March 29, 2022
Photo: Kwon Junho/Unsplash
Hello, fellow climate nerds. (We mean it in the nicest way.) It’s your trusty Protocol Climate team here to regale with you tales from the periodic table. Today’s newsletter is all about hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, and the minerals we need to clean up everything. You might say this newsletter is … elemental. (“Sorry. I'm sorry. I'm trying to remove it.”) Please forgive us and read on.
The smallest molecule in the universe has displaced snakes as my top phobia. A new report from Energy Innovation, an energy and environmental policy research firm, goes deep on hydrogen and its use in cleaning up utilities. The reason the analysis struck fear into my heart? It shows that hydrogen is unlikely to help decarbonize buildings at any meaningful scale — but it could make our homes and infrastructure less safe.
Hydrogen is having a moment. Utilities and startups alike are racing to bring the molecule mainstream. It admittedly has its appeal.
But the hydrogen dream may be a nightmare. At least as it pertains to decarbonizing buildings. (There are industrial uses where it would be very handy!) The Energy Innovation report shows that there are a series of concerns about the element that make its moment rather less … momentous.
Perhaps the scariest concern? Safety. The report explains that most pipelines are not equipped to handle tiny-ass little hydrogen molecules, leading to leaks that could prove problematic from a *checks notes* catching on fire and exploding standpoint.
Then there’s cost and scale. The report notes that regulators should “exercise skepticism” of any utility proposals that foist the cost of blending hydrogen with methane gas onto ratepayers.
So what’s the alternative? Surprise! It’s a lot cheaper to electrify homes, and doing so would help strengthen the grid.
So you want an all-renewable future? Then you’re going to need a lot of batteries, and the minerals and metals that make them work. If you’re anything like me, you may not have thought much about them since fifth grade’s lesson on the periodic table. While there is a wide swath of elements that will play a role in the renewables transition, we’re going to zero in on three crucial to making batteries work, all of which will see demand skyrocket in the coming decades.
Lithium is the word on everyone’s lips. According to a 2021 report from the International Energy Agency, demand for lithium is projected to grow up to 51 times in the coming decades.
Cobalt and lithium go hand in hand. The expensive metal boosts batteries’ energy density even further, and increases their stability and lifespan, handy things if you want to keep energy storage capacity on the up and up.
Manganese could help ease the cobalt crunch. While its demand is expected to grow alongside the rest, manganese already has a robust supply chain thanks to being a key ingredient in steel.
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Climate change is done playing. Temperatures in Antarctica spiked nearly 70 degrees Fahrenheit above normal last week. Among other things, the relative heat wave likely contributed to the collapse of an ice shelf the size of Los Angeles. But the spike may well be the biggest temperature departure from normal ever recorded.
You may be saying, “Brian, this isn’t a climate tech story.” To which I would say, “I run this newsletter, but also it is a climate tech story.” The bizarro heat was recorded thanks to a permanent research station at Dome C, which sits on top of the Antarctic ice sheet and is basically the most remote inhabited observation station on the planet. Or off it, even. “The nearest human beings are stationed some 600 km away at the Russian Vostok base, making Concordia more remote than the International Space Station,” the European Space Agency helpfully noted in a 2013 piece on the base.
This tweet certainly got me thinking about how you measure temperature continuously in that type of environment. The answer is a weather station at the end of the world and a satellite hookup to beam back data in real time. It’s actually incredible that we have access to data from one of the most inhospitable places on the planet in real time, and it serves a really important purpose, along with weather stations and satellites taking the temperature remotely in Antarctica, to keep tabs on the continent farthest from us but most important to the shape of the world. Antarctica’s ice is majorly imperiled. If the glaciers on the edge of the ice sheet there melt, more land ice will plunge into the sea and push the oceans inland.
The weather observations at Concordia and elsewhere are what give scientists the data they need to refine their climate models. The more data they have, the better the projections for the future get. The weather station at the end of the world may be a pretty basic piece of technology, but it’s one that will literally help us see the future more clearly.
— Brian Kahn
Wishing you could monitor the movements of Russian oil tankers in real time? Now’s your chance.
The Biden administration is going to get to the bottom of whether crypto is good or bad for the climate. Finally.
The Postal Service continues to be a hot mess when it comes to its next-generation delivery vehicles. The agency is doubling its order of electric vehiclesto more than 10,000 (good), but most of its new fleet will still be gas-powered (bad).
The Commerce Department is investigating if Asian solar manufacturers are evading tariffs. It could take the agency a year to get to the bottom of things, though, so don’t hold your breath.
The Great Barrier Reef is experiencing mass bleaching. Again. Is it time to more seriously consider extreme tech solutions to save it?
— Brian Kahn
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