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Quasar Conundrum: Brilliant Supermassive Black Hole Defies Expectations

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Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Astronomers studying the quasar H1821+643 found it less impactful on its environment than expected, challenging typical black hole behavior. Credit: SciTechDaily.comThe quasar produces high levels of radiation and powerful jets, but it has less influence on its surroundings than expected.Astronomers have revealed that a brilliant supermassive black hole is not living up to expectations. Although it is responsible for high levels of radiation and powerful jets, this giant black hole is not as influential on its surroundings as many of its counterparts in other galaxies.A paper describing these results, by a team including W. Niel Brandt, the Eberly Family Chair Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics and professor of physics at Penn State, was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Close-Up on the Closest QuasarThe study, using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, looked at the closest quasar to Earth. Known as H1821+643, this quasar is about 3.4 billion light-years from Earth and sits in a cluster of galaxies. Quasars are a rare and extreme class of supermassive black holes that are furiously pulling material inwards, producing intense radiation and sometimes powerful jets.“I have long desired to investigate this remarkable quasar better with Chandra’s keen eyesight,” Brandt said. “I suspected this quasar’s `bark’ would be worse than its `bite’ — that is, its impressive pyrotechnics do not imply similarly impressive environmental impact. I’m delighted that our dogged determination eventually paid off and confirmed my suspicions!”In the center of this image is the quasar H1821+643, a rapidly growing supermassive black hole that astronomers have found is underachieving, despite producing intense radiation and a jet of particles seen in radio data from the Very Large Array, in red. Located in the middle of a cluster of galaxies, H1821+643 is surrounded by huge quantities of hot gas detected in X-rays by Chandra, in blue. The high temperatures and densities of the hot gas around the quasar shows that the black hole is having a weaker impact on its host galaxy than many of its other counterparts in other galaxy clusters. H1821+643 is the closest quasar to Earth in a cluster of galaxies. It is located 3.4 billion light-years from Earth and the image is about a million light-years across at the distance of the quasar. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Nottingham/H. Russell et al.; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/N. WolkQuasar Impact: A Detailed ExaminationMost growing supermassive black holes pull material in less quickly than quasars. Astronomers have studied the impact of these more common black holes by observing ones in the centers of galaxy clusters. Regular outbursts from such black holes prevent the huge amounts of superheated gas they are embedded in from cooling down, which limits how many stars form in their host galaxies and how much fuel gets funneled toward the black hole. Much less is known about how much influence quasars in galaxy clusters have on their surroundings.“We have found that the quasar in our study appears to have relinquished much of the control imposed by more slowly growing black holes,” said Helen Russell of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, who led the new study. “The black hole’s appetite is not matched by its influence.”Uncovering the Cosmic ParadoxTo reach this conclusion, the team used Chandra to study the hot gas that H1821+643 and its host galaxy are shrouded in. The bright X-rays from the quasar, however, made it difficult to study the weaker X-rays from the hot gas.“We had to carefully remove the X-ray glare to reveal what the black hole’s influence is,” said co-author Paul Nulsen of the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard and the Smithsonian. “We could then see that it’s actually having little effect on its surroundings.”Gas Dynamics and Future ImplicationsThe team found that the density of gas near the black hole in the center of the galaxy is much higher, and the gas temperatures much lower, than in regions farther away. Scientists expect the hot gas to behave like this when there are little or no sources of energy — typically outbursts from a black hole — to prevent the hot gas from cooling down and flowing toward the center of the cluster.“The giant black hole is generating a lot less heat than most of the others in the centers of galaxy clusters,” said co-author Lucy Clews of the Open University in the U.K. “This allows the hot gas to rapidly cool down and form new stars, and also act as a fuel source for the black hole.”The researchers determined that hot gas equivalent to about 3,000 times the mass of the sun per year is cooling to the point that it is no longer visible in X-rays. This rapid cooling can easily supply enough material for the 120 solar masses of new stars observed to form in the host galaxy every year, and the 40 solar masses consumed by the black hole each year.The team also examined the possibility that the radiation from the quasar is directly causing the cluster’s hot gas to cool down. This involves photons of light from the quasar colliding with electrons in the hot gas, causing the photons to become more energetic and the electrons to lose energy and cool down. The team’s study showed that this type of cooling is probably occurring in the cluster containing H1821+643 but is much too weak to explain the large amount of gas cooling seen.“While this black hole may be underachieving by not pumping heat into its environment, the current state of affairs will likely not last forever,” said co-author Thomas Braben of the University of Nottingham. “Eventually the rapid fuel intake by the black hole should increase the power of its jets and strongly heat the gas. The growth of the black hole and its galaxy should then drastically slow down.”Reference: “A cooling flow around the low-redshift quasar H1821+643” by H R Russell, P E J Nulsen, A C Fabian, T E Braben, W N Brandt, L Clews, M McDonald, C S Reynolds, J S Sanders and S Veilleux, 27 January 2024, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stae026Brandt’s work on the project was supported by the Penn State Eberly Family Chair in Astronomy and Astrophysics and the Chandra X-ray Center.

