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Climate

AM Briefing: 'Bigger Than the Hoover Dam'

On a major clean energy infrastructure project, mapping ocean activity, and liquid hot magma

AM Briefing: 'Bigger Than the Hoover Dam'
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Current conditions: The western U.S. is in the midst of a severe “snow drought” • The Great Lakes began 2024 with their smallest amount of ice cover in 50 years • Finland’s Enontekiö airport recorded the country’s coldest January temperature since 2006: -44 degrees Fahrenheit.

THE TOP FIVE

1. Offshore wind sees a turbulent start to 2024

“The rollercoaster that is the U.S. offshore wind industry is already racing in 2024,” says Canary Media’s Maria Gallucci. Indeed, after missing an end-of-year deadline to start sending energy to the U.S. grid, the nation’s first large-scale offshore wind farm came online at 11:52 p.m. on Tuesday, delivering five megawatts of power to the New England grid. The Vineyard Wind 1 project, located near Martha’s Vineyard, will eventually consist of 62 turbines capable of powering 400,000 homes in Massachusetts.

“The arrival of Vineyard Wind is a welcome tonic to a nascent offshore wind industry that has struggled in the US in recent months,” writes Oliver Milman at The Guardian. But on Wednesday, BP and Equinor abandoned a contract to sell offshore wind energy to the state of New York, citing the familiar headwinds of rising costs, interest rates, and supply chain problems. Last October the companies tried to negotiate with the state for higher rates for selling renewable energy credits. Their request was turned down, only for the state to open the floor to new project proposals, including from BP and Equinor. “The agreement is the latest evidence of the malaise engulfing the fledgling offshore US wind industry,” writes Myles McCormick at the Financial Times, “but also illustrates the willingness of state authorities to provide flexibility to prevent projects from being abandoned.”

2. Construction goes ahead on SunZia clean energy transmission line

Some important renewable energy news went under the radar this week: Pattern Energy’s SunZia Transmission line secured $11 billion in financing, which means construction can continue on the “largest clean energy infrastructure project in U.S. history.” The 550-mile high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission line will run between central New Mexico and south-central Arizona, delivering power to western states from the SunZia Wind facility being built in New Mexico. “The size and scale of both the SunZia project and this multifaceted financing show that the renewable energy space can secure attractive capital at levels previously only seen in traditional generation,” says Daniel Elkort, executive vice president at Pattern Energy.

Upgrading transmission systems will be key to meeting the Biden administration’s goal of eliminating carbon emissions from the power sector by 2035: By one estimate, transmission systems will need to expand by 60% by 2030. The SunZia Transmission line will be able to move 3,000 megawatts of wind power to 3 million people and has been called “bigger than the Hoover Dam.” But its progress has been rocky: Indigenous groups have expressed concerns about the line’s impact on religious and cultural sites, and environmentalists worried it could harm wildlife habitat.

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  • 3. New maps show hidden extent of industrial activity at sea

    Incredible new maps published in the journal Nature expose the great extent to which human activity has pervaded the world’s oceans. For the project, researchers led by Google-backed nonprofit Global Fishing Watch used artificial intelligence to analyze huge amounts of offshore data from satellite imagery. They found that many industrial vessels aren’t publicly tracked, exposing a potential blindspot for conservation efforts. The data also showed that offshore wind turbines now outnumber oil structures:

    Nature

    Nature

    4. GOP climate advocate John Curtis launches Senate bid

    Utah Rep. John Curtis announced this week he is running for the Senate seat left vacant by retiring Sen. Mitt Romney. The primary field is likely to be crowded, but Curtis’s entry is interesting because he is “one of the GOP’s leading voices on fighting climate change,” says E&E News. He launched and chairs the Conservative Climate Caucus, has supported some of the Biden administration’s policies on solar, and attended COP28 to push for permitting reform. But it will be interesting to see whether climate change features prominently in his campaign: Curtis didn’t mention environmental issues in his first campaign video but pledged to “work to make America not just energy independent, but energy dominant.”

    5. Researchers hope volcanic magma could provide ‘quantum leap’ in geothermal energy

    Researchers in Iceland have plans to drill into a magma chamber beneath a volcano in an attempt to better understand the hot molten rock and eventually even “make a quantum leap in geothermal energy production,” reports New Scientist. The Krafla Magma Testbed (KMT) project will start drilling in 2026, focusing on a volcano called Krafla in north-east Iceland. The researchers hope to develop near-magma geothermal energy technology that would allow wells to trap hot, pressurized water to drive turbines and produce cheap, clean electricity. “There are endless opportunities,” says Hjalti Páll Ingólfsson at the Geothermal Research Cluster (GEORG) in Reykjavík. “The only thing we need to do is to learn how to tame this monster.”

    THE KICKER

    A company called Moolec Science has been inserting pig genes into soy plants to produce beans that are pink and taste meaty.

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    Jessica  Hullinger profile image

    Jessica Hullinger

    Jessica Hullinger is a freelance writer and editor who likes to think deeply about climate science and sustainability. She previously served as Global Deputy Editor for The Week, and her writing has been featured in publications including Fast Company, Popular Science, and Fortune. Jessica is originally from Indiana but lives in London.

    Technology

    AM Briefing: America’s Long Bake

    On Equatic’s big news, heat waves, and the Paris Olympics

    Ocean-Based Carbon Removal Is About to Take a Big Step Forward
    Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

    Current conditions: Tropical storm warnings have been issued for Texas and Mexico • Parts of southwestern France were hit with large hail stones • The temperature trend for June is making climate scientists awfully nervous.

    THE TOP FIVE

    1. Lengthy heat wave threatens nearly 80 million Americans

    About 77 million people are under some kind of heat advisory as a heat wave works its way across the Midwest and Northeast. In most of New England, the heat index is expected to reach or exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. What makes this heat wave especially dangerous is its “striking duration,” Jake Petr, the lead forecaster with National Weather Service Chicago, toldThe New York Times. Temperatures are projected to stay exceptionally high for several days before beginning to taper off only slightly over the weekend. According toThe Washington Post, temperatures could be up to 25 degrees higher than normal for this time of year. And forecasters expect it to be unseasonably hot across the country for at least the next three weeks. Below is a look at the NWS HeatRisk projections today (top) and Thursday (bottom). The darker the color, the warmer the temperature and the higher the health risks.

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    Economy

    Crux Is Getting Some Powerful New Backers

    The New York-based startup aims to create a market for clean energy tax credits.

    Green energy and money details.
    Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

    One of the least-noticed changes in the Inflation Reduction Act may be one of the most important.

    For years, the government has encouraged developers, power utilities, and other companies to build clean energy by offering tax credits. But those tax credits were difficult to transfer to other companies, meaning that complicated financial instruments had to be created to allow them to share in the wealth.

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    Economy

    The Untold Story of America's Most Important Clean Energy Project

    The roughly 550-mile SunZia power line is crucial to America’s climate goals. Here’s how it almost didn’t happen — and how it was saved.

    Arizona, New Mexico, and wind turbines.
    Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, Library of Congress

    Two years ago, John Podesta met with Jennifer Granholm, the U.S. Secretary of Energy. Podesta, a longtime Democratic aide, had just started a new role in the Biden administration, overseeing the Inflation Reduction Act’s implementation, and he was going to meet with Granholm about high-priority clean electricity infrastructure.

    First on the agenda was a list of transmission projects to ferry electricity from wind and solar farms to cities and suburbs where it would actually be used.

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