Overnight Equilibrium/Sustainability: Tesla takes on Texan electricity sector

Overnight Equilibrium/Sustainability: Tesla takes on Texan electricity sector
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Today is Friday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup

Electric vehicle giant Tesla is hedging its bets on a new market: The direct sale of electricity to Texan consumers — many of whom endured crippling power losses amid a massive storm this past winter.

A subsidiary of the company, Tesla Energy Ventures, filed an application to the state’s Public Utility Commission just after construction began on a Tesla battery project that aims to connect a 100-megawatt storage system to the Texan grid, CNBC reported.

Although Tesla has deployed several utility-scale storage systems around the world, the company has yet to operate as a retail electricity provider, according to CNBC. Batteries installed by Tesla usually serve to boost storage capacity for other electricity suppliers.

When the February cold snap struck, Texas residents suffered mass blackouts due to the isolated nature of their electricity supply and grid vulnerabilities, CNBC reported. And these vulnerabilities have, in effect, left an opening for outsiders like Tesla.

Today we’ll revisit another vulnerable landscape — communities affected by wildfires. First we’ll sit down with a Mediterranean fire scientist for a look at how a key to effective firefighting is recognizing our weakness. Then we'll look at some newly funded research efforts to mitigate wildfire health and safety hazards. 

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.

Using wildfires to create a new landscape

A fire rages in Morocco.

Firefighters are wasting resources on blazes that there's no chance of extinguishing, when those same tools could be redirected toward a long-term fix, a Mediterranean-based fire scientist told Equilibrium.

Around the world, firefighters are expending valuable equipment and manpower against such megafires “because we haven't explained to society that we have a limit and we can’t put it out,” said Marc Castellnou, chief fire scientist for the Bombers Generalitat, the firefighter corps of Spain’s fire-prone Catalonia region.  

This lack of societal awareness, he continued, is the main handicap to long-term adaptation — and the main tool that policymakers should consider is large-scale containment of the biggest fires, which trades short-term loss for potential long-term gain. 

First steps: Castellnou has consulted on many of the world’s biggest wildfires since they burst onto the scene in Fort McMurray, Canada, and central Chile in the winter of 2016-17. 

Equilibrium caught up with him between fires from Catalonia for a Q&A about how firefighting practice has changed — and how it hasn’t — in the Mediterranean and elsewhere.

Equilibrium: How has the current landscape compared to predictions? 

Marc Catellnou: The world is changing, ecosystems are moving and fire is playing its role — and fires are becoming bigger and creating firestorms.

In past years, fires burned in the East or West Mediterranean — but not the whole Mediterranean all at once. We have no record of that. That’s new this year. There were 80 firestorms around the world this year — that’s unprecedented, but it’s starting to be normal. 

Has firefighting practice changed, given the size of the fires and the growing awareness of the importance of prescribed burns and natural fire to a dry forest landscape?

We’re becoming more defensive. If we see that kind of firestorm, we shouldn’t attack it; we just try to contain it. We give distance. 

[In one fire in the Bolivian Chaco], now we’ve gone 50 kilometers away, building lines to hold fire inside that perimeter. Instead of attacking the fire, we’re containing it inside a perimeter.

You have consulted for years on California’s fire response. What do you make of the U.S. Forest Service’s Aug. 2 announcement — after criticism by Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomThe Hill's Morning Report: Biden takes it on the chin Newsom denies parole for RFK assassin Why California needs a Latino state supreme court justice MORE (D) — that they would no longer "manage fires for resource benefit"?

“Fight every fire” doesn’t make a lot of sense, because you know you won’t succeed. You know you’ll lose — so you try to lose with honor.

Instead, we should understand the ecosystem is changing, and teach the change. Explain to society what is happening, and try to be effective and positive in the change instead of fighting at all cost. We should adapt to it, and use it to create a new landscape.


Equilibrium: We need to be “positive,” you say?

Catellnou: This is not a defensive moment —  it could be a creative moment. We are looking at it as a loss, but we are also creating tomorrow’s landscape. And you can’t create a new landscape out of that [defensive] mindset. 

How receptive are policymakers and the public to that idea?

The big change is not what firefighters do but how society understands what’s happening. 

During the pyrocumulus [so-called “fire clouds” that scorched Catalonia earlier this summer] we couldn’t do a lot, just contain it. We should have waited and fought at night. But we are forced [by policymakers and the public] to try and keep trying — and the resources we were forced to use during the day when they weren’t useful, you know, you could have used them during the night. 

Do you think the general public will understand this lesson, about the value of containment, evacuation and husbanding resources?

Yes — because there's no other option. Fires are getting faster, bigger, and they’re leaving us behind. You need to approach it differently. The earlier society understands that, the earlier we will shift. 

Catch the full interview with Castellnou, including why firefighting planes often do little good — on TheHill.com this weekend.

​​EPA invests $7M in wildfire research; private investors also pour in funds 

A flag of the Environmental Protection Agency is seen outside their headquarters in Washington, D.C., on June 3

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has granted $7 million to 10 research groups that are investigating ways to reduce exposure to wildfire smoke, the agency announced this week.