The quasar produces high levels of radiation and powerful jets, but it has less influence on its surroundings than expected. Astronomers have revealed that a...

Weak Black Hole Quasar Concept

Astronomers studying the quasar H1821+643 found it less impactful on its environment than expected, challenging typical black hole behavior. Credit: SciTechDaily.com

The quasar produces high levels of radiation and powerful jets, but it has less influence on its surroundings than expected.

Astronomers have revealed that a brilliant supermassive black hole is not living up to expectations. Although it is responsible for high levels of radiation and powerful jets, this giant black hole is not as influential on its surroundings as many of its counterparts in other galaxies.

A paper describing these results, by a team including W. Niel Brandt, the Eberly Family Chair Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics and professor of physics at Penn State, was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Close-Up on the Closest Quasar

The study, using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, looked at the closest quasar to Earth. Known as H1821+643, this quasar is about 3.4 billion light-years from Earth and sits in a cluster of galaxies. Quasars are a rare and extreme class of supermassive black holes that are furiously pulling material inwards, producing intense radiation and sometimes powerful jets.

“I have long desired to investigate this remarkable quasar better with Chandra’s keen eyesight,” Brandt said. “I suspected this quasar’s `bark’ would be worse than its `bite’ — that is, its impressive pyrotechnics do not imply similarly impressive environmental impact. I’m delighted that our dogged determination eventually paid off and confirmed my suspicions!”

Quasar H1821+643

In the center of this image is the quasar H1821+643, a rapidly growing supermassive black hole that astronomers have found is underachieving, despite producing intense radiation and a jet of particles seen in radio data from the Very Large Array, in red. Located in the middle of a cluster of galaxies, H1821+643 is surrounded by huge quantities of hot gas detected in X-rays by Chandra, in blue. The high temperatures and densities of the hot gas around the quasar shows that the black hole is having a weaker impact on its host galaxy than many of its other counterparts in other galaxy clusters. H1821+643 is the closest quasar to Earth in a cluster of galaxies. It is located 3.4 billion light-years from Earth and the image is about a million light-years across at the distance of the quasar. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Nottingham/H. Russell et al.; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/N. Wolk

Quasar Impact: A Detailed Examination

Most growing supermassive black holes pull material in less quickly than quasars. Astronomers have studied the impact of these more common black holes by observing ones in the centers of galaxy clusters. Regular outbursts from such black holes prevent the huge amounts of superheated gas they are embedded in from cooling down, which limits how many stars form in their host galaxies and how much fuel gets funneled toward the black hole. Much less is known about how much influence quasars in galaxy clusters have on their surroundings.

“We have found that the quasar in our study appears to have relinquished much of the control imposed by more slowly growing black holes,” said Helen Russell of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, who led the new study. “The black hole’s appetite is not matched by its influence.”

