Equilibrium & Sustainability

Overnight Equilibrium/Sustainability — Giant magnet could ease path to fusion energy




Today is Thursday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup

Scientists at a major international nuclear fusion research and engineering project in France have received the first component of a 60-foot magnet so strong that its American manufacturer has said it could lift an aircraft carrier, The Associated Press (AP) reported. 

The magnet — which will be 14 feet in diameter once assembled, according to the AP — is critical to the collaborative effort of 35 countries to harness an elusive source of energy that could help combat climate change: nuclear fusion. 

Different from nuclear fission — which splits atoms apart and spews long-lasting radioactive debris — nuclear fusion merges atoms together and could provide a reliable and clean power source for when solar and wind are offline.

Scientists at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor told the AP they are preparing to fire up their experimental reactor, which they said is 75 percent complete, by 2026, but industrial-scale reactors are likely decades away.

Until there’s a cheap and abundant system of zero-carbon energy, though, we’ll have to deal with the complications of our current high-carbon one. Today, we look at two implications of that: How drought is driving up California’s fossil fuel use, and a pilot attempt to start pulling a bit of that carbon out of the atmosphere.

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.

California drought driving up greenhouse emissions: study 

Dry and cracked soil near an irrigation ditch 

Drought in California, coupled with population growth, is accelerating the need for carbon-intensive water projects — driving up greenhouse gas emissions and thwarting the pace of statewide decarbonization efforts, a new study has found.

A failure to make California’s water-related power infrastructure more efficient could lead to a 21-percent hike in electricity usage between 2015 and 2035 — and a 25-percent rise in natural gas consumption, according to the study, published by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute and commissioned by the nonprofit think tank Next 10.

That means without a more integrated vision, California could be stuck in a vicious cycle: Drought leading to more emissions, which could make droughts worse. 

Up against formidable water challenges, urban water planners are integrating new water supply technologies, like desalination and water recycling, the researchers observed. And while these supply choices usually require less energy than transporting water long distances, the authors wrote, they nonetheless expend more energy than pulling water from reservoirs and aquifers.

“If you think about water and energy together, then some of the decisions we make will be different,” Peter Gleick, co-founder and president emeritus of the Pacific Institute, told Equilibrium. “Given the climate crisis, it’s important we make smarter decisions about both water and energy.” 

Why consider water and energy together? Because water and energy are “inextricably linked in California,” according to the authors. For example, the State Water Project — which pumps water from Northern California lengthy distances — is the single largest consumer of electricity in the state. Such interdependencies mean that “as one resource faces constraints or challenges, so does the other,” in a relationship known as the “water-energy nexus.” 

How much energy are we talking? A lot. Water use, collection, treatment and management is linked to about 20 percent of California’s statewide electricity use, one-third of non-power plant natural gas consumption and 88 billion gallons of diesel use, according to the study.

Does agriculture play a role in this nexus? Yes, but not as much as urban water usage. Declining groundwater levels mean it now takes more energy to pump water up to the fields. But it takes twice as much electricity to meet water demands in California’s cities as it does to irrigate its farms, the report found.

That means improved urban water efficiency would have the biggest effect on California’s water-related greenhouse gas emissions, according to the authors. 

A failure to make such upgrades would lead to a 24-percent increase in urban water demand between 2015 and 2035. That would result in a 21-percent increase in annual water-related electricity use — leading to a 25-percent increase in natural gas consumption, the study found.

But it works both ways: New comprehensive water conservation and efficiency strategies could allow a 19-percent reduction in water-related electricity usage between 2015 and 2035 — allowing a 16-percent reduction in natural gas usage and a 41-percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions, according to the authors.



What can be done? “The good news here is [that] the solutions that provide the best climate outcomes are almost always economically and environmentally the best solutions as well,” Gleick told Equilibrium.

Some such solutions that the authors recommended are:

  • Conversion of gas water heaters to electricity
  • Higher efficiency groundwater pumps
  • Financial incentives for less energy-intensive water supply systems
  • Standardized methods and metrics for reporting water data and related energy use
  • Official collaboration among water and energy agencies 
  • Gas capture from waste decomposition at water treatment plants for onsite power

That last idea would be particularly useful, as wastewater treatment accounts for nearly 1 percent of the entire country’s electricity consumption, the authors explained. The East Bay Municipal Utility District’s treatment plant, for example, generates more energy than is needed onsite, and therefore sells the surplus back to the grid.

Takeaway: If energy-intensive technologies are to remain part of a region’s water supply landscape, officials must work on decarbonizing the grid — with the ultimate goal of “changing the energy system itself” alongside strong conservation policies, according to Gleick.  

“Every gallon of hot water you don’t have to use because your washing machine or dishwasher is more efficient is a gallon of water you don’t have to provide and energy you don’t have to provide,” he said.

To read the full article, click here.

