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The scoop: Tesla is probably the most famous and influential inventor/scientist you never heard of.
A few things Tesla did:
- In 1904, Tesla invented an efficient bladeless turbine.
- Tesla proposed electric power generation through geothermal, solar and wind energy.
- Tesla speculated on the existence of the ionosphere years before we discovered it.
Bottom line: Tesla imagined the world in many ways more like a philosopher than a scientist. But his scientific mind was as infallible as any. One thing is for sure: the modern world would be far behind without Nikola Tesla.
Dig deeper → 5 min.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) rolled out its annual World Energy Outlook report with a bombshell. Solar power is expected to replace coal as the #1 source of energy production by 2025.
The backstory: In the last few years, governments and corporations flooded billions of dollars into the renewable energy space. Wind & solar energy have become cheaper than gas & oil as a result. It is now easier to manufacture and install solar panels than ever before.
By the numbers:
- The IEA thinks 80% of new power generation will come from renewables.
- We need to boost up investment in the energy grid by at least $460 billion in 2030 to hit our goals.
- The global economy will return to pre-covid levels in 2021, but 7% smaller over long term compared to 2019 projections.
Between the lines: China alone will account for 40% of global growth for electricity demand over the next ten years. Southeast Asia and Africa will see major demand increases for energy over the next few decades.
Meanwhile, IEA's report found that global CO2 emissions will not return to 2019 levels until 2027, due to energy mix with renewables and coal's big drop in 2020.
Zoom out: We need a structural transformation of the global energy sector to hit on sdg's (those UN-sanctioned green goals we keep talking about), and that requires a lot of clean capital stock.
The report makes it clear that low growth of emissions ≠ a climate change solution. It's a means to an end.
Bottom line: Solar will replace coal as king sometime this decade.
Dig deeper → <2 min
10 reasons why seaweed farms are both sustainable and practical:
- Seaweed farms require no land.
- Seaweed farms are quite efficient, and can be harvested for commercial use within 90 days.
- Seaweed farms by-pass negative side-effects like deforestation or pesticide-use.
- Seaweed farms work in harmony with surrounding wildlife.
- Seaweed farms don't interfere with boats or ships, and create economic opportunities where none exist.
- Harvesting seaweed requires very little biofuel; it is a scalable process.
- Seaweed has multiple uses: it can produce both food and fuel.
- Seaweed is biodegradable, unlike solar panels and wind turbines that require heavy metals and create waste.
- Seaweed yields 30x more energy per acre than biofuel land crops like soy or corn.
- Only 2% of the fertile ocean is covered by kelp forests, so there is much more room to grow.
Dig deeper → 2 min
Big picture: A 2016 study of over 8,000 threatened or near-threatened species found that over-exploitation and agricultural activity posed a much greater threat to biodiversity than climate change.
Why it matters: Climate change is abstract. It also gets all of the news coverage. In reality, ecological issues like deforestation and hunting play a significant role in the environment. These are tangible issues that we can fix before investing billions into an more abstract threat like climate change. Most of that money pours into clean energy while critical wildlife face extinction from other causes.
Sustainable suggestion: We need to approach the climate conversation in a way that works cooperatively with intersecting threats like wildfire risk mitigation or ecological restoration, not against them.
A forestry organization may want to clean-up deadwood to prevent harsher wildfires, but a conservation group will sue them for cutting down a sacred forest. A conservation group may want to support hunting an invasive species , but an animal rights group will publicly condemn them. Let's stop doing that.
Bottom line: Climate change is important, and intersects with basically every ecological issue. But that behemoth threat will be much easier to manage if we can start knocking off the little guys that we can see, touch and feel. That would call for better farming, less hunting/finishing, more land protection in sensitive areas, and less logging.
Dig deeper → 3 min
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 in this article 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 insects are on the decline. This issue deserves more recognition.
Dig deeper → 4 min
The scoop: There is an understandable skepticism around GMOs due to our bias for natural products. But GMOs have many undeniable social and environmental benefits.
What to know: The science agrees with the use of GMOs – 90% of scientists believe they are safe.
- GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. It is the process of selectively breeding plants with other genes to create desirable characteristics.
- GMO characteristics have the potential to address food security with projects like Golden Rice.