Uncovering the Cosmic Paradox

To reach this conclusion, the team used Chandra to study the hot gas that H1821+643 and its host galaxy are shrouded in. The bright X-rays from the quasar, however, made it difficult to study the weaker X-rays from the hot gas.

“We had to carefully remove the X-ray glare to reveal what the black hole’s influence is,” said co-author Paul Nulsen of the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard and the Smithsonian. “We could then see that it’s actually having little effect on its surroundings.”

Gas Dynamics and Future Implications

The team found that the density of gas near the black hole in the center of the galaxy is much higher, and the gas temperatures much lower, than in regions farther away. Scientists expect the hot gas to behave like this when there are little or no sources of energy — typically outbursts from a black hole — to prevent the hot gas from cooling down and flowing toward the center of the cluster.

“The giant black hole is generating a lot less heat than most of the others in the centers of galaxy clusters,” said co-author Lucy Clews of the Open University in the U.K. “This allows the hot gas to rapidly cool down and form new stars, and also act as a fuel source for the black hole.”

The researchers determined that hot gas equivalent to about 3,000 times the mass of the sun per year is cooling to the point that it is no longer visible in X-rays. This rapid cooling can easily supply enough material for the 120 solar masses of new stars observed to form in the host galaxy every year, and the 40 solar masses consumed by the black hole each year.

The team also examined the possibility that the radiation from the quasar is directly causing the cluster’s hot gas to cool down. This involves photons of light from the quasar colliding with electrons in the hot gas, causing the photons to become more energetic and the electrons to lose energy and cool down. The team’s study showed that this type of cooling is probably occurring in the cluster containing H1821+643 but is much too weak to explain the large amount of gas cooling seen.

“While this black hole may be underachieving by not pumping heat into its environment, the current state of affairs will likely not last forever,” said co-author Thomas Braben of the University of Nottingham. “Eventually the rapid fuel intake by the black hole should increase the power of its jets and strongly heat the gas. The growth of the black hole and its galaxy should then drastically slow down.”

Reference: “A cooling flow around the low-redshift quasar H1821+643” by H R Russell, P E J Nulsen, A C Fabian, T E Braben, W N Brandt, L Clews, M McDonald, C S Reynolds, J S Sanders and S Veilleux, 27 January 2024, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stae026

Brandt’s work on the project was supported by the Penn State Eberly Family Chair in Astronomy and Astrophysics and the Chandra X-ray Center.

Read the full story here.
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Major offshore wind projects in New York canceled in latest blow to industry

The decision is another setback to New York’s aspirations to achieve 70 percent renewable energy by 2030 and be a hub for the nascent industry in the United States.

