🌎 #274: Is Wind Power Unprofitable?

Quinn Emmett
April 29, 2022
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Welcome back, Shit Givers.

Over the past three months, INI has covered -- by way of stellar reporting from outlets like The Markup and The Washington Post -- identity verification contractor ID.me's contracts with the federal and state governments, and specifically with the IRS.

Per our mission, we gave you Action Steps to both protect your data and fight for broader data ethics. A ridiculous 65% of you participated in those efforts.

This week the House Oversight Committee launched a sweeping investigation into the company and you were no small part of driving that result. If you value the work we do and want to see more of it, you can support us here.

This Week, Summarized:

  • Wind isn't profitable
  • Kids vaccines on the hold up
  • The kitchen sink answer to food waste, it's metaphors galore today
  • Menthol cigarettes are all smoked out
  • America's new AI chief

Reminder: You can read this issue on the website, or you can 🎧 listen to it on the podcast (shortly).

🕛 Reading Time: 9 minutes

CLIMATE CHANGE

Wind power

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What's next for wind

The news: Wind power is growing dramatically, but the supply chain and business models are facing...headwinds (and now you know how today's puns are going to go).

Last week I covered the battery supply chain challenges, and this week I'll try help you understand what's next for wind, from the top down:

Understand it: US President Joe Biden once pledged to cut US emissions in half by 2030, committing a "whole of government approach" to doing so.

Mostly thanks to two "centrist" US senators who refuse to listen to their own constituents, and now a war in Ukraine, those plans have all but failed, despite even big business pushing for clean-energy already. A November election may -- at best -- eliminate any hope of getting close.

But however it's commonly framed, progress isn't black or white, and neither are the climate impacts we'll suffer: they should both be measured in a matter of degrees.

Onshore wind energy is straight booming in windy deep (deep) red Republican states like Oklahoma and Texas, and for a single day last month generated more power than coal and nuclear. Offshore, half a million acres are newly available but will take years to come to be fully operational.

The bi-partisan (really!) Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC if you know) released plans to modernize the US's grids and the high-voltage lines needed to whip clean power -- like the 30GW of new solar green-lit on federal lands -- across the country.

But here's the rub: Wind plants require huge volumes of resources like concrete, which isn't cleanly produced yet, and far more materials than solar, and the (increasingly) enormous blades require composite materials that aren't easy to recycle.

Put it all together:

  1. Unprecedented demand with a ticking clock
  2. Unpredictable and politicized permits, markets, and subsidies
  3. Hugely expensive materials in constant need of upgrade

...and suddenly you've got wind power production titans with negative margins in an industry that's virtually required to succeed, and folks (I'm so sorry), that's just not sustainable.

⚡️Action Step: We're getting dangerously close to the US Congress reverting to "election mode", so it's more important than ever we get them to enact...literally anything clean energy-related. Make yourself heard by joining the Climate Changemakers' next Hour of Action on Wednesday May 4 right here.

COVID

Kids vaccine

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Vaccine equity update: Just 15.3% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose, and 34.8% of people worldwide have received zero doses.

Kids shots

The news: As a dad, one of the finest lines I try to walk is "Hmm, Timmy MIGHT have actually broken his arm falling off the couch this time" and "Shake it off, champ!"

Two years in, and with one recent study showing 60% of Americans and 75% of kids have already been infected, we know that COVID is less likely to make young children sick compared to older kids, adults, and of course, the elderly.

But that doesn't mean they don't get sick, especially now that we're on Omicron Part XI, and it doesn't mean parents of children under 5 should just keep waiting patiently for vaccines that seem 1) fine and 2) to be increasingly held up by inexplicable bureaucracy.

Understand it: Last week, Politico (stick with me here) reported the F.D.A. might delay Moderna's under-5 vaccine authorization until Pfizer finishes their own trials, because it would be “simpler and less confusing to simultaneously authorize and promote two vaccines to the public, rather than greenlighting one on a faster timetable and the other down the road.”

One of the most challenged tenets of public health over the past couple years (fine, decades) has been a lack of trust in people to understand what they need to do to stay safe, especially when they're already interested in doing so.

Parents who want to vaccinate their kids have proven they are going to do so unless the vaccines will harm their children or measurably do not work, and even with the latter, may take some benefit over no benefit (see: flu shot), especially when millions of people are dead.

Thus, the (incredible) mRNA vaccines have seemingly created a problematic set of expectations among health officials and people:

When successive variants diminish the two-shot vaccine's original and otherworldly 90-95% reduction in risk for COVID-19–associated death, or carry more breakthrough potential, institutions might suddenly believe new versions aren't worth not rolling out at all because the public might be confused or sad.

On the one hand, we've vaccinated hundreds of millions of American citizens.

On the other, less than half of eligible kids aged 5-11 have gotten a dose, and we've done a terrible job getting adult boosters, despite evidence for how well they work.

But something is better than nothing.

If the shots don't work, they don't work, but according to health officials, that's not what the holdup is. So just be transparent, communicative effectively, and let parents protect their kids. Let people take what they can get.

Say it with me again: Real-world effectiveness is a spectrum, measured in a matter of degrees. These shots (still) reduce transmission, if less than before; they still, so many variants later, and months after boosters, hold the line better than other vaccines against hospitalization and death. They build antibodies and T-cells, and and maybe even prevent Long COVID.

Collectively, they build public immunity, they let kids go back to school, and adults go back to work.

Not unlike GiveDirectly's model of reducing poverty (just give people cash), these shots give people agency, in so many ways. They (often literally) give people life.

