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The Northwest’s blistering heatwave underscores the fragility of our grids

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The Northwest’s blistering heatwave underscores the fragility of our grids


The record-breaking heatwave baking the Northwest US offers the latest example of how ill-prepared we are to deal with the deadly challenges of climate change.

The triple-digit temperatures in many areas have created soaring energy demands and strains on the grid, as residents crank up fans and air conditioners—in many cases newly acquired units in places that have rarely required them in the past. At least thousands of homes lost power around Portland, Seattle and elsewhere in the last few days, creating potentially dangerous situations amid temperatures that can easily trigger heat stroke or worse.

Observers are worried there could be more widespread outages as temperatures climb higher this week and the heatwave reaches other regions.

Climate change is driving increasingly frequent, extreme, and extended heatwaves around the globe, climate scientists consistently find. In this case, a high-pressure ridge parked along the Canadian border created what’s known as a heat dome, trapping hot air over an area stretching down to Northern California and as far east as Idaho.

California grid operators announced they’d likely call for voluntary reductions in electricity use on Monday, amid projected shortfalls in supply as temperatures threaten to reach the mid-100s in the inland part of the state.

While the main concern is the surge in demand that occurs as residents dial up air conditioning, heat itself can undermine the grid in other ways as well, says Arne Olson, senior partner at consulting firm Energy and Environmental Economics Inc. Among other problems, it can reduce the efficiency of power plants, overheat transformers and cause power lines to sag, which can brush against trees and cause outages.

California faces the additional challenge of having less hydroelectric power available than normal, amid extreme drought conditions. In addition, the operators of the west’s interconnected grids may not be able to count on much excess supply from other areas because the heatwave is affecting such a large swath of the country, Olson adds.

In many ways, what we’re witnessing is an electricity system largely built for the climate of the past increasingly struggle with the climate of the present, says Jane Long, a former associate director at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Bolstering our electricity systems for increasingly frequent or severe forms of extreme weather—whether this summer’s heatwaves or last winter’s storms—will necessitate major upgrades of US grids, including: moving to modern transmission and distribution systems; “weatherizing” generation sources like wind turbines or natural-gas plants; and adding far more energy storage.

It will also require developing a diverse array of power plants that can provide a steady supply in any weather scenario or time of day, Long says. That will become tricker as regions come to rely on ever larger shares of wind and solar power, which continually fluctuate. Studies by Long and others have found states will need to incorporate additional carbon-free sources that can provide on-demand output, such as geothermal, nuclear, hydrogen or natural gas plants with systems that can capture climate emissions.

We’ll also need increasingly efficient and climate-friendly forms of air conditioning systems.

Soaring temperatures and severe drought conditions also increase fire risks, which call for additional electricity system changes and considerations, including: burying lines, installing modern ones that shut off when a break is detected, and building distributed electricity generation and storage systems.

Power outages aren’t merely an inconvenience during heatwaves, they can quickly become deadly, as heat exhaustion turns into heat stroke, says Stacey Champion, a community advocate who has tracked indoor heat deaths in Arizona and pushed the local utility to suspend power shutoffs during high temperature periods. “It’s known as the silent killer,” Champion says.

Indeed, heatwaves kill more Americans than hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes combined. Children, the elderly, and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable.

Studies find that the deaths and illnesses from soaring temperatures will only rise as climate change accelerates.



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The Download: a long covid app, and California’s wind plans

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The Download: a long covid app, and California’s wind plans


1 The Twitter Files weren’t the bombshell Elon Musk billed them as 
His carelessness triggered the harassment of some of Twitter’s content moderators, too. (WP $)
+ The files didn’t violate the First Amendment, either. (The Atlantic $)
+ Hate speech has exploded on the platform since he took over. (NYT $)
+ Journalists are staying on Twitter—for now. (Vox)
+ The company’s advertising revenue isn’t looking very healthy. (NYT $)

2 Russia is trying to freeze Ukrainians by destroying their electricity 
It’s the country’s vulnerable who will suffer the most. (Economist $)
+ How Ukraine could keep the lights on. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Crypto is at a crossroads
Investors, executives, and advocates are unsure what’s next. (NYT $)
+ FTX and the Alameda Research trading firm were way too close. (FT $)
+ It’s okay to opt out of the crypto revolution. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Taylor Swift fans are suing Ticketmaster
They’re furious they weren’t able to buy tickets in the botched sale last month. (The Verge)

5 The internet is having a midlife crisis
What is it for? And more importantly, who is it for? (Slate $)
+ Tim Berners-Lee wanted the internet to have an ‘oh, yeah?’ button. (Slate $)

6 We need a global deal to safeguard the natural world
COP15, held this week in Montreal, is our best bet to thrash one out. (Vox)
+ Off-grid living is more viable these days than you may think. (The Verge)

7 What ultra-dim galaxies can teach us about dark matter  
We’re going to need new telescopes to seek more of them out. (Wired $)
+ Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has some big plans for space. (Reuters)
+ A super-bright satellite could hamper our understanding of the cosmos. (Motherboard)
+ Here’s how to watch Mars disappear behind the moon. (New Scientist $)

8 An elite media newsletter wants to cover “power, money, and ego.”
It promises unparalleled access to prolific writers—and their audiences. (New Yorker $)
+ How to sign off an email sensibly. (Economist $) 

9 The metaverse has a passion for fashion 👗
Here’s what its best-dressed residents are wearing. (WSJ $)

10 We’ve been sending text messages for 30 years 💬
Yet we’re still misunderstanding each other. (The Guardian)

Quote of the day

“There is certainly a rising sense of fear, justifiable fear. And I would say almost horror.”

