Today is Monday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.
Parts of Sicily, the Mediterranean “toe” kicked by Italy’s boot and home of Italy’s oldest wine, are becoming too hot for grapes to thrive.
But one farmer is making the best of things by transforming his grandfather’s vineyard into a tropical orchard for avocados, lychees, passionfruit and lemon trees, according to the Financial Times.
The farmer, Andrea Passanisi, became particularly fond of avocados during a trip to Brazil and saw his family’s land as the perfect spot for tropical fruits, Emiko Terazono reported for the Times. The changing climate means that growers like Passanisi are now producing lucrative fruits that would otherwise have been difficult to cultivate profitably, Terazono reported.
Today, we’ll look at how two other industries are taking gambles on how they might profit — with a look at Toyota’s bet on hydrogen. We’ll also turn back to the wildfires raging in the West, but this time, with a particular focus on a deal that let a power company survive bankruptcy but left victims in the lurch.
For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at firstname.lastname@example.org or Sharon at email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin.
Let’s get to it.
A MESSAGE FROM NEXTERA ENERGY
We're pioneering innovation on green hydrogen — the solution for deep decarbonization of hard-to-abate sectors. See how it can create jobs, accelerate economic growth and more at NextEraEnergy.com.
A battle between hydrogen and electric shows the need for regulatory clarity
Japanese automaker Toyota has bet big on hydrogen — selling about 11,000 hydrogen-powered Mirais, which start at $50,000, according to The New York Times. But whatever its promise, hydrogen is “at least a decade behind batteries right now,” David Friedman of Consumer Reports told Hiroko Tabuchi of The New York Times.
But with its eye on hydrogen, Toyota has fought policies mandating electric vehicles around the world — including in Washington, D.C., where Chris Reynolds, a senior Toyota executive, argued against an all-electric standard to congressional staff.
Toyota, inventor of the groundbreaking Prius hybrid, would rather see hybrids short-term, and hydrogen long-term, Tabuchi reported.
National battles on hydrogen: It’s not just Toyota that’s gambling on hydrogen. National governments are subsidizing automotive and oil companies developing hydrogen fuel. Supporters have touted hydrogen for decades as a low-carbon solution for sectors like long-haul trucking, heavy industry, cars and trains.
In theory, hydrogen fuel offers dramatic advantages over conventional oil, and even over electrification. But bridging theory and reality is proving fraught.
Back to the basics: The first element released by the Big Bang and the primordial fuel of stars, hydrogen is a highly flammable gas that when burned — as the name suggests — releases water vapor, not carbon dioxide.
But here on Earth, hydrogen is found locked in compounds like water (H2O), methane (CH4) and ammonia (NH3), and breaking it free requires a lot of energy.
A GREEN FUEL - SOMETIMES
Green is best, but gray is what’s on offer. Because of that energy requirement, developing hydrogen fuel isn’t necessarily green. “For green hydrogen, you almost have to get to a world where electrons are free,” Paul Bogers, Shell’s vice president of hydrogen, told Sarah McFarlane of The Wall Street Journal, referring to hydrogen produced by renewable energy.
Meanwhile, oil majors and national governments ranging from Japan to Saudi Arabia are investing in hydrogen pulled from fossil fuels, which is called “blue” if the carbon is captured and “gray” if it isn’t.
While that production pathway is easier, carbon capture is still in its infancy. Chevron said Sunday that carbon capture technology at an Australian liquified natural gas plant — seen as a halfway step to hydrogen generation — had failed in its effort to capture 80 percent of emissions, Jamie Smyth and David Sheppard reported for the Financial Times.
As an additional challenge, hydrogen has such low energy density that it must be compressed to nearly absolute zero to be worth the trouble of transporting, Phred Dvorak reported for the Wall Street Journal in mid-June.
A hydrogen boom: Still, McFarlane noted for the Journal that 244 large-scale green hydrogen projects are planned globally — a 50 percent rise since January — with tens of billions earmarked. She covered one such project, which would use electricity from “green supermajor” Ørsted’s North Sea wind farm to produce green hydrogen, for the Journal in 2020.
Though hydrogen fuel costs more energy to produce than it yields, it does offer advantages. Like fossil fuels, it can be burned on demand as needed. Unlike electricity, it doesn’t require batteries for storage or incur transmission losses as it’s moved down a pipeline — a key problem for industrial-scale wind and solar.
That’s why the Japanese government is heavily subsidizing hydrogen — in this case, “blue” or “gray” extracted from ammonia — to supplement wind and solar in its plan to be net-zero by 2050, Dvorak reported.
Takeaway: Government policy will continue to play a key role as all of these technologies emerge. Like electrification, hydrogen “is a policy driven market,” Rochelle Toplensky reported for The Wall Street Journal in June. Government lays the regulatory tracks, subsidizing construction and imposing mandates on companies — who then have the space to innovate.
A MESSAGE FROM NEXTERA ENERGY
As the world’s largest producer of wind and solar energy, NextEra Energy is pioneering innovation on green hydrogen – the solution for deep decarbonization of hard-to-abate sectors. See how at NextEraEnergy.com.
