Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — A solar tower to brew jet power

Passenger jets could someday fly on fuel brewed from air and sunlight, if an EU-funded design becomes a reality. 

A new design from a group of European scientists envisions a tower that turns carbon dioxide into synthetic jet fuel using solar power, according to a study published on Wednesday in the journal Joule. 

“With our solar technology, we have shown that we can produce synthetic kerosene from water and CO2 instead of deriving it from fossil fuels,” Aldo Steinfeld, a professor at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, said in a statement. 

The artificial kerosene burns in a normal jet engine, releasing as much carbon dioxide as went into it — potentially creating a carbon-neutral loop, Steinfeld said.

Such a closed-loop solution would require the company to also harvest its carbon dioxide from the air, Steinfeld noted.

Note of caution: The climate impact from the carbon released when jets burn fuel — whether fossil- or solar-derived — may be dwarfed by the contrails they leave behind, Canadian news magazine Macleans 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.

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Today we’ll start in Wisconsin, which is suing manufacturers and marketers of “forever chemicals” for widespread contamination. Then we’ll explore how state emissions reductions programs may not be providing equitable benefits.

Wisconsin sues over ‘forever chemicals’

Wisconsin has filed a lawsuit against 18 companies, alleging that these firms contaminated the state’s property and water resources with “forever chemicals.”  

Trusting what comes from the tap: “Every Wisconsinite should be able to trust the water that comes out of their tap,” Gov. Tony Evers (D) said at a live-streamed press conference on Wednesday morning. 

“But unfortunately, we know that for so many across our state, including folks right here on French Island, this isn’t always the case,” Evers said. 

Evers was speaking in the town of La Crosse on French Island, a Mississippi River island that has long experienced such contamination, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.  

What are forever chemicals again? They’re cancer-linked compounds, also known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are notorious for their ability to linger long term in both the human body and the environment. 

What’s in the lawsuit? The lawsuit, filed by Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul (D) in Dane County, alleges that the defendants knew or should have known that the ordinary and intended use of their products could cause dangerous public health and environmental impacts. 

  • The lawsuit alleges that the companies “are liable for designing, manufacturing, marketing, promoting, distributing, selling, using, and/or disposing of PFAS products in ways that cause widespread PFAS contamination.” 
  • The lawsuit also claims that the defendants “took measures to protect the health of their own employees, but did not notify the public of the danger that PFAS contamination caused over the last several years in Wisconsin,” according to Kaul. 

What does Wisconsin want? The plaintiffs are asking that the defendants be forced to help remediate the problem by taking action to provide clean and safe drinking water to the affected communities, Kaul explained. 

  • The lawsuit also seeks to recover all costs, expenses and damages linked to their allegedly wrongful conduct.  
  • Such recovery would include restoration and loss-of-use damages, natural resource damages and the costs of investigating and remediating PFAS pollution throughout the state.   

Making polluters pay: “Wisconsinites should not have to foot the bill for polluters who should have known that what they’re doing is wrong all along,” Evers said. 

To find out which firms were named in the suit and read their responses, please click here for the full story.

State emissions reductions yield inequitable benefits

Low-income populations and communities of color are not benefiting equitably from the emissions reductions programs that Eastern Seaboard states have initiated, a new study has found. 

The study, published in PLOS One on Wednesday, investigated power plant emissions adjacent to “environmental justice communities” in states that are party to a regional greenhouse gas reductions program. 

What are environmental justice communities? They are those that tend to face a disproportionate share of environmental health threats. Residents of such communities are predominantly people of color with a lower socioeconomic status.  

Dissecting regional emissions: Researchers at the Union of Concerned Scientists probed pollutant burdens in states involved in a cooperative, market-based effort called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). 

  • RGGI participants include Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia. 
  • Member states have agreed to adhere to a region-wide cap on power sector emissions.  
  • All regulated power plants must acquire one RGGI carbon dioxide allowance for every short ton of carbon dioxide they emit — and they can then sell these allowances at quarterly auctions. 

Big disparities: The PLOS One investigation, which focused on electricity generation in RGGI states from 1995 through 2015, found significant differences in siting and operation of power plants in environmental justice communities, compared to the general population. 

  • The percentage of people of color who lived less than 6.2 miles form a power plant was 23.5 percent higher than the percentage of white people living in that same proximity, according to the study.     
  • In addition, the authors found that the percentage of people living in poverty within 5 miles of a power plant was 15.3 percent higher than the percentage of those not in poverty living within that same distance. 

Inequitable benefits: “The effect is that emissions reductions from power plants within RGGI states have largely benefitted non-environmental justice communities,” lead author Juan Declet-Barreto, senior social scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement

To read the full story, please click here.

