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Richard Martin

A View from Richard Martin

Recommended Reads in Energy This Week

A weekly roundup of the best and most important reads on the Web, compiled by MIT Technology Review energy editor Richard Martin.

  • November 13, 2015

A Rising Tide
Two long features this week looked at cities attempting to adapt to rising sea levels due to climate change. This one, from the New Republic, examines the increasingly urgent quest in Miami to stay afloat—mainly by building higher seawalls and raising streets. None of these solutions look to be capable of withstanding the looming surge, though. In fact, the main theme that emerges from interviews with locals seems to be “Enjoy Miami while you can.”

A Tale of Two Northern European Cities: Meeting the Challenges of Sea Level Rise
The second story focuses on two cities that have been keeping the sea at bay for centuries: Rotterdam and Hamburg. Pioneers in the civil engineering required to protect cities from floods and storm surges, these cities are moving away from brute-force, technological solutions (like the massive Maeslant Barrier that protects Rotterdam) to more adaptive approaches based on “building with nature”: i.e., the use of natural features like earthen dunes, marshes, and natural basins to absorb rising waters. Whether that will be sufficient to protect low-lying cities in the developing world, where governments can’t afford massive public works projects, is another question.

The Dark Lord of Coal Country
The prosecution rested in the trial of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who is charged with conspiracy and lying to investors and regulators after the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 miners. The case had twisted oddly this week when the defense moved to admit into evidence wiretapped recordings of Blankenship’s phone calls, gathered by the FBI as part of the case against him. The prosecution, for unexplained reasons, is attempting to disallow the recordings as evidence. It’s a good time to turn back to Jeff Goodell’s classic 2010 profile of Blankenship, which began with a great takedown: “Unless you live in West Virginia, you’ve probably never heard of Don Blankenship. You might not know that he grew up in the coal fields of West Virginia, received an accounting degree from a local college, and, through a combination of luck, hard work and coldblooded ruthlessness, transformed himself into the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the business and politics of energy in America today — a man who pursues naked self-interest and calls it patriotism, who buys judges like cheap hookers, treats workers like dogs, blasts mountains to get at a few inches of coal and uses his money and influence to ensure that America remains enslaved to the 19th-century idea that burning coal equals progress.”

The Other Liquid Gold
Existing in a state of permanent drought, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long turned to the desalination of seawater to meet its needs. To date, the country has burned a fraction of its huge oil reserves to produce fresh water; as those reserves start to peak, and as the need to eliminate emissions of greenhouse gases grows, it needs a new alternative. And that alternative, according to this article from Foreign Affairs, is nuclear power. Specifically, a new reactor design, called “SMART,” from South Korea, that is relatively untested and that itself uses plenty of water as a coolant. Using nuclear power to desalinate water makes sense, and the Saudi program could be a model for other parched regions running out of fresh water. But by choosing the Korean reactor, argue authors Selim Can Sazak and Lauren R. Sukin, “Riyadh has done a disservice to its stated goal of creating more fresh water for all.”

Tesla Has Discovered New Energy Source: Burning Shareholder Cash
With a share price north of $200, Tesla remains a darling of the stock market—but the company is blowing through investor cash at an alarming rate, points out this analysis from Quartz. The company is also pursuing a novel and risky strategy: building its cars, and the batteries that run them, from the ground up rather than relying on the integrated supply chain that has evolved to support the rest of the global automobile industry. The money quote comes from Barclays auto analyst Brian Johnson: “We believe it cannot be understated how radically retro Tesla is in its approach of vertical integration, an approach which was last embraced by Henry Ford 100 years ago. While Tesla believes vertical integration is a competitive advantage, it is also unquestionably a significant drain of cash. While Tesla is likely to significantly improve its capital efficiency per unit in the coming years, we suspect the market is underappreciating how significant the cash burn will be through the end of the decade, and likely for the next 10 years.” In other words, Tesla investors: fasten your seat belts.

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