Iceland facility starts sucking carbon from atmosphere

The world’s largest facility to recapture emissions directly from the atmosphere — a process called direct air capture — pumped its first load of carbon dioxide beneath the surface of Iceland, where it will gradually turn to stone over the next two years.

The Orca facility both takes a huge step toward the goal of negative emissions — and remains a tiny drop in the bucket of what’s needed.

First steps: The Orca facility is the 16th direct air capture project operated by Climeworks AG, a Swiss startup. While Climeworks’s other plants recycle captured carbon for fuels, fertilizers and carbonated beverages, Orca — Icelandic for energy —  is the first to store it, according to Bloomberg Green.

Storage has been a key piece missing from carbon capture — which major international agencies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and International Energy Agency (IEA) see as a crucial technology to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

It’s a small but lucrative start: While those groups estimate a need for billions of tons of carbon dioxide to be captured per year, Orca captures only 4,000 tons — about as many as 250 U.S. residents and “a long way” from the company’s original goal of 300 million tons by 2025, Bloomberg Green reported.

But even at a sky-high $1,200 per ton of carbon credits, Climeworks has almost sold off all its carbon credits to companies seeking to offset their pollution, the Financial Times reported.  

How does carbon capture work? Powerful fans suck air through shipping-container sized boxes filled with filters that capture the carbon — which is then mixed with boiling water and injected “thousands of feet underground into basalt rock formations,” which it fuses with over a period of years, according to E&E News.

Any downsides? Plenty. 

  • Carbon capture could distract from the urgent need to cut emissions, which is far easier than trying to recapture them from the atmosphere, Bloomberg Green reported. Some even see the idea of carbon capture and storage as a fossil fuel industry delay tactic, as does the author of this CleanTechnica piece.
  • Iceland has the unique properties of both lots of zero-carbon geothermal energy and the right geology to turn carbon dioxide to stone. Without those, direct air capture could release more carbon dioxide than it captures, according to Bloomberg Green.
  • Finally, there is cost: Orca offsets currently sell at 10 to 20 times the current price of carbon on European markets, The Washington Post reported — although this may be less a fault of theirs than a sign that we’re still grievously underpricing carbon. 

A growing market: But Climeworks claims it can get costs below $300 per ton by 2030 — well below the current price $500 per ton California uses when calculating emission savings from electric vehicles, the Post reported.

And the rapid sell-off of its carbon credits has inspired the company to begin designing another facility at an undisclosed location that will be 10 times the size of Orca, the Times reported.

Carbon Engineering Ltd., a Vancouver-based startup, is developing plants in Scotland and Texas’ Permian Basin that it expects will capture about 1 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to E&E — storing the equivalent of 1.2 million acres of forest using 100 acres of industrial land.

Last words: To reach the IPCC and IEA estimates, though, we’ll need to see a massive scale-up. “We need to turn this into a Starbucks, circa 1999, where you see one on every corner,” Peter Psarras, who teaches chemical and biomedical engineering at University of Pennsylvania, told E&E News. “I think this is the future we might see in the next decade.”


Thursday Throwdowns


Settlement regrets, policy disagreements and salty rejoinders.

Highway showdown: Will teenage long-haul truckers solve the supply crunch?

  • Highway safety advocates and trucker trade groups are facing off over a provision in the $1 trillion Senate infrastructure bill that experiments with letting 18- to 20-year-olds drive big-rig trucks, according to The Wall Street Journal.
  • While some fear that younger drivers will lead to more wrecks, the American Trucking Association argues that the bill would broaden the pool of available truckers, helping with labor shortages.
  • But other trucker advocates say that the problem is about turnover, not supply: Trucking is a hard and grinding job, and if conditions don’t get better, the industry will simply “cycle through more workers,” the Post reported.

Wildfire survivors warn new victims: Beware of court settlements

  • As a rush of attorneys are rushing to recruit victims of the ongoing fires sweeping through Northern California, others are warning people to avoid rushing into hiring lawyers and contractors, NPR affiliate KQED reported.
  • The onslaught of litigators arose after PG&E disclosed that its equipment may have sparked two fires this year, with lawyers claiming that they have procured massive settlements in past fires, according to KQED. 
  • However, many of the families that previously settled are warning “buyer beware,” after they failed to receive the compensation they were promised, KQED reported. 
  • “The last thing we want is for people to be revictimized,” attorney David Hollister told KQED. “So take a step back and make a good choice that’s going to protect you going forward.”

Australia won’t quit coal, prime minister says

  • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that his country would keep mining coal “well into the future,” according to Phys.org.
  • Morrison was responding to questions about a recent Nature study that found that 90 percent of coal must stay in the ground for the world to have (even) a 50-percent chance of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
  • Australia’s response to the study underscores how a worldwide goal of cutting carbon conflicts with a global economy that remains built on burning it — making selling carbon a lucrative choice to those countries willing to do it.

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

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