Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — New high-speed train ‘flies on the ground’

A new Chinese prototype train could one day transport passengers between the country’s far-flung, populous cities at more than 600 miles per hour.

The new-model form of mass transit — developed by the state-run China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation — integrates two distinct technologies to try to solve the main obstacles to moving ground-level transport at such high speeds, according to the South China Morning Post. 

First, it seeks to remove the friction between the wheels and truck by means of magnetic levitation — or “maglev” — in which similarly charged magnets in the track and body of the train push each other apart, creating a friction-free cushion for the train to float on. 

Second, it removes air resistance by means of sealed tunnels from which the air has been pumped out — mimicking the thin atmospheres traversed by high-flying aircraft.

These two innovations together would allow trains to “fly on the ground,” the government engineers said in a statement.   

Critics note that this sort of “hyperloop” system is incredibly expensive and requires immense investment in infrastructure, the Morning Post noted. 

But it also neatly sidesteps the immense challenge of finding a zero-carbon fuel for air travel, which is currently the only high-speed means of moving between the widespread population centers of China — or the United States. 

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. I’m Saul Elbein

Today we look at why a Republican midterm victory could paint a target on Democratic climate goals, followed by a look at why Toyota may be forced to scrap and redo its electric vehicle strategy.

Plus: A new push to make ostensibly “clean” fuels from fracked gas. 

GOP targets clean energy stimulus in midterm bid

Republicans seeking to recapture Congress are targeting the trillions of dollars in Democratic-backed spending in areas like coronavirus relief, student loans and nondefense funding, our colleagues Aris Foley and Mychael Schnell reported.

  • The GOP has made clear its opposition to the American Rescue Plan, a sprawling $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief and stimulus package passed without GOP support last year. 
  • It has also attacked the Democrats’ signature Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $370 billion in funding for an enormous clean energy buildout aimed at reducing the worst impacts of climate change. 

Point of crisis: If they recapture Congress, Republicans could hold up the federal budgetary process to force Democrats to cut stimulus spending for everything but the military, according to Foley and Schnell. 

  • Congress will have to raise the debt ceiling in early 2023 to allow the U.S. to account for past Congressional spending and avoid a default. 
  • A 2011 standoff over this issue led Standard and Poor’s to downgrade the U.S. credit rating to below AAA for the first time.

Pumping it up: One major priority for an expected Republican majority will likely be to attempt to incentivize a new flood of American oil and gas production.

  • “President Biden must reverse course and take meaningful action to unleash American energy,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement earlier this month. 
  • The House GOP platform calls for efforts to “regain American energy independence and lower prices at the pump” by maximizing the production of domestic-made energy and slashing the permitting process to lessen the United States’ reliance on other countries.

Harder than it sounds: The prospects of gas prices decreasing through energy independence in the short term, however, are slim. 

  • Many decisions about whether to drill for oil are made by private companies rather than government policy, Foley and Schnell note.
  • And when it comes to oil the federal government does have authority over, new onshore drilling leases typically take roughly 4.5 years on average to deliver oil to the pump. 

That’s a long enough time scale to worry the potential developers of new fields — particularly with utilities, carmakers and manufacturers increasingly eying renewable energy alternatives. 

Avoiding risk: One particular concern is the rising numbers of insurers, reinsurers and financiers who are growing wary of oil and gas, as we reported last week. 

  • These entities increasingly worry that their fossil fuel underwriting and investments are raising risk across their entire portfolios by disrupting the climate.
  • “Developing any new oil and gas fields would prevent the world from limiting global warming to 1.5°C,” the think tank International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) found earlier this month, referring to the level of warming beyond which more dangerous forms of extreme weather become common.

By contrast, the amount of money currently slated for oil and gas development would be enough to finance sufficient renewable development to keep the world on the
1.5 degree pathway, the IISD study found.

Toyota considers return to EV drawing board 

A faster-than-expected rise in electric vehicle demand has Japanese automaker Toyota considering a complete overhaul in its EV strategy.  

The company could reboot a $38 billion plan for a new line of EVs in order to better compete with rivals like Tesla, Reuters reported. 

  • Toyota had banked on a strategy where it used a standardized assembly line to produce gas-powered, hybrid and a proposed 30 new electric models. 
  • This reportedly would have allowed Toyota to turn out about 3.5 million units per year by 2030. 

Those quotas would be enough to make Toyota’s offerings about one-third electric, Reuters reported. 

What’s wrong with that? EVs are taking off faster than expected — so fast that half of all new cars sold in 2030 are expected to be electric, according to Reuters.  Toyota’s existing strategy can’t meet those kinds of totals. 

  • The company also may have to retire its existing EV platform — called e-TNGA — in favor of a new platform “engineered from the ground up,” rather than adapted from existing power trains, the outlet reported.
  • Since that kind of adaptation could take up to five years, “there is little time to waste,” an anonymous source at Toyota told Reuters. 

Trade-off: While halting production to revamp Toyota’s EV plans could mean losing years of sales, it might be worth it in exchange for a more efficient and cost-effective production later this decade, experts told Reuters.


