The Weekly Anthropocene, November 9 2022
A Dispatch from the Wild, Weird World of Humanity and its Biosphere
Note: this newsletter was written before the results of the US midterm election on November 8th, which will be discussed in an upcoming issue of The Weekly Anthropocene.
In 1913, the Squamish Nation village of Sen̓áḵw was forcibly relocated by the British Columbia government, a violent act later determined to be illegal. In the 2000s, they won back 11.7 acres of that land through the courts-now located at the heart of the bustling global city of Vancouver. As it’s their land, they can now essentially build whatever they want, however they want, on their valuable reclaimed property without encumbrance from the oppressive thicket of zoning regulations, permitting delays, and neighbors’ lawsuits that has increasingly impeded housing development in developed countries. And what they want to build, as voted in by 87% of their members, is a breathtakingly bold new “solarpunk-style” housing development, dubbed the Sen̓áḵw Project. It consists of 6,080 new rental homes in a set of 11 beautiful new towers inspired by the traditional architecture of the Coast Salish peoples. (See artist’s conception above). The Sen̓áḵw Project will be Canada’s first large-scale net-zero carbon emissions housing development, entirely powered by a new 10 MW facility converting waste heat from Vancouver’s sewer system into electricity. 1,215 of those new rental homes will be sold below the market price as affordable housing. Grocery, retail, restaurant, childcare, sport, and office spaces also figure in the plans. At least 45,000 square feet of at least one tower will be constructed with timber, using 50% less carbon than concrete. The Sen̓áḵw Project will also de-emphasize cars, with less than 1,000 new parking spaces being considered and an array of new pedestrian paths, bike lanes, bus stops, streetcar stations, and ferry lines in the works to serve the new development.
All this sounds great, but begs the question of whether it will actually be built. The Sen̓áḵw Project sounds like urbanist science fiction, or at least like a beautiful dream that will inevitably founder upon the shoals of reality. But it’s a done deal; it’s being built right now! Construction started in September 2022, supported by a Can$1.4 billion low-interest construction loan from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal government. (Pictured, from the Vancouver Sun: Justin Trudeau with Khelsilem Tl’aḵwasiḵ̓an Sxwchálten, Council Chairperson of the Squamish Nation). The first phase, of three towers, is set to be completed by 2026! Truly wondrous news.
United States of America: Clean Energy
America’s biggest-ever electric bus microgrid has opened in Montgomery County, Maryland, right next to Washington DC. The Brookville Smart Energy Bus Depot powers its fleet, set to scale up to 70 buses by 2026, with 1.6 megawatts (MW) of solar canopies (pictured, bus charging beneath) and 3 MW of backup batteries. This kind of bus/microgrid system brings a lot of resiliency benefits: the on-site power means it isn’t vulnerable to grid fluctuations or outages, and the buses themselves can charge up on-site and then go out to serve as backup batteries for other parts of town in case of emergency. Maryland’s clean, green, self-sufficient transit hub is an excellent model for the burgeoning electric bus microgrids in other communities across America!
In 2018, Xcel Energy announced its plan to move to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050, a bold, surprisingly forward-thinking move at the time (The Weekly Anthropocene issue for Jan 2, 2019 covered it on page 2, and this writer clearly remembers the feeling of elation at this then-unprecedented news). Now, hundreds of utilities serving 75% of all American customers have adopted similar targets (or made plans to follow similar state-level targets), and Xcel is upping their game still further.
As of October 31, 2022, Xcel Energy is now planning to completely close a 1,017 MW coal plant near Lubbock, Texas by 2028, four years ahead of schedule, and replace it with 1,900 MW of new renewables capacity in New Mexico and Texas. This will save their customers more than $70 million and allow the utility to go completely coal-free by 2030. Great news!
A new study has calculated that solar panels are likely to last much longer than previously expected. For context, a widely cited 2016 study estimated that the United States would have a cumulative total of 7.5 to 10 million metric tons of solar panel waste by 2050, needing to be recycled or landfilled. This isn’t even that much to start with: for comparison, the US recycled 10.6 million short tons of durable goods (appliances, furniture, etc.) in 2018 alone.
However, since that 2016 study, many solar panels have turned out to be much sturdier than expected, likely to outperform their industry-standard 25-year warranties and last for something closer to 40 to 50 years. Plus, newer, more advanced solar panels manufactured since 2016 are even more efficient and durable, and may last even longer. The new study takes all this into account, and calculates that even though the demand for solar panels and the expected future US solar capacity has risen immensely since 2016, we’ll likely only have about 8 million metric tons of solar panels to recycle by 2050. And we’ll only even start seeing a wave of early-generation solar panels reaching the end of their useful lives around 2040. Solar panel waste is not a serious problem. Great news!
The golden skiffia, Skiffia francescae, is a tiny fish endemic to the Teuchitlán River (Rio Teuchitlán) in Jalisco, one of the 32 states (plus a federal city) of Mexico. By 1996, dam construction, pollution, and invasive species had eradicated it from this river, its only wild habitat, making the species extinct in the wild. However, a few golden skiffia survived as aquarium pets, and from the 2010s onward, a network of universities, zoos, and conservationists worked to breed large numbers of them in captivity, while building support on the ground for an eventual reintroduction.
Now, those efforts have come to fruition! On November 4th, during the season of the Day of the Dead, community members released thousands of captive-bred golden skiffia back into the Teuchitlán River, in a celebratory atmosphere complete with costumes, decorations, and community theater. (Pictured above, a skiffia-themed Day of the Dead altar). The fish were previously dewormed, acclimated to local river water in floating cages, and marked with nontoxic elastomer tags for future monitoring.
“The Day of the Dead is a traditional Mexican celebration, when it is believed that people’s deceased ancestors return to the land of the living for one night, to talk and spend time with their families…Releasing the golden skiffia around this time is a metaphor for how the species has come back from the dead to return to its home, not for one night, but forever.” Professor Omar Domínguez-Domínguez, leader of the golden skiffia reintroduction program.
Conservation stories really don’t get better than this: we’ve got rewilding, captive breeding, deep and culturally complex community involvement, and the irresistible living metaphor of bringing a species back to life on the Day of the Dead. Awesome!