction treatment within the criminal justice system? What efforts are needed to ensure a safe and successful return to society and the workforce? The Hill hosts a discussion on improving addiction treatment and recovery across the criminal justice system with Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.), Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio), Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid and more. RSVP now.

Tech Tuesday

The surprising environmental cost of reusable rockets, a salve for Rivian’s investment blues and a hidden source of Big Tech’s carbon pollution. 

Rockets pollute high above the earth 

Ford unloads Rivian, but Amazon stays on 

  • While Ford recently began to unload its shares of electric vehicle startup Rivian, Amazon’s support for the company remains strong, tech news site Tech Xplore reported, with the e-commerce giant ordering 100,000 electric delivery vans and buying 150 million shares in Rivian.   

How tech companies hide their carbon footprints 

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

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