Equilibrium/Sustainability — Historic tundra fire blazing in southwest Alaska
The East Fork Fire, which began with a lightning strike on May 31, is scorching dry grass and shrubs amid the mostly treeless ecosystem, The Associated Press reports.
The blaze was within 3.5 miles of the town of St. Mary’s, Alaska, the AP reported this week. The town is located about 450 miles west of Anchorage.
While the fire began with lightning, climate change is exacerbating the circumstances that make such a fire more likely, NPR reported.
Alaska’s Yukon Kuskokwim Delta region has warmed three times as quickly as the lower 48 states, climate scientist Rick Thoman told NPR.
At 190 square miles, this is the biggest tundra fire the region has ever encountered and the second largest to hit Alaska in more than 40 years, Thoman added.
Smoke from the fire — and from dozens of others blazing in Western Alaska — spread across the state over the weekend, leaving the air unhealthy to breathe in some areas, Alaska Public Media 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. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.
Today we’ll look at how particulate pollution is cutting people’s lifespans and examine threats involving food and water insecurity. We’ll also visit two Icelandic startups that see opportunity in the challenges climate and the energy transition pose to the grid.
Particulate pollution taking two years off lifespans
Particulate air pollution is slashing global life expectancy by an average of 2.2 years, relative to a hypothetical world that meets international health guidelines, a new report has found.
- Worldwide exposure to fine particulate patter — PM 2.5, or particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less — has an impact on par with that of smoking and more than three times that of alcohol use and unsafe water, according to the University of Chicago’s 2022 Air Quality Life Index.
- The life expectancy effect of this type of pollution amounts to six times that of HIV/AIDS and 89 times that of conflict and terrorism, researchers observed.
“It would be a global emergency if Martians came to Earth and sprayed a substance that caused the average person on the planet to lose more than two years of life expectancy,” Michael Greenstone, index co-creator and an economics professor at the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute, said in a statement.
“This is similar to the situation that prevails in many parts of the world, except we are spraying the substance, not some invaders from outer space,” Greenstone added.
A microscopic threat: PM 2.5 poses such a threat that the World Health Organization recently decreased what it deems to be a safe level of exposure from 10 micrograms per cubic meter to 5 micrograms per cubic meter, the authors noted.
Slowing traffic didn’t help: Even though the economy incurred significant losses during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, average PM 2.5 pollution remained largely unchanged from the year before, the researchers stressed.
Meanwhile, growing evidence has emerged that even low levels of air pollution can damage human health, the authors added.
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Keeping the lights on in Iceland — and globally
One key challenge for the future of energy is maintaining transmission in a world of increased unpredictability and ever more dangerous weather.
That means big money for companies that can help keep the lights — and cell phone service — operational in the midst of ice storms, wildfires and hurricanes.
- Two startups from Iceland — a country with a nearly 100 percent renewable electric grid as well as famously harsh weather — are banking on their ability to export solutions to the rest of the world.
- The Hill got a first-hand look at how these technologies work. This reporting is supported by Green by Iceland, a public-private partnership between the country’s renewable energy business and government.
While the companies have a long road to commercial sales, their business models highlight key challenges the Icelandic grid is confronting during the energy transition.
GUARDING THE LINES
Icelandic startup Laki Power is piloting a monitoring device to help grid managers tell when their power lines are under threat from ice or fire, CEO Osvaldur Knudsen told Equilibrium.
Currently, most line-monitoring cameras require their own power sources because they can’t safely draw electricity from the firehose of current moving down high tension lines, Knudsen said.
- Laki’s 60-pound device — which looks like a steel cooler with black button eyes — hangs from high tension lines, from which it pulls about 100 kilowatts of power using a magnetic field.
- That allows the devices — which would be placed every 3 to 12 miles — to power the cameras it uses to scan for either nearby wildfires or frozen power lines.
Line ice is not nice: The cameras, and the algorithms that monitor them for conditions likely to cause icing, allow grid managers to identify ice on power lines.
- Ice makes lines heavy, which means in a windstorm they “can get whipped around like a jump rope, and pull the tower down,” according to Knudsen.
- “And that happens down — it’s starting to just cost millions or tens of millions per day,” he said.
