Bulletin: A Ukrainian climate expert on the Zaporizhzhia situation and the winter energy outlook

Fear over a possible nuclear disaster at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine rose this week, as both Russia and Ukraine warned that the other side could be planning a “false-flag” attack. Russian forces—currently in control of the plant—have ordered many of the Ukrainian workers who continue to run and operate the plant to stay home from work; only those workers who work on the power units themselves have been allowed on the premises, according to Ukraine’s state-run energy firm, Energoatom.

Earlier this month, the European Union and the United States called for Zaporizhzhia and the surrounding area to be demilitarized, but Russia has rejected the suggestion, saying it would make the plant “even more vulnerable.”

Oleh Savitskyi, a board member of the non-governmental organization Ecoaction and a climate and energy policy expert with the Ukrainian Climate Network who worked in the ministry of energy and environment protection of Ukraine until June, has been following the situation closely. The Bulletin reached Savitskyi by phone in Kyiv earlier this week to discuss the escalating situation at Zaporizhzhia, what happens if the plant goes offline, and the outlook for Ukraine’s energy supply in the coming months and years.

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New climate bill: Look on the bright side, and (almost) everyone’s a winner

After more than a year of wheeling and dealing with resistant holdouts, the Senate Democrats finally passed a package of climate legislation on Sunday under the umbrella of the Inflation Reduction Act. The bill, if it passes the House as expected and is signed into law by President Biden, will be the country’s first major climate law.

The package earmarks $369 billion for energy security and climate change programs over the next 10 years, including: $44 billion in tax credits for wind, solar, and other renewable power sources like hydrogen and another $30 billion for investing in renewable energy technologies, including solar panels and wind turbines; $30 billion for nuclear power companies, to discourage existing power plants from shutting down; $9 billion to encourage investments in efficient heating and cooling systems; and $36 billion to encourage individuals to buy new or used electric vehicles.

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Bulletin: How to not die from heat on a too-hot planet

Glen Kenny usually knows when someone is about to succumb to heat. He’s seen it a thousand times.

Workers may become less responsive than usual. They might struggle to stay focused on the task at hand, or forget to follow safety protocols. They might be short-tempered or aggressive when someone interrupts them. They might tell someone to back off, to leave them alone.

“Their body is under stress,” says Kenny, a professor of physiology at the University of Ottawa who studies the human heat stress response. “And for them, any voices, any distraction, that takes away their focus on themselves becomes an irritation for them. So you’re going to see irritability, you’re going to see loss of awareness of their surroundings, an inability to communicate effectively, all these become critical signs.”

The scary thing is, by the time an individual starts to feel unwell, they are already in the danger zone. Unlike strenuous exercise, heat stress is gradual. It builds, often without the individual noticing it—until all of a sudden, he or she does.

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‘Silent killer’: A Bulletin series on surviving the extremely hot future 

It’s getting hot out here.

Earlier this month, at least 10 cities in Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas broke high-temperature records, some by as much as six degrees Fahrenheit. Last week, Texas officials asked residents and businesses to conserve electricity during the hottest times of the day to help avoid overwhelming the grid, as temperatures climbed above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, reaching 113 degrees in Somerville, a small town about an hour’s drive northwest of Houston.

Significant parts of England and Wales are under a heat warning until Tuesday, and temperatures in London today are forecast to climb above 90 degrees Fahrenheit—about 18 degrees hotter than usual this time of year. The United Kingdom will be one of the hottest places on earth today, reaching temperatures more commonly seen in the Western Sahara and the Caribbean. Temperatures in Portugal and Spain soared to triple digits last week as wildfires ripped through both countries. The heat wave that has engulfed Western Europe could last for weeks; meteorologists say it could be the worst Europe has seen since 1757.

China, too, issued alerts to residents of nearly 70 cities as temperatures rose to 104 degrees Fahrenheit last week. According to a state news agency, Shanghai has only experienced temperatures greater than 104 degrees Fahrenheit on 15 days since 1873. Last month was the warmest June on record in 60 years. Roofs have melted and roads have buckled in the heat.

And this is all happening nearly simultaneously—the new normal, brought on by global warming.

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Bulletin: How bitcoin makes burning fossil fuels more profitable than ever

The road to the village of Dresden, New York, on Seneca Lake’s western shore, is lined with wineries. Neat rows of spindly grape vines cover the rolling hills as far as the eye can see. Deepest of the state’s Finger Lakes, this long and narrow water body warms the region in winter and cools it in summer—making for an ideal microclimate for viticulture, and a popular tourist destination.

Just as the road drops down to the village, an old power plant looms. Behind the chain link fence and “Posted” signs thrum thousands of computer servers, or miners; by September they will number close to 50,000 (Greenidge 2022). This is where a new industry has taken root, alarming climate activists around the country: bitcoin mining.

Greenidge Generation first came online as a coal-fired plant in 1937, but by 2011, like so many other coal plants, it was no longer profitable. The owners shut it down, presumably for good, and declared bankruptcy. But a few years later, a private investment firm acquired the plant and converted it to gas, only to find selling energy to the grid still wasn’t very profitable (Christensen 2019) Since coming back online in 2017, Greenidge has sent very little energy to the grid. In fact, since 2020, instead of powering people’s homes and businesses, most of the energy the plant produces has been used to mine the digital cryptocurrency bitcoin.

In March 2020, the plant was using 14 megawatts of power to mine bitcoin (Kharif 2020); by October 2021, it was up to 45 megawatts (Greenidge 2021a). The company plans to use 85 of the plant’s 106-megawatt capacity to mine bitcoins by the end of the year.

It is now well understood that bitcoin mining uses vast amounts of energy. Alex de Vries, one of the leading experts on bitcoin and energy, estimates that the network uses 204.50 terawatt hours annually, about as much as Thailand. A more conservative estimate by the Cambridge Center for Alternative Finance puts it closer to 115.4 terawatt hours, or more than the Netherlands.

Bitcoin’s electricity guzzling has increased dramatically in the past decade. In 2021, de Vries said energy usage had roughly doubled since 2017 to between 78 terawatt hours and 101 terawatt hours (Bambrough 2021), and his current estimate means that the network’s energy usage doubled again in little over a year.

Climate activists see Greenidge as a canary in a coal plant; if one retired fossil fuel plant can be brought back to life to mine bitcoin, what is to prevent the same thing from happening at other retired or idle plants? Other companies have already made moves to follow Greenidge’s lead—including mining companies making moves to buy power plants, and energy companies looking to get into bitcoin.

Bitcoin is giving new life to fossil fuels in even more insidious ways. In some places, miners are burning the dirtiest of dirty fuels—waste coal—to mine bitcoin, and they don’t only have the state’s blessing: They’re getting subsidies for it. Some of the biggest companies have started using the gas that escapes during the oil drilling process to mine bitcoin, claiming it mitigates their climate impact. Even more alarming, some companies are trucking in mobile generators and miners directly to stranded gas wells and burning fossil fuels that otherwise would have stayed in the ground to power miners on site.

If the first decade of bitcoin’s existence was characterized by the mad rush for cheap power, the second looks to be dominated by fossil fuel companies whose assets are quickly depreciating—in terms of both financial and cultural capital—desperate to wring out a bit more profit while they still can.

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