A View from Richard Martin
Recommended Energy Reads This Week
A weekly roundup of the best and most important energy reading from around the Web, compiled by MIT Technology Review energy editor Richard Martin.
FAQ: Coal and Energy Poverty
The trade-offs between continued dependence on fossil fuels and bringing reliable electricity to the more than one billion people figure large in international climate negotiations, including the upcoming talks in Paris. Fossil fuel companies have long argued that we have a moral responsibility to bring light and power to the world’s poorest communities—and that means burning coal. That supposed necessity lies at the root of my feature on “India’s Energy Crisis.” This lengthy FAQ from the United Kingdom-based Overseas Development Institute demonstrates that this equation no longer holds: 87 percent of those lacking electricity live in rural areas with poor electricity infrastructure. Extending the electricity grid to these areas is expensive and politically challenging. Distributed, renewable generation sources make more sense economically and socially.
Nuclear Power’s Last Stand in California: Will Diablo Canyon die?
With the closing of the San Onofre power station three years ago, there’s one remaining nuclear plant in California: Diablo Canyon, near San Luis Obispo. And Diablo Canyon’s operating license expires in 2024. That license may be extended, but plant owner Pacific Gas & Electric is “having second thoughts,” according to this thoroughly reported feature by David Baker of the San Francisco Chronicle. In less than 10 years, Diablo Canyon “could close,” writes Baker, “ending nuclear power’s long history in California at the very moment that the state—determined to stop climate change—needs carbon-free electricity more than ever.” The future of nuclear power in this country is being written in places like Diablo Canyon.
An Oil-Soaked Globe as Production Keeps Climbing and Demand Falls
Clifford Krauss’s terrific New York Times feature on the oil glut begins with a great opening: “Such is the state of the oil industry these days that there is sometimes nowhere to put the oil. Off the coast of Texas, a line of roughly 40 tankers has formed, waiting to unload their crude or, in some cases, for a willing buyer to come along.” That single image epitomizes the madness of the current energy system: even as the polar icecaps melt and rising sea levels threaten major cities worldwide, we keep pumping out oil for which there is no apparent market. Energy demand in the developed world has flattened since the financial crisis of 2008-09, and indications are that it will not pick up again anytime soon. Oil prices continue to languish, but production is expanding in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf states, even as the Iran nuclear deal could introduce even more oil to the glutted market. Defying the laws of supply and demand is an oil industry specialty these days. “The market is myopic,” Steven Wood, a managing director at Moody’s Corporate Finance Group, tells Krauss. “There is no spare capacity in the world. The market isn’t pricing in any risk, geopolitical risk, for oil.”
In Coal County, No Cash in Hand for Billions in Cleanup
In my book, Coal Wars, I reported that the coal industry in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming also continues to crank out a fossil fuel for which demand is shrinking. Now Leigh Paterson, a reporter for the excellent site Inside Energy, calculates that “in the top ten U.S. coal producing states, over one million acres of land has been ‘disturbed’ for coal mining operations.” Restoring that land, cleaning up after decades of high-volume production of the world’s dirtiest fuel, is an expensive and messy undertaking. And it’s not clear who’s going to pay for it. “As the industry-wide downturn rapidly advances, coal companies may no longer have the cash on hand to pay for billions of dollars in clean-up costs.” Even in its death throes, the coal industry is likely to stick U.S. taxpayers with unforeseen and unfortunate consequences.
What the Paris Attacks Will Mean for the Upcoming Climate Conference
The New Republic’s Rebecca Leber answers an obvious question in this piece of analysis: how will the climate talks in Paris be affected by the recent terror attacks that killed 129 people? Leber’s answer is, “Not much.” But French officials have vowed to cut down on accompanying demonstrations and public displays, and the attacks “provided a gruesome reminder that there is more than one major challenge facing the world.” Terrorism, the Syrian civil war, economic opportunity in Muslim countries, and climate change are all entangled in a Gordian knot that diplomats in Paris have no chance of unraveling. But the attacks seem to have actually stiffened the backbones of world leaders who voiced their renewed resolve to not only show up in Paris but actually get something done. “Staying the course on the climate talks will also be a show of support for France, the host nation,” writes Leber, “which has led the effort to get the most ambitious agreement possible.”
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September 17-19, 2019
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