—Pamela Nadell, director of American University’s Jewish Studies program, tells the Washington Post she fears that antisemitism has become normalized in the US, in the light of Kanye West’s recent comments praising Hitler.

The big story

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California’s coming offshore wind boom faces big engineering hurdles

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California’s coming offshore wind boom faces big engineering hurdles


Research groups estimate that the costs could fall from around $200 per megawatt-hour to between $58 and $120 by 2030. That would leave floating offshore wind more expensive than solar and onshore wind, but it could still serve an important role in an overall energy portfolio. 

The technology is improving as well. Turbines themselves continue to get taller, generating more electricity and revenue from any given site. Some research groups and companies are also developing new types of floating platforms and delivery mechanisms that could make it easier to work within the constraints of ports and bridges. 

The Denmark-based company Stiesdal has developed a modular, floating platform with a keel that doesn’t drop into place until it’s in the deep ocean, enabling it to be towed out from relatively shallow ports. 

Meanwhile, San Francisco startup Aikido Technologies is developing a way of shipping turbines horizontally and then upending them in the deep ocean, enabling the structures to duck under bridges en route. The company believes its designs provide enough clearance for developers to access any US port. Some 80% of these ports have height limits owing to bridges or airport restrictions.

A number of federal, state, and local organizations are conducting evaluations of California and other US ports, assessing which ones might be best positioned to serve floating wind projects and what upgrades could be required to make it possible.

Government policies in the US, the European Union, China, and elsewhere are also providing incentives to develop offshore wind turbines, domestic manufacturing, and supporting infrastructure. That includes the Inflation Reduction Act that Biden signed into law this summer.

Finally, as for California’s permitting challenges, Hochschild notes that the same 2021 law requiring the state’s energy commision to set offshore wind goals also requires it to undertake the long-term planning necessary to meet them. That includes mapping out a strategy for streamlining the approval process.

For all the promise of floating wind, there’s little question that ensuring it’s cost-competitive and achieving the targets envisioned will require making massive investments in infrastructure, manufacturing, and more, and building big projects at a pace that the state hasn’t shown itself capable of in the recent past.

If it can pull it off, however, California could become a leading player in a critical new clean energy sector, harnessing its vast coastal resources to meet its ambitious climate goals.

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How Twitter’s “Teacher Li” became the central hub of China protest information

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How Twitter’s “Teacher Li” became the central hub of China protest information


It’s hard to describe the feeling that came after. It’s like everyone is coming to you and all kinds of information from all over the world is converging toward you and [people are] telling you: Hey, what’s happening here; hey, what’s happening there; do you know, this is what’s happening in Guangzhou; I’m in Wuhan, Wuhan is doing this; I’m in Beijing, and I’m following the big group and walking together. Suddenly all the real-time information is being submitted to me, and I don’t know how to describe that feeling. But there was also no time to think about it. 

My heart was beating very fast, and my hands and my brain were constantly switching between several software programs—because you know, you can’t save a video with Twitter’s web version. So I was constantly switching software, editing the video, exporting it, and then posting it on Twitter. [Editor’s note: Li adds subtitles, blocks out account information, and compiles shorter videos into one.] By the end, there was no time to edit the videos anymore. If someone shot and sent over a 12-second WeChat video, I would just use it as is. That’s it. 

I got the largest amount of [private messages] around 6:00 p.m. on Sunday night. At that time, there were many people on the street in five major cities in China: Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Wuhan, and Guangzhou. So I basically was receiving a dozen private messages every second. In the end, I couldn’t even screen the information anymore. I saw it, I clicked on it, and if it was worth posting, I posted it.

People all over the country are telling me about their real-time situations. In order for more people not to be in danger, they went to the [protest] sites themselves and sent me what was going on there. Like, some followers were riding bikes near the presidential palace in Nanjing, taking pictures, and telling me about the situation in the city. And then they asked me to inform everyone to be cautious. I think that’s a really moving thing.

It’s like I have gradually become an anchor sitting in a TV studio, getting endless information from reporters on the scene all over the country. For example, on Monday in Hangzhou, there were five or six people updating me on the latest news simultaneously. But there was a break because all of them were fleeing when the police cleared the venue. 

On the importance of staying objective 

There are a lot of tweets that embellish the truth. From their point of view, they think it’s the right thing to do. They think you have to maximize the outrage so that there can be a revolt. But for me, I think we need reliable information. We need to know what’s really going on, and that’s the most important thing. If we were doing it for the emotion, then in the end I really would have been part of the “foreign influence,” right? 

But if there is a news account outside China that can record what’s happening objectively, in real time, and accurately, then people inside the Great Firewall won’t have doubts anymore. At this moment, in this quite extreme situation of a continuous news blackout, to be able to have an account that can keep posting news from all over the country at a speed of almost one tweet every few seconds is actually a morale boost for everyone. 

Chinese people grow up with patriotism, so they become shy or don’t dare to say something directly or oppose something directly. That’s why the crowd was singing the national anthem and waving the red flag, the national flag [during protests]. You have to understand that the Chinese people are patriotic. Even when they are demanding things [from the government], they do it with that sentiment. 

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