ALBANY, New York — New York’s signature offshore wind projects meant to boost confidence in the industry are being scrapped, a major hit to the industry in the state and the nation.The decision is another setback to New York’s aspirations to achieve 70 percent renewable energy by 2030 and be a hub for the nascent industry in the United States. It will also be another challenge for President Joe Biden’s already likely out-of-reach 30 gigawatt goal for offshore wind by 2030.NYSERDA, the state authority in charge of the deals, announced Friday that no final agreements could be reached with the three projects that received provisional awards in October 2023. Those bids were all linked to major supply chain investments by General Electric and a larger turbine it planned to build that was aimed at boosting the region's renewable energy portfolio.“Subsequent to the provisional award announcement, material modifications to projects bid into New York’s third offshore wind solicitation caused technical and commercial complexities between provisional awardees and their partners, resulting in the provisionally awarded parties’ inability to come to terms,” NYSERDA wrote in an announcement.In February, POLITICO's E&E News reported that GE didn't plan to move forward with an 18 megawatt turbine. NYSERDA confirmed that was the main reason no final awards were made. A smaller turbine means a project would need more individual turbine locations to deliver the same power — and the costs would have been higher.NYSERDA had also tentatively awarded $300 million to GE Vernova and LM Wind Power for investments in nacelle and blade manufacturing at new facilities along the Hudson River near Albany. That money will be made available through a new competitive solicitation, according to the authority.“NYSERDA remains committed to advancing New York’s offshore wind industry in pursuit of the state’s Climate Act goals,” spokesperson Kate Muller said in a statement. “Next steps will be announced in the near future.”The authority was already expected to start another round of offshore wind bids and may accelerate those efforts. NYSERDA’s schedule for the offshore wind projects called for contracts to be executed by the end of last month. GE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.It's not the total end of offshore wind in New York but does represent a setback. There are still some projects off the coast of Long Island and New Jersey on the drawing board and one is already operational.The projects that were negotiating contracts are the 1,404 MW Attentive Energy One project being developed by TotalEnergies, Rise Light and Power and Corio Generation; the 1,314 MW Community Offshore Wind project developed by RWE Offshore Renewables and National Grid Ventures; and the 1,314 MW Excelsior Wind developed by Vineyard Offshore with backing from Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners.But those would now need to rely on smaller 15.5 MW turbines — which means the developers would have needed to buy more and install more massive underwater foundations to put each turbine atop. As a result, it adds time and labor costs to each project.The unsuccessful solicitation comes after several blows to the industry in the U.S. in the past year, indicating the high costs and regulatory hurdles each project faces — along with the concern over socking utility customers with higher bills to pay for them.New York awarded the three projects after the state Public Service Commission last fall rejected a request for higher prices from other developers. The PSC drew a line in the sand that likely constrained NYSERDA’s negotiations: no price increases for competitively awarded projects.Other early projects canceled their deals after the decision, and similar moves have upended efforts in other states.The state’s utility regulator — publicly backed by Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration — has held firm on its policy of limiting rate increases on consumers, even as a transmission line running into New York City that supports the 2030 target faces financial uncertainty.Environmental advocates are alarmed by the challenges facing the industry. Offshore wind is key to reaching New York’s goal of 70 percent renewable energy sources by 2030, along with other longer-term targets. But there is growing evidence that the mandate will be hard to reach.“We are very concerned about not meeting the climate goals,” Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said before NYSERDA’s announcement. “All three of these are in a holding pattern and we need a flight plan."But some environmental groups were optimistic that NYSERDA would be able to stay on track.“I don't think it's going to create a big setback as far as time goes,” said Julie Tighe, the president of the New York League of Conservation Voters. “I remain hopeful that we’ll be able to get some more projects online by 2030.”It is possible that some of the project developers might turn their attention to winning awards in New Jersey, where another solicitation is expected later this year.New York also has pending contracts still in the works for the two early projects that were reawarded at significantly higher costs for ratepayers. The two projects are the 810 MW Empire Wind 1 developed by Equinor off the northeast tip of Long Island and the 924 MW Sunrise Wind developed by Orsted and Eversource that is south of New York City.NYSERDA’s schedule calls for those contracts to be finalized by the end of June. Those are expected to be online by late 2026.

Defying Expectations: NASA’s Fermi Sees No Gamma Rays From Nearby Supernova

Observations of SN 2023ixf in 2023 led to surprising findings regarding cosmic ray production by supernovae, with potential implications for understanding cosmic ray origins and...

