Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Going off-grid

Solar panels
AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam
Solar panels at a photovoltaic solar park on the outskirts of the coastal town of Lamberts Bay, South Africa, Tuesday, March. 29, 2016. Italian company TerniEnergia, started the solar park making use of a photovoltaic process that converts light into electricity through panels, with the facility expected to produce up to 75 Megawatts, to be…

South Africa’s wealthy are quietly turning to solar power to avoid blackouts plaguing the coal-dependent country’s ailing grid. 

Private installations of rooftop photovoltaic panels by those with money will bring online as much solar power generation in five months than the government has managed to stand up in a decade, according to Reuters. 

“I cannot be without power. It’s as simple as that. Every minute I’m down costs me money,” financial planner Pierre Moureau told Reuters. 

The situation in South Africa offers a troubling window into the benefits that renewables can offer the wealthy in societies where infrastructure need a substantial investment to keep the lights on for all: secession from the public grid. 

People like Moureau are leaving a system reliant on the nation’s aging fleet of coal plants, run by the state-owned Eskom utility, which is simply no longer able to meet the country’s power demand, as The Associated Press reported in July.

Once they go they are “lost to the energy system forever,” a South African official told Reuters.

The loss of people like Moureau is especially unfortunate because the estimated 2 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity generated this year by private citizens could help meet the country’s chronic 4 to 6 gigawatt power shortage, according Reuters. 

“If you’ve got money, you can do it yourself,” another South African told Reuters. But “the people who are suffering have no money to buy those panels.” 

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 see why the threat of nuclear war goes far beyond explosions and radiation and also look at how U.S.-China tensions could jeopardize global climate action. But first: A new tool to estimate extreme heat risk for homes.

Tool predicts every home’s extreme heat risk in 2053

A new digital tool from the nonprofit First Street Foundation allows anyone to see the risk from extreme heat at any address in the United States by 2053.

  • It shows the specific impacts that changing climate and the environment will have on an individual property, The Hill’s Changing America reported.
  • It is available as part of Risk Factor, a free tool that also evaluates property-specific flood and wildfire risk by midcentury, as we previously reported.  

The tool allows potential home buyers  — and investors — to foresee what local climatic risks they might encounter by the time they pay off a 30-year mortgage. 

What did they find? Local conditions vary somewhat, but at the national level, the general picture is clear: a country growing hotter for longer each year. 

  • The city of Miami, for example, can currently expect an average of seven days above 103 Fahrenheit.
  • By 2053 that number will have swelled to 34, according to First Street’s projections. 

Across the country, “your hottest seven days become your hottest month, essentially over the next 30 years,” First Street president Matthew Eby told Equilibrium.  

That means greater strain on infrastructure, power grids and air conditioning — as well as much greater risk to people. 

Heat valley: The model also shows a blood-red band spreading outward from the Mississippi River from Louisiana to Wisconsin by midcentury — what First Street Foundation calls an emerging “Extreme Heat Belt.”  

  • Within that zone are more than a 1,000 counties — today home to more than a 100 million people — that by 2053 can expect to see at least occasional days each year with a heat index above 125 Fahrenheit. 
  • Today, only 8 million people live under such conditions.  

Predicting an exodus: First Street is trying to build a model that lets their researchers combine risk projections with the impacts of present-day disasters to map the geography of America’s climate change future.  

“So our first phase is to create the model which is what we have done today — to tell you what will happen,” Eby said. 

The second phase focuses on climate migration, according to Eby.  

“After a major heat event or sustained heat — when do we see people move from an area?” he asked. “Where are people moving from and where are they moving to?”

Nuclear war would force billions to starve: study 

More than 5 billion people would die from starvation in the event of a full-scale nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia, new research has found. 

  • That’s the worst-case scenario in a Nature Food study published on Monday, which examined the indirect death toll caused as soot from burning cities and forests entered the atmosphere.
  • The Rutgers University team arrived at that death toll by estimating how much global food production would suffer as the drifting clouds blocked out the sunlight that feeds plants.  

“The data tell us one thing: We must prevent a nuclear war from ever happening,” coauthor Alan Robock, a climate scientist at Rutgers, said in a statement.  

Sun interrupted: In the event of a U.S.-Russia nuclear war, collapsing harvests in major breadbaskets would lead to breakdowns in food exports, spreading famine across Africa and the Middle East — areas that depend on imported food for survival.

  • Under that scenario, three-quarters of people on Earth would starve within two years after the missiles stopped falling.
  • By three or four years after the nuclear exchange, global crop, animal and fishing yields would drop by 90 percent. 

Even ‘limited’ war would devastate: Even in the smallest potential nuclear war the team evaluated — a localized shoot-out between India and Pakistan — global food production would drop by 7 percent.  

That number is bigger than any disturbance to world food supplies since the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization started tracking them.

Clear warning: Nuclear war of any size would “obliterate global food systems,” coauthor Alan Robock said in a statement. 