Solar power props up Texas grid

Solar power has played a small but crucial role in keeping the lights — and air conditioning — on in Texas amid this week’s brutal heat wave. 
 
Bridging the gap: Solar plants gave the state grid about 8 gigawatts of power amid soaring mid-day temperatures on Wednesday, according to the Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which oversees the state grid. 

  • Solar was pumping 9 percent more power than expected into the grid at noon, ERCOT reported. 
  • That’s more than twice the state operating reserves of 3.7 megawatts, per ERCOT 

Texas is in a unique position: The state’s unique and isolated electric grid is particularly vulnerable to surges in demand, as it can’t import power as needed from the rest of the country. 

While temperatures are high across the central U.S., sweltering states like Michigan can rely on their neighbors to pass them power, according to Grand Rapids-based MLive.com. 

Crackling temperatures and demand: Record energy demand — at levels far above what was predicted in early summer — has strained the state grid this week. 

Without the contribution from solar, the state would have been in energy deficit, ERCOT’s figures show. 

Propping up power: Solar is providing needed stability to municipal grids, Cody Tellgren of Duke Energy told West Texas-based television station KIDY.

  • Duke operates about 200 megawatts of solar energy in West Texas, KIDY reported. 
  • One benefit of solar is that supply peaks at midday, when the sun is highest — and so is electricity demand, Patrice Parsons, of the nonprofit Texas Solar Energy Society, wrote in a Dallas Morning News op-ed.

Rapid growth: Even now, more than 85 percent of homeowners are buying batteries as part of rooftop solar systems, Parsons noted. 

  • Texas’ solar capacity has doubled over the past year and tripled over the past 18 months, renewable energy consultant Doug Lewin told ABC last week. 
  • But regulatory roadblocks, rising processing fees and unpredictable delays in permitting — as well as drastically different processes in different Texas cities — are threatening further expansion, Parsons argued.

BOOSTING THE POST-PANDEMIC ECONOMY

The boom in solar has helped the Texas renewables industries outpace the state’s fossil fuel industry in bringing back jobs after the coronavirus pandemic. 

Texas is the only major fossil fuel-producing state to also rank among the top-10 producers of solar energy, though even at number two it lags far behind leader California, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. 

Batteries gain jobs while fuels lose: As Texas-based fuel production lost about 14,000 jobs last year, the state’s sustainable technologies industries added about 13,000 new jobs, according to a study published on Monday by the nonprofit Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA). 

  • “If you are focused on oil and gas to be your savior for creating jobs you are focusing on a cyclical market,” IEEFA analyst Trey Cowan told S&P Global. 
  • “It makes more sense to invest your policy dollars where you can grow faster,” Cowan added.

‘As good as it gets’: Meanwhile, recovery in the fossil fuel sector — long regarded as Texas’s hallmark industry — are lagging behind the rapid job growth in renewables, electric vehicles and energy efficiency, according to the IEEFA.

  • The state oil and gas industry has brought back only about half the jobs lost during the pandemic, the IEEFA’s study found.  
  • That may be “as good as it gets,” as job growth in fossil fuels appears to have plateaued, the study added.

Spotlight on shingles: Texas’s advantages led solar manufacturer GAF Energy to choose the state for its new solar roof-tile factory — rather than offshoring production to Asia, CEO Martin DeBono told Reuters. 

  • GAF announced on Tuesday they would open a $100-million factory just north of Austin. 
  • Rather than external solar panels, GAF’s light-capturing solar shingles are part of a house’s roof, Reuters reported. 

Domestic production was better suited to this more unique approach, DeBono told Reuters. 

Standing out: “You can’t expect to make the same thing as everybody else in the world and be successful in a business, especially in a business as competitive as solar,” DeBono said.

Water Wednesday

Drought drives cattle sales, Utah brings drought resistant vegetation to medians and how a pint (or two) can head off heat-induced dehydration. 

Drought leading to cattle selloffs  

  • Midwest cattle producers are concerned about ongoing selloffs of these farm animals due to drought, Illinois-based radio station WCMY reported. “A lot of people are talking about not getting back into the cattle industry,” one producer told WCMY. 

Turf trend hits Salt Lake City region  

  • As Utahns contend with ongoing drought conditions and a dwindling Great Salt Lake, many area cities are taking part in a program called “Flip Your Strip” — or replacing grassy park strips with drought-resistant vegetation, The Salt Lake City Tribune reported.   

Fight dehydration by drinking (a bit of) beer 

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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Tags emissions reduction Forever chemicals fossil fuel inequity solar industry solar panels Texas grid Tony Evers
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