The 2023 observation of supernova SN 2023ixf in the Pinwheel galaxy provided a unique chance to study cosmic ray production, but the expected gamma rays were not detected by NASA’s Fermi Telescope, indicating much lower energy conversion rates than anticipated. Credit: NASAObservations of SN 2023ixf in 2023 led to surprising findings regarding cosmic ray production by supernovae, with potential implications for understanding cosmic ray origins and acceleration mechanisms.In 2023, a nearby supernova offered astrophysicists an excellent opportunity to test ideas about how these types of explosions boost particles, called cosmic rays, to near light-speed. But surprisingly, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope detected none of the high-energy gamma-ray light those particles should produce.On May 18, 2023, a supernova erupted in the nearby Pinwheel galaxy (Messier 101), located about 22 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major. The event, named SN 2023ixf, is the most luminous nearby supernova discovered since Fermi launched in 2008. Unanticipated Results From Fermi Telescope“Astrophysicists previously estimated that supernovae convert about 10% of their total energy into cosmic ray acceleration,” said Guillem Martí-Devesa, a researcher at the University of Trieste in Italy. “But we have never observed this process directly. With the new observations of SN 2023ixf, our calculations result in an energy conversion as low as 1% within a few days after the explosion. This doesn’t rule out supernovae as cosmic ray factories, but it does mean we have more to learn about their production.”The paper, led by Martí-Devesa while at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, will appear in a future edition of Astronomy and Astrophysics.VIDEOEven when it doesn’t detect gamma rays, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope helps astronomers learn more about the universe. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight CenterCosmic Rays and Their OriginsTrillions of trillions of cosmic rays collide with Earth’s atmosphere every day. Roughly 90% of them are hydrogen nuclei – or protons – and the remainder are electrons or the nuclei of heavier elements.Scientists have been investigating cosmic ray origins since the early 1900s, but the particles can’t be traced back to their sources. Because they’re electrically charged, cosmic rays change course as they travel to Earth thanks to magnetic fields they encounter.“Gamma rays, however, travel directly to us,” said Elizabeth Hays, the Fermi project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Cosmic rays produce gamma rays when they interact with matter in their environment. Fermi is the most sensitive gamma-ray telescope in orbit, so when it doesn’t detect an expected signal, scientists must explain the absence. Solving that mystery will build a more accurate picture of cosmic ray origins.”The Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory’s 48-inch telescope captured this visible-light image of the Pinwheel galaxy (Messier 101) in June 2023. The location of supernova 2023ixf is circled. The observatory, located on Mount Hopkins in Arizona, is operated by the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. Credit: Hiramatsu et al. 2023/Sebastian Gomez (STScI)Supernovae As Cosmic Ray AcceleratorsAstrophysicists have long suspected supernovae of being top cosmic ray contributors.These explosions occur when a star at least eight times the Sun’s mass runs out of fuel. The core collapses and then rebounds, propelling a shock wave outward through the star. The shock wave accelerates particles, creating cosmic rays. When cosmic rays collide with other matter and light surrounding the star, they generate gamma rays.Supernovae greatly impact a galaxy’s interstellar environment. Their blast waves and expanding cloud of debris may persist for more than 50,000 years. In 2013, Fermi measurements showed that supernova remnants in our own Milky Way galaxy were accelerating cosmic rays, which generated gamma-ray light when they struck interstellar matter. But astronomers say the remnants aren’t producing enough high-energy particles to match scientists’ measurements on Earth.One theory proposes that supernovae may accelerate the most energetic cosmic rays in our galaxy in the first few days and weeks after the initial explosion.But supernovae are rare, occurring only a few times a century in a galaxy like the Milky Way. Out to distances of around 32 million light-years, a supernova occurs, on average, just once a year.After a month of observations, starting when visible light telescopes first saw SN 2023ixf, Fermi had not detected gamma rays.Challenges and Future Research“Unfortunately, seeing no gamma rays doesn’t mean there are no cosmic rays,” said co-author Matthieu Renaud, an astrophysicist at the Montpellier Universe and Particles Laboratory, part of the National Center for Scientific Research in France. “We have to go through all the underlying hypotheses regarding acceleration mechanisms and environmental conditions in order to convert the absence of gamma rays into an upper limit for cosmic ray production.”The researchers propose a few scenarios that may have affected Fermi’s ability to see gamma rays from the event, like the way the explosion distributed debris and the density of material surrounding the star.Fermi’s observations provide the first opportunity to study conditions right after the supernova explosion. Additional observations of SN 2023ixf at other wavelengths, new simulations and models based on this event, and future studies of other young supernovae will help astronomers home in on the mysterious sources of the universe’s cosmic rays.Fermi is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership managed by Goddard. Fermi was developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and the United States.

