7 Reasons to Celebrate 2013's Renewable Energy Achievements
By John Rogers
The last 12 months have brought a lot of change to the world—some good, some less so; some too fast, some too slow. But in the energy space, the essential transition to energy that is cleaner, healthier, lower-cost and more secure is definitely underway in the U.S.
Photo credit: The Pew Charitable Trusts
This year, we saw strong signals that we’re moving in the right direction on energy, with renewables like wind and solar (going up), coal (going down), renewables integration (looking good), and energy storage (on its way). Here’s a look at some of the year’s highlights.
1. Wind is getting cheaper all the time.
Utilities keep finding wind energy at Black Friday-worthy prices, as my colleagues have noted (here and here, for example). Long-term wind contracts are now more than 40 percent cheaper than they were just three years ago.
The uncertainty around extension of the Production Tax Credit—which finally came only after the New Year’s champagne was gone—made for a slow start to 2013 overall. But things have picked up, with 7,500 megawatts of wind under development by the third quarter. Now we just need another PTC extension to keep the party going.
2. Solar’s looking better all the time.
Third-quarter figures released last week show that solar continues to thrive, with costs continuing to drop and Q3 being the second-best quarter ever. The U.S. is even on track to potentially install more solar than the world leader, Germany, for the first time in 15 years.
While photovoltaic (PV) tends to attract most of the attention, 2013 has been an important year for progress on concentrating solar power (CSP), too. In October, the first U.S. solar plant with thermal energy storage, Solana, started churning out the kilowatt-hours. And the world’s largest CSP facility, Ivanpah, was getting set to begin commercial operation.
3. Grid folks say more renewables are no prob.
Current levels of renewables are still plenty manageable for regional electricity grid operators used to dealing with the ups and downs of both the supply side (big plants going offline unexpectedly) and the demand side (us not coordinating when turning our fridges and ACs on and off).
Grid operators have continued to find, though, that they can handle much higher levels of variable renewables like wind and solar. A study by grid operator PJM, for example, found that they could get 30 percent of their electricity from wind and solar by 2026, with very little need for extra back-up generation.
4. Storage is moving onto the stage.
Forward-thinking locales are forward thinking about making sure storage can help with that integration of increasing amounts of renewables. In October, California’s public utilities commission moved to jumpstart energy storage in the state, putting in place a storage requirement for the state’s largest utilities.
5. Coal’s economics continue to slide.
Most of the reasons to celebrate are positives, but some are negatives, in a good way. The economics of coal vs. natural gas and wind mean that tens of thousands of megawatts are moving into retirement—including, in just the past few months, plants like Brayton Point, New England’s largest coal plant, and a raft of TVA units.
And the market clearly isn’t done dealing with coal yet. A just-released Union of Concerned Scientists analysis showed a total of an additional 59 to 71 megawatts of coal that is “ripe for retirement”.
6. Power plant carbon standards are progressing.
Creating clear expectations about what we want from the power sector, carbon-wise, is another key part of a successful energy transition. This year brought really important draft standards for new power plants; standards for existing plants are due up next year.
7. People get renewables.
Another “positive negative” for 2013 has been the failure of efforts to weaken clean energy policies across the country. While fossil fuel-funded groups and their allies continued to peddle misinformation to turn people against renewables and efficiency, Truth repeatedly won the day.
The power of the positive was visible recently in the tremendous public pushback on attempts to weaken solar support in Arizona, and in a leading legislative opponent’s failed attempt to undercut Ohio’s clean energy laws.
So, lots of good stuff happening. Our work is far from over—we’re still too hooked on fossil fuels, and suffering the public health impacts; carbon pollution is continuing to climb globally; and opponents of climate and energy progress keep coming up with new and different ways of muddying the decision-making waters. But the clean energy transition is underway.
Where the transition is taking hold, we need to make sure that changes are smooth and just. That communities hosting renewable energy get maximum benefits and minimal downsides. That people affected by coal’s decline (or natural gas’s rise) get support for finding their way to a better future.
Overall, 2013 has given us plenty to celebrate this holiday season. Here’s to a great new year!
Visit EcoWatch’s RENEWABLES page for more related news on this topic.
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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