Instead of trying to direct behavior, public health officials should do what they do best: Transparently build safe and effective tools, and then equip people with those tools and clear, constructive information so the maximum number of people protect themselves and one another.

⚡️Action Step: You can still order free COVID tests from the gov. Do that.

FOOD & WATER

Food waste

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Food to table to trash

The news: From farm to table, an estimated 1/3 of all the food we make on earth goes to waste. Per the World Wildlife Fund, wasted food generates 32.6 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions (mostly methane).

Understand it: Some of my favorite podcast conversations have helped me truly understand (and attack) food waste (Apeel here, Food Forward here).

With inflation, war, and food insecurity on the rise in the US and across the world, it goes without saying we can Do Better Better up and down the food supply chain.

From FoodTank, this week:

"(Legislation) sponsored by Senators Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn), the Food Donation Improvement Act aims to strengthen protections for businesses that have excess food, but fear liability. It will also expand tax deductions to further incentivize food donations.

Alongside Grubhub, more than two dozen companies and nonprofits recently released an open letter pushing Congress to pass the Act."

What's next?

Congress has introduced the Zero Food Waste Act, the COMPOST Act, and the aforementioned Food Donation Improvement Act. None have passed (yet).

Some municipalities have made composting mandatory, but it's not cheap.

Startups are on the case, like GreenPod Labs in India, Freshflow in Berlin, and Apeel in the US.

We're not there yet, but the kitchen sink approach is effective and I'm just about out of metaphors for the day.

⚡️Action Step: ReFED is an excellent resource for US-based policy and investment tracking. Check it out and discover/compare what your locality is doing vs others.

HEALTH & BIO

Menthols

Getty

A massive win for Black lungs

The news: The FDA this week announced plans to finally ban menthol cigarettes, a massive public health win.

Understand it: The ban will predominantly affect the 85% of Black smokers who smoke menthols, including Black men, who have the highest rates of lung cancer in the US (to the tune of 40k Black deaths a year).

Canada made the move a few years back and well, it's been wildly effective at reducing smoking-related disease and death.

Tobacco companies will protest the ban in court, because fuck those guys, but a growing number of groups (including, recently, Gen Z) have been fighting for this ban for decades, and they won't let up now.

Will there be an eerily familiar rough transition from a product that fueled worker productivity and economies but ended up making a small group of folks obscenely wealthy and a bunch of others sick? Of course. The entire point of menthol-flavoring is to make smoking feel less shitty.

But smoking shouldn't feel less shitty. It should feel exactly as shitty as the harm it does to you, so you're more aware of that harm, and thus more likely to understand and hold responsible the system designed to make you sick for profit.

This is a big, big deal.

⚡️Action Step: The public can comment on the proposed rules beginning May 4, and there will be public listening sessions on June 13 and June 15. Got a smoker in your life? Smokers interested in quitting right meow can visit smokefree.gov or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW to learn about cessation services available nearby.

BEEP BOOP

Robot

Probably not Dr. Craig Martell

America's new AI chief

The news: The Pentagon named a new chief digital and artificial intelligence officer to oversee the “adoption of data, analytics, digital solutions and AI functions".

Dr. Craig Martell, a graduate of U-Penn, comes on over from machine learning posts at Lyft and Dropbox, among others.

“Advances in AI and machine learning are critical to delivering the capabilities we need to address key challenges both today and into the future,” said Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen H. Hicks. “With Craig’s appointment, we hope to see the department increase the speed at which we develop and field advances in AI, data analytics, and machine-learning technology. He brings cutting-edge industry experience to apply to our unique mission set.”

Understand it: When Obamacare launched DOA, the Obama administration scrambled to bring in a who's-who of Silicon Valley folks to fix it.

Some of that crew stuck it out and became the mythical United States Digital Service, a new (at the time) internal startup tasked with modernizing, well, everything they could.

That service somehow survived the Trump era, but so did the enormous gulf between the private sector and government institutions. In government, the tech sucks, and so does the pay.

Which is not how it always was! Government work used to be illustrious, but for decades our best and brightest have been lured by huge option pools and extravagant bonuses to build ad tech or run your 30 year mortgage through a pile of cocaine and derivative schemes at Goldman.

Government can't work better until it's a better place to work, and a new digital service academy -- a Cyber Academy to rival those in Annapolis, West Point, and Colorado Springs -- that pays well, offers a pension, and imbues graduates who can't afford to go to Wharton with not only technical skills but leadership ones, and a fondness for country that doesn't emphasize storming the Capitol, could elevate America's AI game just when we need it the most.

⚡️Action Step: Be a part of the solution. Read about and apply to the US Digital Service here.

10 THINGS FROM MY NOTEBOOK

  • How climate and viruses like Sars-COV-2 are just the beginning. A must read from Ed Yong
  • Six COVID mysteries left to solve
  • Millions of vaccine doses are going to waste in the US and India
  • How Paxlovid came to be
  • California's finally raising flood insurance rates -- will the rest of the country follow?
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis saved solar in the Sunshine State and what
  • US public forests are getting in on carbon offsets and this has to stop
  • California water restrictions get more draconian
  • Wearables can track COVID progression (but they're not distributed equitably)
  • Do you know the new suicide hotline number? (it's 988 -- spread the word)

I hope you found some value in this week's issue. I learn so much from the research, but also from being forced to write about it. The context switching is both exhausting and incredibly illuminating.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for giving a shit.

Have a great weekend.

-- Quinn

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