Southern Spirit project faces hurdles from local utilities and legislation

Amid legislative and utility pushback, the ambitious Southern Spirit energy project confronts obstacles in its quest to enhance grid connectivity and bolster renewable power in the Southeast.Gautama Mehta reports for Grist.In short:The Southern Spirit project, aimed at linking Texas' power grid to the Southeast, faces opposition from utilities in Mississippi and Louisiana, fearing competition from cheaper electricity.Louisiana legislation may block the project by denying eminent domain for transmission lines that don't primarily serve the state.Despite opposition, the project is seen as a key step in boosting regional power resilience and facilitating renewable energy transmission.Key quote:"We have substantial challenges within markets, within generators, that are trying to stop the building of transmission."— Mark Lauby, chief engineer, North American Electric Reliability CorporationWhy this matters:Texas operates its own independent power grid managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which covers most of the state. This independence means that when Texas faces power shortages, like during the devastating winter storm in February 2021, it cannot easily import electricity from other grids. Linking grids can facilitate the integration of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, by balancing variable outputs across a broader network, thus advancing environmental and public health goals.Oil and gas production responsible for $77 billion in annual US health damages.

Amid legislative and utility pushback, the ambitious Southern Spirit energy project confronts obstacles in its quest to enhance grid connectivity and bolster renewable power in the Southeast.Gautama Mehta reports for Grist.In short:The Southern Spirit project, aimed at linking Texas' power grid to the Southeast, faces opposition from utilities in Mississippi and Louisiana, fearing competition from cheaper electricity.Louisiana legislation may block the project by denying eminent domain for transmission lines that don't primarily serve the state.Despite opposition, the project is seen as a key step in boosting regional power resilience and facilitating renewable energy transmission.Key quote:"We have substantial challenges within markets, within generators, that are trying to stop the building of transmission."— Mark Lauby, chief engineer, North American Electric Reliability CorporationWhy this matters:Texas operates its own independent power grid managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which covers most of the state. This independence means that when Texas faces power shortages, like during the devastating winter storm in February 2021, it cannot easily import electricity from other grids. Linking grids can facilitate the integration of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, by balancing variable outputs across a broader network, thus advancing environmental and public health goals.Oil and gas production responsible for $77 billion in annual US health damages.

Revolutionizing Energy Storage: Li-CO2 Batteries With Carbon Capture

New technology could lead to batteries that store energy and capture CO2, offering a significant advancement in environmental technology. Efficient and cheap batteries that can...

A groundbreaking advancement in battery technology offers a dual benefit of efficient energy storage and CO2 capture, made possible by a new catalyst development system.New technology could lead to batteries that store energy and capture CO2, offering a significant advancement in environmental technology.Efficient and cheap batteries that can also capture harmful emissions could be right around the corner, thanks to a new system that speeds up the development of catalysts for lithium-CO2 (Li-CO2) batteries.The technology has been developed by the University of Surrey, Imperial College London, and Peking University to address the slow and inefficient methods currently used to produce catalysts for Li-CO2 batteries. In the study, researchers used their tool to test and screen materials like platinum, gold, silver, copper, iron, and nickel to easily investigate whether they would be suitable candidates for developing high-performing Li-CO2 batteries.Dr. Kai Yang, corresponding author of this work, project co-leader and Lecturer from the Advanced Technology Institute at the University of Surrey, explained:“We have created a cutting-edge lab-on-a-chip electrochemical testing platform that can do multiple things at the same time. It helps evaluate electrocatalysts, optimize operation conditions, and study CO2 conversion in high-performance lithium-CO2 batteries. This new method is more cost-effective, efficient, and controllable than traditional ways of making these materials.”Li-CO2 batteries are a promising new type of battery that work by combining lithium and carbon dioxide; they not only store energy effectively but also offer a way to capture CO2, potentially making a dual contribution to the fight against climate change.Dr. Yunlong Zhao, the lead corresponding author of this study and a Senior Lecturer at Imperial College London, the National Physical Laboratory, and visiting academic from the University of Surrey, said:“It is crucial that we develop new negative emissions technologies. Our lab-on-a-chip platform will play a crucial role in advancing this goal. It will not only enhance our understanding of novel batteries, but it can also be applied to other systems like metal-air batteries, fuel cells, and photoelectrochemical cells.“This new tool will enable quick screening of catalysts, studying reaction mechanisms, and practical applications, from nanoscience to cutting-edge carbon removal technologies.”The study has been published by Energy and Environmental Science.Reference: “Developing highly reversible Li–CO2 batteries: from on-chip exploration to practical application” by Manman Wang, Kai Yang, Yuchen Ji, Xiaobin Liao, Guangpeng Zhang, Mateus G. Masteghin, Nianhua Peng, Filipe Richheimer, Huanxin Li, Jianan Wang, Xinhua Liu, Shichun Yang, Enrico Petrucco, Paul Shearing, Fernando A. Castro, S. Ravi P. Silva, Yan Zhao, Feng Pan and Yunlong Zhao, 21 July 2023, Energy & Environmental Science.DOI: 10.1039/D3EE00794D

