Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — Tracking the Earth's 'ultimate record of change'

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — Tracking the Earth's 'ultimate record of change'
© USGS

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

A satellite capable of cataloguing the growth of megacities, the trajectory of wildfires and the behaviors of wildlife launched into orbit on Monday morning, giving humankind what the BBC described as “the ultimate record of change.” 

The satellite mission, called Landsat-9, “is especially useful for teasing out land changes that could contribute to climate change, like deforestation, and that are caused by climate change, like intense wildfire burn scars,” the United States Geological Survey (USGS) tweeted ahead of the launch — a joint operation between the USGS and NASA.

Landsat-9 is the latest in an Earth observation program that stretches back almost 50 years — and which has given us an unparalleled record about the changing state of the planet, the BBC reported. The program has been used to track the evolving outlines of coasts, glaciers, forests and deserts, while enabling scientists to track real-time trends by providing free and open-access data.

"We've assembled an amazing history of how the planet has changed over the last half century," Dr. Jeff Masek, NASA’s Landsat-9 project scientist, told the BBC. 

Today we’ll take a look at the efforts a Brooklyn-based startup is making to change how under-served communities can access clean energy technologies and low-cost WiFi. Then we’ll look at another intersection between energy and technology, as we consider whether bitcoin mining can help save America’s struggling (and low-carbon) nuclear industry.

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.

 

Cleantech startup bringing rooftop Wi-Fi to 100k Bronx residents 

A Brooklyn-based energy startup known for “turning buildings into Teslas” is about to roll out free and low-cost WiFi to about 100,000 new users in the Bronx — in a system administered by the very people it serves.

“Once we saw folks, and really children, struggling with the digital divide during the pandemic, we knew that we could…provide a data signal at low cost across certain communities,” Donnel Baird, founder of BlocPower, told Equilibrium.

What makes this internet special? BlocPower is installing “mesh networking antennae” on rooftops throughout the South Bronx, Baird explained. Unlike traditional Wi-Fi networks, which use one router and provide limited service, mesh networks have “nodes” that communicate with each other — in this case, via rooftops — to enhance coverage. That helps provide residents with the digital resources necessary to achieve economic sustainability — not to mention equity.

The network, which includes 50 public housing buildings, as well as churches and schools, should be online in a couple weeks, Baird said.   

A platter of sustainability solutions: BlocPower’s principal focus since its 2014 launch has been on retrofitting more than 1,100 buildings in under-served New York communities with smart, all-electric heating and cooling systems. 

The company now has similar projects underway in 26 U.S. cities, and recently raised $63 million in debt and equity — one of the biggest early-stage funding rounds by a Black entrepreneur, according to Reuters. 

The company deployed a Wi-Fi network to help support its clean energy assets in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in 2017, according to Baird. So when Bronx churches and schools approached him during the height of the pandemic to build a similar network for them, he jumped at the opportunity.

Just the beginning: The company plans to expand the Bronx initiative down into Harlem and Manhattan’s East Side, to Downtown Brooklyn and out to the 2017 system in East Brooklyn. 

“We're going to try to cover, three, maybe four, boroughs, with the system before the end of the year,” Baird said.

The Bronx network, financed by local philanthropic foundations, will be owned and controlled by the residents and provide free WiFi, according to Baird.

A MESSAGE FROM API

 

The Environmental Partnership recently released its annual report highlighting its new flare management program that reported a 50 percent reduction in flare volumes from 2019 to 2020. Read more.

'THE BEST THAT MODERN TECHNOLOGY HAS TO OFFER'

Keeping Wi-Fi low cost: BlocPower is already in talks about deploying such systems in other cities. While these may not always be able to run on philanthropy, he said he hopes to keep Wi-Fi costs low.

“We didn't realize that the digital divide was as large as it is,” Baird said. “I was a little taken aback, even as a former community organizer and low-income person myself.”

Community bonds: Key to BlocPower’s expansion has been its connection with community and religious leaders. Not only do residents trust religious institutions, Baird added, but the structures that house these institutions also “burn a ton of fossil fuels” — making them “great candidates” for a retrofit.. 

BlocPower is also expanding in its home-base of New York, where Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioNYPD union sues city over vaccine mandate The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Biden makes his pitch as tax questions mount Hochul gets early boost as NY gubernatorial race takes shape MORE recently announced that the company would receive $37 million, to create 1,500 jobs for individuals at risk of gun violence, a press release from his office said.  

Some of these new hires are already constructing the Bronx Wi-Fi network, Baird said.

“Achievable, actionable”: Looking at broader U.S. infrastructure overhaul efforts, Baird stressed that as Congress considers the proposed $3.5 trillion spending bill, officials must adopt “achievable, actionable” goals like bridging the digital divide and retrofitting buildings. 

Policymakers, he said, must ensure that “low-income communities are getting the best that modern technology has to offer.”  

Freeing cities from fossil fuels: Baird also told Equilibrium that BlocPower is about to sign an agreement “to take a whole city off of fossil fuels.” While he could not yet reveal the precise location, he said that it’s going to “be in the Empire State” and it would be fossil fuel free by 2025-2026.

