In today’s Exponential Investor:

  • Resorting to extreme measures to fight fire
  • Lowest priced tender for solar, ever!
  • Striking the balance between fun and fear

Ski resorts in Lake Tahoe, seeing the oncoming wildfires, have resorted to using their snow-making machines to fight the fire.

The irony is relatively clear.

These machines, which spray out gallons of water per second in a fine spray, usually at sub-zero temperatures, allow ski resorts to pump artificial snow on to the slopes when precipitation has been a bit thin for a while.

Now, they are being used for the other extreme – fire.

Of course, it’s summer not winter, but what was a very specific climate change adaptation machine has become a form of physical climate change protection.

How quickly things can change.

Tahoe is on fire. Appalling images burden our newsfeeds once more, at the same time as New York saw flash flooding of a pretty extreme nature from Hurricane Ida.

The videos from subway stations of water bursting through and pouring out in incredible volumes on to trains and platforms were pretty incredible too. And just like the flooding in Germany, it does feel like it’s especially rattling seeing these scenes in such familiar settings.

I wonder to what extent climate disasters will impact support for climate change?

One of the greatest challenges to the recent pledges by governments and corporates to reach net zero has been to point out how incredibly expensive it’s going to be. And they’re right! It is almost prohibitively expensive.

But those of us advocating for an aggressive transition always try to explain that the costs of inaction or insufficient change are much greater, and longer lasting.

But now that we are seeing more regular and devastating effects of climate change, will that nudge people to realising that the physical and human costs of inaction are probably higher than the economic costs of action? I certainly believe that to be true, and the sooner everyone gets behind it the better.

Because there is no doubt: it will not come cheap. And that means it will need to have profound and durable support among society, politicians and financiers.

Tragedies like the Tahoe wildfires and impacts of Hurricane Ida are reminders of why we need to act more quickly and decisively than ever.

Energy world records

Thank goodness then, that renewables are now so incredibly cheap!

In terms of energy production, it’s already cheaper to build solar than coal in most of the world, especially if it includes energy storage capabilities.

It’s increasingly true that you’d be better off knocking down existing coal plants in order to build wind and solar, from a purely economic perspective. It’s just so much cheaper to run, and the likelihood of it operating for two or three decades is so much higher. So thankfully that’s a trend that’s just being driven by unstoppable economic advantages.

For example, a new tender for power in Chile last week broke the world record for the cheapest electricity in history. It was for a solar project.

But not just any solar project! No, you see, it was for something called concentrated solar.

Which is a) more powerful, and b) as it turns out, no less effective. That isn’t a trade-off the gods usually grant us.

To understand it, I’d say that the most important thing is to remember what you used to do as a child, when trying to harness the sun’s awesome power.

Currently solar panels are the equivalent of laying a sheet of A4 paper on the ground and heating it up, then collecting the energy (except solar panels convert light into electricity, not heat).

Concentrated solar does what any smart kid would do, and grabs a magnifying glass.

The sun’s rays are thus concentrated (get it) on to the array of solar panels, and it’s long been hoped that this would help improve efficiency.

Well, the success of this auction for concentrated solar in Chile is amazing news.

Solar is great, but there are always new technologies, materials, arrangements and modifications which can make it even better.

So, this good news hopefully balances out some of the bleak vibes from the climate disasters.

That’s what I always say. Things are going badly, but also really well!

The scales

For a final, more light-hearted note to finish on, even the music industry is getting in on the act.

Massive Attack, a popular UK band, commissioned a report on the climate impact of live music, and are now calling for the government to tell them what to do, basically.

From the Guardian: “A plan to ensure the live music industry meets climate targets needs to be urgently introduced by the government, according to the band Massive Attack, which commissioned a report on carbon emissions in the music business.”

So, you’re a band. You want to know how you and other bands can reduce emissions. So you commission a report to tell you. The report tells you and you’re all like, wow! There’s so much we need to do.

And then you conclude, “Now the government needs to tell us what to do!”

Bit of a soggy ending if you ask me.

The Guardian agrees: “While the report by the University of Manchester recommends rock stars should take some responsibility, ditching private jets and reducing the amount of kit they bring on tour, Massive Attack’s Rob Del Naja, otherwise known as 3D, criticised the government for not doing enough to support the industry to reduce carbon emissions.”

Support how? Like luxury rehab? Maybe that’s harsh. But I just don’t love the idea that they know roughly what to do but still somehow need to government to tell/force them to do it – what, when, how etc.

Anyway, the EU recently excluded private jets from regulations on aviation emissions, so don’t set your hopes too high lads, is all I’d say.

Massive Attack had apparently been keen offsetters before becoming disillusioned, seeing it as a way for fossil fuel companies to keep pumping emissions, just without the guilt. Which is fair, though I do still think they have merit as the offset arrangements do absorb real CO2 as well as corporate guilt.

So Massive Attack, and other bands too, are apparently all genuinely concerned about reducing their climate impact.

Coldplay have released an album but will not be touring, playing a single UK gig, in order to reduce carbon emissions.

This is… tricky?

The transition is all about trade-offs. Life is about more than reducing carbon. To all the massive Coldplay fans that don’t live in London, that is quite sad.

We need to strike a balance between just not doing any pleasant things, and saving the planet. We can’t get to zero carbon emissions by just not doing anything that emits carbon.

The solution to obesity isn’t indefinite fasting, or a diet of bread and water. Vegans have found exciting and delicious ways to eat, without meat or dairy. As it is so often, it’s about getting the balance right, rather than overcompensating (I think).

Other groups have worked with environmental charities, such as Reverb, to reduce their impact while touring, or to raise awareness. We need balance, but it’s tough.

We need technology, alternatives, and all manner of brilliant solutions and adaptations. I’ve spent this week looking into lab-grown meat – real meat, regenerated from neck cells. There is no pea proteins, much lower environmental impact, same great flavour… More on this, soon.

Until next time,

Kit Winder
Co-editor, Exponential Investor