California derailed its booming rooftop solar buildout. Can it be fixed?

California state Senator Josh Becker is worried that the Golden State is undermining a pillar of its clean energy transition: distributed solar power. Though California has more large-scale solar and battery projects than just about any other state, smaller-scale energy — primarily rooftop solar — has contributed…

California state Senator Josh Becker is worried that the Golden State is undermining a pillar of its clean energy transition: distributed solar power. Though California has more large-scale solar and battery projects than just about any other state, smaller-scale energy — primarily rooftop solar — has contributed nearly as much to its energy transition to date. But over the past year, a string of utility-backed decisions from the California Public Utilities Commission have come ​“dangerously close to discouraging much-needed distributed energy in this state,” Becker, a Democrat, said. That’s why he — and a growing number of California politicians — are proposing legislation to reverse that trend. The first blow to distributed solar was the CPUC’s decision to alter California’s decades-old net-metering regime in ways that have slashed the value of rooftop solar for single-family homes and commercial properties. Two bills introduced this year are taking aim at that policy, which has decimated the state’s once-thriving rooftop solar industry since it went into effect a year ago today. And beyond legislative fixes, a lawsuit seeking to reverse the decision was just granted review by the California Supreme Court. But even more harmful decisions have followed, Becker said. In November, the CPUC ordered changes that will derail the economics of shared-solar programs used by apartment buildings, schools, farms, municipalities and shared commercial properties, he said — a policy he hopes to reverse with legislation he introduced last month. And then, in March, the CPUC proposed policies that would undermine a community solar plan backed by environmental justice organizations, consumer advocates, labor unions and the state’s homebuilding industry. That plan was seen by many solar industry groups as a last chance for California to throw a lifeline to its distributed solar sector, which accounts for nearly half of the state’s nation-leading solar capacity. Taken together, these decisions appear to be leading to a regulatory regime that will prevent distributed solar from continuing to play a role in meeting the state’s clean-energy goals, Becker said in an April interview. “We should be clear, that’s the message we’re sending right now,” he said. ​“With a community solar ruling that’s contrary to what 22 other states are doing, with a ruling that discourages schools and municipalities from being able to self-consume their own solar that they generate — I really think we have to take a step back and say, what are our goals here?” Becker is not the only one asking that question. Solar industry groups, environmental justice organizations, state and local elected officials and other entities are throwing their support behind the various legislative and legal efforts to put the state’s distributed solar industry back on track. The stakes are high, not only because California emits more planet-warming carbon dioxide than most countries, but also because of its position as the nation’s climate leader. It’s common for California climate policy to be exported to other states and even the federal level. California’s new distributed solar regulations have also made life more difficult for the solar industry writ large. They’ve crimped sales for nationwide rooftop solar providers such as Sunrun, Sunnova and SunPower in what’s been by far the country’s biggest rooftop solar market. And they’ve caused even more hardship for the larger number of smaller solar installers in the state. “We’ve heard from a lot of our customers across the industry in California,” said Fox Swim, policy researcher at solar software company Aurora Solar, which tracked a significant hit from the CPUC’s decision in its recently released report on 2023 nationwide solar installation data. ​“There are just a lot of companies hurting, a lot of companies having to cut back on staff, and having to make a lot of hard choices.” The policy push to get