- GMOs can also help reduce food waste and help growers adapt to climate change with drought, heat, or flood tolerant seed varieties.
- While GMOs are often negatively associated with health and sustainability, there is little to no science to support this claim.
- There is overwhelmingly more research that supports GMO's ability to positively influence health and sustainability.
Bottom line: GMOs have become somewhat of a controversy, but the scientific consensus shows they are safe. In the face of a growing population and increased land use, we need a more efficient agriculture industry to be sustainable. GMOs are at the core of a more sustainable future, and more efficient food systems.
Dig deeper → 3 min
Question: How can sustainability succeed without laws protecting animals?
The science is out on animals. Man's outdated perceptions of our underwater and in-the-forest cousins are coming to light as science meets PETA.
Animals are sentient beings. It's not a romance novel, it's the world we live in. Animals experience a wide range of emotions.
The animal manifesto: Every squirrel, every rabbit, every bear, every fish serves a clear, identifiable role in Earth's ecosystem except for two creatures: invasive species like pythons in the Everglades.... and mankind.
Humans as protectors: Man certainly plays a role in this crazy floating ball universe, but we've drifted so far from our hunter-gatherer origins that our ecological purpose is becoming harder and harder to define. As such, it is the moral responsibility of man to act as benevolent stewards for the vulnerable, voiceless animal kingdom.
Animal lives matter: The next sustainability chapter of post-industrial society begins with a recognition of animals as they are, fellow Earthlings deserving of basic rights.
Bottom line Today, most advanced nations do not recognize animals as sentient beings. And we expect sustainable lifestyles to be widely adopted in our homes? You have to learn how to drive a car before lifting up the hood to fix it.
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.
The Sahara Desert can transform Africa into a solar energy superpower. Concentrated solar power (CSP) and photovoltaic power (PV) hold the answers to the energy revolution in the region.
- If all sunlight received by Northern Africa converted into solar energy, it could power all of Europe more than 1000 times over.
- Concentrated solar power (CSP) technology can use lenses and mirrors to store large amounts of solar heat.
- Tunisian transcontinental transmission of photovoltaic power (PV) and CSP prove this concept.
- PV is more reliable for decentralized plants to power rural regions in Africa.
Between the lines
- To better understand how a CSP plant works, check out the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California’s Mojave Desert.
- Desert solar panels can improve climate conditions in the region.
- Compared to sand, panels reflect lower amounts of heat to space.
- The result: surface heating in the desert and cloud formation.
- Changing the desert’s heat budget may increase precipitation levels.
Questions to consider
- What companies would fund the project?
- Who would benefit from affordable solar electricity?
- How can you export energy to nations inside and outside of Africa?
Why it matters
- CSP can release energy overnight, creating a 24-hour source of energy.
- CSP has a high initial set-up cost but has long-term advantages over traditional forms of energy generation such as hydroelectricity.
Bottom line The developing world has a unique opportunity to learn harsh lessons from 20th century economic development principles. Using natural phenomena like the Sahara Desert or the Congo River, Africa can become the solar energy superpower of the future.
What is vertical farming? Indoor agriculture (like greenhouses) using vertical space to optimize crop production in a controlled environment
- Minimized pests and pesticides
- Greater precision and control over water and nutrients, less waste
- More food produced per acre of land, more sustainable for our planet in the long run
- Reduced distribution supply chains delivering fresher produce to customers at greater speed
- Higher costs
- Deep know-how and expertise required
- Limited number of crops can be grown profitably (leafy greens vs. strawberries that require more sunlight and thus more electricity)
Why vertical farming? The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted food supply chains around the world. The shift to remote work increased office space vacancies... creating an opportunity to redesign spaces. Now is a good time to rethink ways to feed a growing population, especially in urban cities. We need to better adapt to supply and demand shocks.
A touch on Big Tech Algorithmic or machine-learning solutions are applied to the biggest challenge in agriculture: optimization. Artificial intelligence (AI) helps minimize food waste by figuring out the right amount of energy, water, and nutrients required to produce food.
Bottom line With increased pressure on supply chains around the globe, rethinking traditional farming and redirecting efforts toward vertical farming (and AI) will address food security challenges and reduce waste in the future.
Dig deeper → 4 min