Victims of California fires past still waiting for compensation amid new burn
Most survivors of California’s deadliest blaze — the 2018 Camp fire — have seen little to no compensation from Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), which may also be responsible for the Dixie fire currently ravaging the northeast portion of the state.
Camp fire survivors now hold almost a quarter of shares in PG&E following extensive negotiations with the company, but they are unable to liquidate the assets. They therefore, cannot cash in on the brunt of the settlement, PBS NewsHour reported on Sunday.
A quick look at Dixie: The Dixie fire — California’s 15th largest blaze — has ripped through northeastern portions of the state since July 14, scorching a swath of land six times the size of San Francisco and exploding “into a raging monster” that has been challenging to contain, Amy Graff reported for SFGate.
Even as the fire’s own smoke blanket has shaded its flames and slowed its growth, the Dixie fire has destroyed about 16 structures, with more than 10,700 buildings under threat in Butte and Plumas counties, according to CNN. As of Monday morning, local ABC News affiliate KRCR said that the fire was only 22 percent contained.
One possible cause of the Dixie fire, according to experts, is a blown fuse on one of PG&E’s utility poles, as The New York Times reported. PG&E has also said it’s possibly responsible and moved to bury 10,000 miles of transmission lines at a $15 billion to $20 billion cost, which we discussed in Thursday’s Equilibrium.
PG&E’s history with wildfires: PG&E equipment ignited the 2018 Camp fire, which killed 85 people and was the deadliest and most destructive blaze in California’s history, Hari Sreenivasan reported for PBS NewsHour.
After emerging from bankruptcy last year, PG&E arranged a multibillion-dollar trust for fire survivors. But many of the survivors are still awaiting compensation — even while the fund has amassed millions of dollars in fees, Sreenivasan said.
A COMPENSATION DEAL THAT WASN'T
If the money is there, what exactly happened? When PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection, it took the “claims of 70,000 fire survivors and basically threw them into our nation’s bankruptcy system,” Lily Jamali, a reporter for KQED, told PBS NewsHour.
PG&E eventually entered a multibillion-dollar settlement with survivors in late 2019, but half of that settlement, according to Jamali, was payable in PG&E stock.
Survivors now hold about a quarter of PG&E shares — about 480 million shares — and such investments are a challenge to liquidate quickly, Jamali said.
“Think about that for a second,” she said. “You lost your home and now you are being asked to accept stock in the company that took your home or destroyed your life. That's the situation that many of these fire survivors are in.”
What about the cash component? Since the PG&E trust was set up as a part cash, part stock entity, even those people who have had their claims processed are only getting about 30 percent of what the trust has determined they were owed, Jamali told PBS NewsHour.
That means potentially 30 percent of the value of a house bought in the 1980s — a total of perhaps $75,000 and not nearly enough to rebuild, she said.
Although only 334 families who have had their claims fully processed have only gotten 30 percent of what they’re owed, the trust is collecting its own fees in full, as Jamali reported for KQED in May. And just over 14 percent of the eligible 67,170 families have even received partial payment, she wrote.
The trust has reported its operating expenses by category — such as $16.3 million for “claims processor fees and expenses” and $6.8 million for “insurance, data and other expenses” — but would not provide a list of specific companies with whom it is working and what the trust has paid each firm, according to Jamali.
Takeaway: As fires continue to rage across the Pacific Northwest, families forced to evacuate their homes may not only risk losing physical structures to the flames, but they may also face an uncertain financial future — even if they receive compensation.
In which we find animals where they ought not be.
Animals in the path of fire also succumbing to the heat
- The wildfires and heat waves sizzling throughout the Pacific Northwest have taken a toll on human residents, but the shifting climate is also threatening the region’s biodiversity, David Suggs reported for The Washington Post.
- With extreme heat, plant-based food sources for animals are dwindling, while mussel, barnacle and seaweed populations for shoreside food chains are also crumbling, according to the Post.
- While adult birds are able to seek out shady spots across a habitat, as Suggs noted, “there is only so much an animal can do.” Lacking plains and forests that provide them with “an essential barrier to extreme heat,” animals have become the victims of “mass casualty events,” the Post reported.
Gulf Coast ticks in Great Lake city
- Three ticks native to the U.S. southeast were located in a forest reserve about 40 miles west of Chicago, according to The Associated Press.
- The species sometimes carries Tidewater spotted fever, “which could cause a headache, muscle aches and rash, among other things.”
- “We don’t need to freak out,” one local expert said, urging residents to protect themselves the same as they would against other ticks: by “remaining on the center of nature trails and wearing protective clothing when in grassy areas.”
Great white sharks are winning at climate change
- Young great white sharks have expanded their range “from the Mexican border to beaches just south of San Francisco,” The Washington Post reported.
- Young sharks don’t eat people — but they do occasionally bite, and their numbers are growing near shore as the Pacific Ocean warms and long-running shark conservation efforts show their effect.
- The migration north seems to have been caused by the 2014 collapse of a chilly “barrier” of cold water between Northern California and Mexico caused by the 2014 El Niño.