“It’ll be the first American city to go off fossil fuels entirely,” he said. 

To read the full story, please click here.

 

Nuclear power weds crypto-mining in marriage of convenience 

Cryptocurrency miners in search of low-carbon energy are teaming up with nuclear plants in need of customers, in a move that could help each industry cover the other’s weaknesses.

These new plans highlight the importance of clean energy to the long-term future of cryptocurrency — and the uncertain specter of regulation that is hampering its growth.

Remind me: what’s cryptocurrency? Digital currencies or bitcoins — including Bitcoin and Ethereum as well as hundreds of others — that are traded without the aid of, or controlled by, a bank or central government. 

These have drawn criticism on environmental grounds, most famously from Tesla CEO Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskThe case for a billionaires income tax PayPal says it's not pursuing Pinterest acquisition Prince William urges focus on saving planet instead of space travel MORE, who announced in May that his company would no longer accept the currencies as payment, due to concerns over the ever-increasing power required to “mine” them.

Breaking down the power problem: Bitcoin mining accounts for about 98 terawatt hours in power consumption, according to the Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index — about energy that is required to power the state of Alabama. Much of that energy comes from coal — particularly before the crypto mining industry was kicked out of China, as we reported in August, but also in the U.S., as The Wall Street Journal reported in May.

Bitcoin’s urgent need to develop cheap low-carbon power — and the scramble to fill demand opened up by China’s August eviction of bitcoin mining companies — has combined to make the industry an attractive opportunity for struggling U.S. nuclear plants, according to the Journal.

Why does the nuclear industry need bitcoin mining? Despite being an extremely low-carbon form of energy, the nuclear industry can’t easily compete against cheaper forms of energy, whether low-carbon like wind and solar, or high-carbon ones like natural gas, according to the Chicago Tribune. A record number of other nuclear plants are set to close this year, the Houston Chronicle reported.

That could be a problem: Without a U.S. price on carbon to even the playing field with oil and gas, the U.S. risks losing a lot of low-carbon nuclear power that will be very expensive to replace, the CEO of Exelon, country’s largest nuclear company, argued in 2018, as reported by  UtilityDive.

The company made similar arguments to the Illinois state legislature this September, which ultimately spent $700 million to keep three Exelon nuclear plants from going offline.

 

AN ALLIANCE FOR TWO EMBATTLED INDUSTRIES

A nuclear stopgap: Bitcoin mining isn’t a salvation for nuclear — but it could be a stopgap, particularly in the form of “a lot of them aggregated together,” Benergy consultant Bill Dugan told the Journal.

In the Ohio Valley, a few such projects are coming online. Nuclear company Talen Energy Corp is partnering with TeraWulf Inc., which bills itself as a zero-carbon bitcoin mining firm, to build out a much larger data and cryptocurrency mining center, according to trade journal DataCenter Dynamics, which also highlighted a similar partnership at a converted paper mill in Ohio.

But a big unknown hangs over the industry: regulation. Last week, China made it illegal for bitcoin exchanges to provide services to Chinese nationals, sending shockwaves through online exchanges as they scrambled to purge Chinese users, another Journal story reported.

That crackdown is unlikely to seriously impact the U.S. crypto-mining industry — unless federal regulators here take a similarly stringent approach, according to a CNBC analysis. 

Gary GenslerGary GenslerRegulators must act to protect financial system from climate risk: report SEC probing Wall Street banks' documentation of digital employee communication: report Protecting consumers requires protecting and incentivizing whistleblowers, too MORE, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, has been vocal about the need for regulating the currencies, whose rapid gains have attracted speculators, and has promised that rules are underway, another CNBC piece said. 

Takeaway: Though a U.S. ban seems unlikely, any serious scaling-up of the emerging crypto-mining and nuclear power complexes will likely be constrained until U.S. states and businesses have a better idea of what the SEC is going to do.

A MESSAGE FROM API 

The Environmental Partnership recently released its annual report highlighting its new flare management program that reported a 50 percent reduction in flare volumes from 2019 to 2020. Read more.

Motor Monday 

Michigan building America’s first public road for wireless EV charging

“Supercar” makers in a dead sprint toward high-power electric motors

  • The makers of supercars — high-performance, highly-expensive luxury sports cars — are in a race for their lives as they anticipate coming restrictions on their carbon-guzzling engines, according to Reuters.
  • In trying to create electric models of cars like the SLS AMG, carmakers are stuck in a three-way conundrum: they have to cut weight from and increase power to their batteries — all while dealing with their electric motors’ greater tendency to overheat, Reuters reported.
  • Daimler has purchased startup YASA, which has developed an “axial flux” motor that weighs less than 10 percent than that of a Ferrari’s gas-powered V12.
  • This technology could push the boundaries of what’s possible in more conventional cars. "Automotive technology doesn't scale to volume overnight, you tend to start with the premium niche sectors," YASA founder Tim Woolmer told Reuters.

 

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

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