Tesla’s stocks slid on Monday behind announcements that the company was offering discounts on cars produced at its Shanghai factory — an unusual move from a company whose prices have generally trended up. 

Shares drop: Tesla’s shares fell more than 7 percent on Monday morning following announcements that the company was cutting prices for Chinese buyers, CNBC reported. 

  • Tesla cut the starting price of its Model 3 sedan by 5 percent and its Model Y SUV by nearly 9 percent.
  • Those vehicles now retail for about $36,000 and $43,000, respectively. 

Why cut prices? Chief executive Elon Musk said last week that price cuts were necessary as China faces “a recession of sorts,” largely in the country’s overheated property markets, according to CNBC. 

But the all-electric car maker is also feeling pressure from a new wave of local rivals, the South China Morning Post reported. 

“In the face of new models launched by its Chinese rivals, price cuts will effectively enhance the competitiveness” of those offerings, Shanghai-based auto analyst Chen Jinzhu told the Morning Post. 

Demand side: Raising prices is an unusual move for Tesla, which has steadily increased prices in the past two years as demand grew faster than its ability to produce cars, clean energy news site Electrek reported. 

  • But the fact that it is now “pulling on some ‘demand levers’” are a sign that demand for the cars may be slacking off. 
  • “One of the biggest demand levers you can pull is reducing prices, and that’s exactly what the automaker is doing in China,” Electrek wrote.

Excess gas to be repurposed as hydrogen fuel 

Excess fracked methane from the gas fields of North Dakota could soon be converted to hydrogen fuel to power long-haul trucks, according to a new memorandum of understanding released Monday morning. 

The deal unites gas producer Bakken Energy with power company Cummins and trucking and logistics company Schneider. They aim to work with upper Midwest states like Montana and North Dakota to create a new federally funded “hydrogen hub.”

  • The pilot project would capture and redirect gas (CH4) that would otherwise be burned off or “flared.”
  • This would be converted to hydrogen fuel (H2) at the revamped Great Plains Synfuel Plant, with the excess carbon captured and stored underground. 

New hub: The proposal is part of a larger play by producers in the Bakken Shale and other gas producing regions to take advantage of the $7 billion in federal funds for new industrial-scale production and use of hydrogen fuel.  

Looking to the future: “Our focus in developing clean hydrogen production is scale and affordability,” Bakken Energy chief executive Mike Hopkins said in a statement. 

  • “In our region, the Upper Midwest, the clear market is long-haul trucking,” Hopkins added.  
  • “Trucking-industry leaders have decided hydrogen will be a replacement for diesel and we want to make sure clean hydrogen supply meets their needs,” he said. 

Is it really clean? In one significant way, yes: Their tailpipe exhaust is water vapor. 

How so? As we have reported, hydrogen fuel has very different environmental costs depending on the source it comes from and the power used to make it, and this proposal would be at about the lowest standard.  

  • Hydrogen (H2) is the most abundant element in the universe, found in a wide array of potential feed stocks from natural gas to ammonia to water.  
  • The highest standard is green hydrogen, produced from water or in some cases ammonia by renewable energy. 

‘Blue hydrogen’: The Bakken, Cummins and Schneider plan would produce much more carbon-intensive fuel, called blue hydrogen, for which there are serious climate concerns. 

  • Blue hydrogen is produced from gas using power from fossil fuels, from which the emissions are theoretically captured and stored. 
  • A 2021 Cornell study found evidence that blue hydrogen might be worse for the climate than coal, due to the inherent leakiness, uncontrolled venting and increased carbon intensity of methane. 

That’s if they can be built at all: Midwestern opponents of past oil pipelines like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline are ratcheting up attempts to block carbon dioxide pipelines, Reuters reported.

Monday Miscellanies 

An off-grid solution in Gaza has toxic impacts, a challenge for NASA and a possible cause behind the increase in Alzheimer’s.  

Gaza battery dumps lead to environmental damage

  • Pollution is spreading from the dumps where Palestinian residents of Gaza dispose of the batteries they rely on to power off-grid solar systems — a principal means of dealing with the frequent blackouts imposed by Israel, Reuters reported. Seepage from the open-air dumps mean “lead can get into drinking water reserves and dust from the batteries can blow away and pollute plants, trees and the soil,” Ahmed Al-Manama, of the government Water and Quality Environment Authority told Reuters.

Worries follow NASA asteroid-deflection success 

  • NASA’s September mission to change the course of an asteroid was successful — but implementing it against actual planetary threats would require “years, not months” of notice, The Washington Post reported. But current funding limitations mean that NASA currently only tracks about 40 percent of asteroids large enough to cause significant damage to Earth, according to the Post. 

Ubiquitous toxic chemicals could be behind Alzheimer’s rise: scientists  

  • The dramatic recent rise of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease could be linked to the increase in pervasive environmental contaminants from pesticides to forever chemicals, The Guardian reported. “Neurology is about 15 years behind cancer so we need to sound the alarm on this and get more people doing research because the [Environmental Protection Agency] is absolutely not protecting us,” Frances Jensen, president of the American Neurological Association, told The Guardian. 

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online and explore more newsletters here. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Tags clean energy Electric vehicles hydrogen Tesla

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