Watching for fire: Laki’s cameras also have thermal imaging, allowing them to scan the nearby landscape for a spike in heat energy — a telltale sign of wildfire. The system would then notify grid managers when fire might be nearby.
Market plan: Laki has signed pilot project deals with several national or regional grid systems. The company is testing its ice monitoring software with the government of Turkey and the hydropower authority of Manitoba, Canada. The company is evaluating its fire monitoring capabilities with the Greek national power operator.
The Icelandic startup aims to move from pilot projects to paid commercial business by 2024.
OFF-GRID WIND POWER
Cellular phone towers in northern states like Alaska have few green options for off-grid power during the dark winters — meaning that most rely on the expensive and climate-unfriendly alternative of on-site diesel generators.
“They are screaming for solutions for an energy transition, but what’s available? Nothing except solar,” IceWind CEO Sæþór Ásgeirsson told Equilibrium.
- IceWind produces small, vertical wind turbines that generate around 600 watts of power — enough that the diesel generator can be relegated to backup, Ásgeirsson said.
- While IceWind’s Freya model was sized for off-grid homes in the northern latitudes, the urgent demand from telecom utilities made them “take a bit of a u-turn, market wise,” Ásgeirsson said.
The company agreed to trial installation with a leading US tower company, he added.
Hurricane-proofing: Iceland has no industrial-scale wind tunnels, so Ásgeirsson did low-velocity tests by driving the turbines down the highway on the back of a trailer.
Finally, after securing sponsorship from a Texas homebuilder, the IceWind team was able to test the technology in a 150-mph wind tunnel in Florida made to simulate category 5 hurricane conditions.
“We tried to destroy three units, but we only got two,” he said, smiling. “The other one was only slightly damaged.”
Solving water insecurity may mitigate hunger: study
Improving access to water could be instrumental in solving the global food crisis, a new study has found.
People who have trouble obtaining water resources are nearly three times more likely to face food insecurity than those who have reliable access to hydration, according to the study, presented at the American Society for Nutrition’s annual meeting Tuesday.
- Dependable access to water is crucial not only to hydration but also to cooking, farming and hygiene, the authors stressed.
- More than two-thirds of people who were water insecure in 2020 were simultaneously experiencing food insecurity, they noted.
Global health effects: “Water insecurity is a major global health issue and its impact on biological and social well-being is only likely to grow with climate change,” Hilary Bethancourt of Northwestern University said in a statement before the presentation.
Bethancourt and her colleagues analyzed data collected in 2020 by Northwestern University and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations:
- The data included a sample of more than 31,000 people ages 15 and older in 25 low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
- They found that about 18 percent of participants were classified as water insecure — ranging from about 15 percent in Asia to more than 34 percent in sub-Saharan Africa.
A strong link, with some variance: There was a robust connection between water and food insecurity, according to the study.
The authors acknowledged, however, that this relationship varied from region to region — a finding that they attributed to differences in climate, social services and water infrastructure.
“These data suggest that we have seen just the tip of the iceberg of understanding the role that water insecurity plays in food, nutrition and well-being in general,” Bethancourt said.
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Truckers strike in South Korea, electric vehicle manufacturers want tax credits for more cars and a new industry based on old batteries.
Trucker strike halts South Korean economy
- Thousands of truckers in South Korea are refusing to drive due to rising fuel costs and wage disputes, crippling supply chains and costing industries about $1.2 billion, The Wall Street Journal reported. The strike has led to the shutdown of steel plants, disruptions to car production and delays in shipments of raw materials required for semiconductors.
EV manufacturers ask Congress to extend tax credits
- The CEOs of four major car companies — General Motors, Ford, Toyota and Stellantis — sent a letter to Congress demanding an increase in the number of electric vehicles (EVs) eligible for a $7,500 tax credit, The Hill reported.
One new source of battery materials: Recycling
- Amid the race to secure the critical materials required for electric vehicle batteries, several recycling startups are pushing to get more use out of America’s existing resources, renewable energy news site Canary Media reported.
EVs of the future
The Hill recently explored what’s next for electric and autonomous vehicles in the series “Driving Into the Future.“ Read all of the coverage here.
Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.