California rooftop solar back on track  In February, the first bill to try and right the listing ship of California distributed solar was introduced: AB 2619. The legislation would ​“ensure that incentives are restored for residents who generate clean power for the grid,” according to a statement from Assemblymember Damon Connolly (D), the bill’s author. It would repeal the ​“damaging” decision — commonly known as ​“NEM 3.0” to distinguish it from the state’s two previous net energy metering (NEM) regimes — and force the CPUC to create new rules aimed at keeping rooftop solar growth on the trajectory needed to meet California’s long-range climate goals. Connolley cited the necessity of reversing the economic fallout from the CPUC’s new rules and highlighted the importance of distributed solar in ​“achieving 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2045,” the goal set by the state’s landmark clean energy law SB 100. A separate bill, AB 2256, would order the CPUC to restructure its policies by running an independent cost-benefit analysis of the role rooftop and distributed solar can play in achieving the state’s clean energy goals. Authored by Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D) and supported by nonprofit groups including Environment California, the Center for Biological Diversity and Environmental Working Group, AB 2256 would require that the CPUC consider a number of values these groups say were left out of its net-metering analysis, including improved local air and water quality, avoided land use impacts and other ​“non-economic” benefits. California’s big three investor-owned utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, are the primary opponents of these bills. But the legislation also faces pushback from utility ratepayer representatives and some energy policy experts, which back the CPUC’s rooftop solar decision. These groups say that California’s previous policies shifted service costs from customers who had rooftop solar (and therefore much lower monthly bills) to those who didn’t. That’s a major problem, they say, since customers of these utilities already pay some of the highest electricity rates in the country and those rates are set to increase even further. These groups also dispute the solar industry’s claims that the CPUC’s decision is to blame for the drop in solar installations over the past year — or that the industry’s previous pace of growth was healthy for the state’s long-term energy equity and climate goals. They point to large-scale solar, which costs less to build than rooftop solar, as a preferable option. “The rooftop solar market isn’t dying,” Severin Borenstein, head of the Energy Institute at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, wrote in an April blog post. ​“It is coming down from the 2021-2023 sugar rush when net metering policies combined with rapidly climbing electricity rates, recent power shutoffs and the impending switch from NEM 2.0 to NEM 3.0 to produce growth that simply couldn’t be maintained.” Borenstein argued that, instead, the new policy has simply ​“stepped us back from the recent exponential growth in new systems,” which have led to ​“exponential growth in cost shifts onto other ratepayers.” The dreaded ​“cost shift” argument  Borenstein’s case that California’s previous net-metering rules lead to harmful ​“cost shifts” represents one side of a hotly contested debate that has been raging in regulatory battles across the country. On the other side of the debate, environmental groups, community advocates and energy analysts have argued that utilities have misrepresented the underlying data to counter a set of policies they oppose for other reasons — mostly that utilities can’t make money on rooftop solar. In California, utilities have cited findings from the CPUC’s Public Advocates Office, an independent group tasked with protecting utility customers, that the CPUC’s previous net-metering policies have led to billions of dollars of costs being shifted from solar to non-solar customers. But these cost-shift calculations are flawed, critics say. They argue that CPUC has overestimated the costs that rooftop solar imposes on utility operations and undercounted the societal benefits, as highlighted by Friedman’s recently proposed bill.

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