The funding announcement came as smoke continued to billow in drought-ridden regions of the U.S. and abroad. In Northern California alone, blazes have been traveling up to 8 miles a day as fuel conditions and increased wind speeds created the perfect catalyst for fire spread, according to CNN. 

With the understanding that wildfire smoke contains “a complex mixture of gases and fine particles” that can invade people’s respiratory systems and trigger chronic heart and lung diseases, as well as cancers, the EPA said it was investing in research efforts that could help mitigate these effects.

Who is getting the funding? Of the $7 million total, which comes from the EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, nearly $3 million is going to Bay Area institutions, as CBSN Bay Area reported. An additional million is going to the Pacific Northwest — another region that has been suffering the devastating impacts of long-term mega-fires.

The 10 projects are: 

1. Georgia Institute of Technology

Award: $1 million

Project: Reducing exposures of Georgian and Alabaman schoolchildren to elevated levels of PM 2.5 — particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers, or 30 times smaller than the diameter of a single human hair, according to the EPA. 

2. Ohio State University

Award: $999,995

Project: Decreasing smoke exposures and health impacts associated with prescribed burn events, which are an essential land management tool.

3. University of Colorado Boulder

Award: $549,919

Project: Using low-cost air sensors for PM 2.5 to inform schools whether they should stay open or closed during wildfire pollution events.

4. University of Colorado Boulder

Award: $549,000

Project: Evaluating sustainable at-home interventions, like air cleaning, ventilation and building sealing, to reduce indoor particulate matter concentration.

5. Desert Research Institute, Northern Nevada

Award: $544,763

Project: Mitigating smoke risk in rural communities through stakeholder-driven monitoring and messaging in Northern Nevada.

6. Stanford University

Award: $999,846

Project: Researching affordable technology and native-language messaging tools for low-income and non-English speaking communities, who are at increased risk of wildfire smoke exposure.

7. University of California Berkeley

Award: $988,740

Project: Improving communication with “harder-to-reach populations,” such as agricultural workers, Tribal Nations, the deaf community and nonnative English speakers through locally targeted dissemination systems.

8. Public Health Institute, Oakland, Calif.

Award: $994,407

Project: Designing and field testing affordable and effective filtration systems for rooftop evaporative coolers — known as “swamp coolers” — often used to cool homes in arid Western environments.

9. Portland State University

Award: $547,899

Project: Creating an Indoor Woodsmoke Dynamics (IWOOD) test facility, to help understand outdoor to indoor transport of gas and particles from woodsmoke into single-family homes.

10. University of Washington

Award: $548,537

Project: Identifying evidence-based solutions by using portable air cleaners (PAC) to improve indoor air quality in schools.


It’s not just the federal government investing in wildfire research. The private sector is also stepping in, after years of hesitance, according to Inc. Magazine.

San Francisco-based Firemaps, which helps homeowners defend their houses by creating 3-D models and fireproofing plans, announced a $5.5 seed round on Thursday, Inc. reported, citing TechCrunch. Meanwhile, Israel’s BreezoMeter, whose air monitoring technology appears on the iPhone’s Weather app, completed a $30 million funding round in June, the report said.

Berkeley-based wildfire evacuation platform Perimeter raised $1 million in April, while San Francisco-based evacuation platform Zonehaven recently sold for $24.2 million, according to Inc.

But investors were not always so keen on wildfire tech. This is both because the technology is geared at controlling disasters and because it depends on governments as the primary customers, Ahmad Wani, co-founder and CEO of disaster preparedness company One Concern, told Inc.

"As soon as you go to a venture capitalist and say the words 'disaster' or 'government,' they say, 'You are a disaster. There's the door,' " he said.

Takeaway: Investors, be they public or private sector, are understanding that wildfires are here to stay in a more extreme climate future. So they are opening their wallets to solutions that might at least help control the blazes and protect public health — including their own — in the process.

Follow-up Friday 

Cargo ship at sea

To Asia — by sail

  • The startup EcoClipper is seeking to revive sailing-ship cargo trade across the Pacific, according to Hellenic Shipping News.
  • We reported on Tuesday about the idea of "carbon-neutral" methanol-powered sailing ships. But EcoClipper is an example of how wind-powered shipping could "become an economically viable niche player in global supply chains and passenger travels of tomorrow," Sven de Wachter, founder of EcoClipper's new Asia partner, Wachter Oriental, told HSN 
  • "After one-and-a-half centuries, EcoClipper will bring back clipper ships to the Asia-Europe trade," de Wachter said.

US to ask China to stop funding international coal

Watering plants with wastewater in California’s wine country

  • As a World Water Week full of drought coverage draws to a close, Sonoma County residents have gotten creative amid California’s drought emergency, The New York Times reported. 
  • In order to cut overall water usage by 40 percent, the town of Healdsburg needed to cap household water consumption and banned yard irrigation, according to the Times. 
  • But the town was determined to save its plants. So Healdsburg began delivering treated wastewater to residents, as long as they had a place to store it, the Times reported. The city is spending about $150,000 so that the deliveries stay free for residents.

Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Monday.