The scoop: Below-freezing temperatures blasted the southern US this week, prompting rolling blackouts over the past few days.
- Texas was not prepared to deal with the energy demand spikes.
- Natural gas & coal were not sufficient, renewables failed in freezing temperatures.
- America still needs a cocktail of energy supply to meet increasing consumer demand.
Zoom out: The Texas energy security issue is something every American should pay attention to. How can we carefully adopt a renewable-first economy without compromising reliability?
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
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
The scoop Pesticides promote large-scale agriculture, yet damage environmental and human health…
Risks for humans
- At least 200,000 deaths each year.
- Cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s diseases
- Hormone disruption, developmental disorders, sterility
- Loss of: memory, motor skills, vision and coordination
- Asthma, allergies, hypersensitivity
Environmental risks Traces of pesticides are found in the air, soil, and water (thus spreading far and harming wildlife including: pollinators, amphibians, birds, fish, and invertebrates). Bee colony collapse and reproductive issues are highly concerning.
What can be done? A “systemic denial fueled by the pesticide and agroindustry” keep pesticides on the market. Luckily, the UN proposes international guidelines on regulating pesticides, while promoting agroecology: a practice which combines science and local knowledge to create community-based, agricultural systems.
The UN finds that Agroecology can “feed the entire world population and ensure that they are adequately nourished.” Using agroecology, the world could be fed, and we could drop the risks that pesticides inflict!
What can I do?
- Research your local Congressman’s stance on Pesticide Bans. Vote!
- Grow a garden. You’ll help pollinators and enjoy pesticide-free produce.
- Helpful resources…
- Watch Neonicotinoids: The New DDT? free
- Watch: Circle of Poison
- Read Silent Spring
Dig deeper → 3 min
What to know
- Over 332 active fires are burning over 1.6 million hectares of land in Siberia
- Parts of the Arctic Circle have been burning since July 2019
- These wildfires originated from a combination of natural causes including temperatures reaching 30 ℃, wind, and dry thunderstorms
- The cost-benefit ratio of saving these ecosystems indicates that Siberia should let the wildfires burn until rain comes because most of them are not directly endangering civilization
- These fires are so humongous their smoke blew across the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea to reach Oregon, Alaska, and Canada
- Wildfires are destroying valuable ecosystems in the Arctic Circle
- High temperatures melted the permafrost early, releasing the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases trapped underneath and contributing to climate change
- Temperatures in the Arctic Circle reached record highs within the past six months, only exacerbating the fires
- Human-caused climate change intensified these fires in a variety of ways
- We must act on climate change before other extreme weather events begin to seriously affect a greater number of humans
Dig deeper → 2 min