“If nuclear weapons exist, they can be used, and the world has come close to nuclear war several times,” Robock said. “Banning nuclear weapons is the only long-term solution.” 

Cause for concern: Conflict over nuclear resources is  garnering increasing concern after Russian troops who seized the Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor — Europe’s largest — said they aim to sever the plant from the Ukrainian grid and steal its power, The Wall Street Journal reported.

  • Kyiv has accused Russia of using its occupation of the plant as a means of blackmailing Europe, the Journal reported. 
  • “Every Russian soldier who either shoots at the plant, or shoots using the plant as cover, must understand that he becomes a special target for our intelligence agents, for our special services, for our army,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an address on Saturday, according to Reuters. 

To read the full story please click here

School traffic safety a concern for parents: poll

As U.S. students get ready to return to school, nearly a third of parents surveyed in a nationwide poll said they are worried about their children’s safety in high-traffic drop-off areas.

Dreading back-to-school: More than a quarter of respondents to the poll, released by the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital on Monday, said they believe their kids could get hurt on their way to school. 

  • Parents reported a plethora of issues plaguing their school drop-off system that threaten their children’s safety, including driver distraction and speeding.
  • “Many parents dread returning to the daily hassle of getting kids to school and one of the top concerns involves children safely walking through car and bus traffic,” poll co-director Sarah Clark, a research scientist at Michigan Medicine, said in a statement.  

Dangers of drop-off: About 56 percent of parents said that their children travel to school by car, while 35 percent take the bus and 9 percent either walk, ride a bike or scooter or come by public transportation.  

Focusing on elementary, middle school: The authors surveyed a randomly selected group of parents who reflected the demographics of the U.S. population — focusing on 923 families with at least one child aged 6-12.  

  • The authors said they chose this subset because getting a ride to school is common among elementary and middle school students.
  • Elementary school students are also especially vulnerable to traffic-related injuries because they are less skilled at judging when it is safe to cross the street.  

Fears abound: Nearly a third — 31 percent — of parents responded that they worry about their child’s safety going to and from school, while 28 percent said they think it is likely that a child will get hurt near the car or bus drop-off areas, according to the survey.  

To see the rest of the poll’s results, please click here.

CHINA HITS US OVER CLIMATE

A Chinese official called upon the U.S. to fulfill its climate obligations and “stop making excuses for its own mistakes,” in a statement issued this weekend by China’s Embassy in the U.K. 

The statement, delivered by an embassy spokesperson, rejected claims that China’s decision to suspend bilateral climate talks with the U.S. could punish the entire world.  

What they’re saying: “China will continue to actively participate in international and multilateral cooperation on climate change,” the embassy spokesperson said.

  • The spokesperson referred to his country’s “solemn pledge” to reach a carbon emissions peak by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060.
  • He also said that China will participate in global climate negotiations and provide other developing countries with relevant support.  

Turning elsewhere: Zheng Zeguang, China’s ambassador to the U.K., told a Friday industry roundtable that “the suspension of China-US cooperation in certain areas will not affect China’s commitments to the international community on issues such as climate change.” Zheng urged London and Beijing to “greatly strengthen rather than weaken cooperation.”  

State of competition: The outlook for global climate action doesn’t “look bright when the world’s top two carbon emitters, the U.S. and China, can’t cooperate,” economic affairs expert Andy Rowley wrote in an op-ed for the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.  

  • While the U.S. “was basking in the triumphal glow” of last week’s Inflation Reduction Act passage, China was “eschewing cooperation with the U.S. on climate issues,” Rowley stated.
  • China, he said, is still outspending the U.S. on climate remediation.  

Not the time to divide and conquer: “The prospect of the world’s two largest economies and carbon dioxide emitters, the U.S. and China, carving up the world between them on climate change is absurd,” Rowley added.

Motor Monday

New York’s MTA struggles to recover from pandemic-related losses, Vietnam considers building a national high-speed railways and a hacker gives farmers the ability to repair their own tractors. 

New Yorkers fear service cuts amid billion-dollar MTA budget deficit  

  • New York City commuters are concerned about potential service cuts, after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced that it will face a $2.5 billion deficit in 2025, according to The New York Times. The shortfall comes a year sooner than anticipated, mainly due to a plunge in ridership during the pandemic, the Times reported. 

Vietnam weighs $58.7B high-speed railway

  • Vietnam, which has become a regional manufacturing hub, is considering building a $57.8 billion high-speed railway to support its rapidly growing economy, Reuters reported. The railway would run 960 miles along the country’s length and would open in part by 2032 and in full by 2045-2050, according to Reuters.  

Jailbreaking John Deere tractors for farmer

  • An Australian hacker has published techniques to “jailbreak” the digital controls that tractor maker John Deere & Co. installs on its equipment — allowing farmers or local mechanics to repair their own machinery, Wired reported. “We want farmers to be able to repair their stuff for when things go wrong,” hacker Sick Codes told Wired. 

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 Climate change Electric grid extreme heat nuclear war power grid school safety solar panels solar power US-China relations
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