Big picture Solar PV and onshore wind (for new-build generation) is now cheaper for 2/3 of the global population, including the US and China.
Downsides of solar-wind Critics of widespread wind & solar point to its over-hyped environmental prowess and inefficiency.
- Capacity factors and values: The sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow.
- The capacity factor of renewables are lower than that of coal, gas and nuclear, who have a capacity factor of 85-90 percent. Onshore wind units place 40 percent capacity, whereas solar facilities use 30 percent or less.
- Capacity values are “the ability to reliably meet demand.” Using capacity values as a metric, the price of wind & solar spikes due to the unreliability during peak demand and necessary back-ups on stand-by to ensure contingent power. As reliability and capacity values go ↑, the price of renewables will go ↓
- If widely adopted, renewables would cost higher on average. Less efficient geographic regions need to build solar and wind infrastructure, reducing economies of scale.
- The Institute for Energy Research estimates that wind power is about twice as expensive as conventional gas-fired power, and that solar power is almost three times as expensive (relative to its capacity value).
- Capacity factors/values summarized: wind & solar is cheaper in 2/3 of the world, but when you factor in reliability and contingency, it is still more costly.
- Environmental cost: It's better than oil, it's serious. Let's talk about it.
- Heavy land use: The Green New Deal would require over 100 million acres to power America at the same capacity as oil & gas. That’s larger than the state of California. With all that space needed, it would inevitably spill into ecologically sensitive areas.
- Production and disposal: We would probably import metals for the wind turbines and solar panels from China. Even with tariffs, it makes more economic sense. As much as 78 million metric tons worldwide by 2050 will come from solar panel waste.
- Impact on wildlife: hundreds of thousands of birds die every year at the hands of wind turbines.
- Weak regulation: Wind energy development, for example, has voluntary, non-mandatory federal guidelines (even during the Obama years). Assuming that wind energy companies would behave better than their fossil fuel predecessors and willingly regulate themselves is a mistake.
- Reliability: Frequent backups still use fossil fuels.
- When wind and solar can't produce enough electricity, fossil fuels are used as backups.
- The problem? Based on today's reliability of renewables, the climate impact of a GND-sized solar-wind market would be near net-zero.
Bottom line We can now say wind & solar are cheaper (at face value) than oil & gas (in most of the world). But that's just the first step. If we want to continue the shift away from fossil fuels, we still need better solutions.
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The scoop: 40% of insect species are at risk of extinction.
Why it matters: We need bugs to survive and thrive.
- Pollination: Pollinators pollinate plants; we need them to keep doing that.
- Pest control: Paradoxically, predatory and parasitic insects kill pests.
- Decomposition: Some insects are primary or secondary decomposers. They serve an important function to clean-up animal waste.
- Food security: Many mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians depend on bugs for food. They are a quick and easy resource for a nutritious meal.
- Research and innovation: Technology mimics nature (think birds and planes). Researchers can observe the ethology of insects and learn new ways to innovate. An example? Ant colony optimization in computer science.
What's causing the insect decline: Habitat loss from agriculture and urbanization is the #1 driver. Agro-chemical pollutants (think pesticides), invasive species and climate change also play a role. You can check out some cool charts and figures below to learn more.
How to help: Contribute to the fight against pesticides, support or start a small farm, and educate others about the importance of insects. A more positive perception of 'bug people' can also lead to change.
Bottom line: We need bugs to survive, yet insect populations are on the decline. This issue deserves more recognition.
Dig deeper → 4 min
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The scoop: Overpopulation is a myth... because Jack Ma and Elon Musk said so. On a more serious note, a population collapse is more likely than an overpopulated planet.
Some talking points for the dinner table:
- Overcrowded cities ≠ overcrowded planet. The entire world population can fit in the state of Texas with the same population density as Manhattan.
- Lopsided populations will inevitably occur in modern advanced nations. That means young workers will be unable to support aging populations, causing natural population declines.
- 'Malthusian traps' refer to inevitable food shortages as populations grow. Either Malthus was right and some of us go hungry (as in we don't need to artificially halt population growth), or he's wrong and the population keeps growing sustainably through innovation.
Bottom line: The Earth has plenty to offer for 9 billion mouths. And a sustained population decline due to lower fertility rates is already becoming a realistic outcome. We just need to spread out more.
Dig deeper → 2 min
If you want to decarbonize the economy, carbon offsets don't work. Here's why.
Despite doubling in price the last 18 months, carbon offset prices are cheap (relative to the cost of reducing emissions). Carbon offsets should and will be much more expensive. For now, because they're so cheap, carbon credits act more like a marketing tool than a social good.
The little secret?
Dig deeper → 3 min