News briefs: Record-breaking climate disasters

Plus, Saudis plan zero-carbon city, and battery-powered trains are on track

A (hot) year to remember

It was only because December was relatively cool (compared to 2019) that 2020 was not the stand-alone hottest year on record, Copernicus Climate Change Service reports. Katherine Dunn writes in Fortune that even while the pandemic triggered global shutdowns and a drop in greenhouse gas emissions due to the impact on transportation, last year was the hottest on record, tied with 2016. Meanwhile, 2020 was for the U.S. the fifth-hottest year, and a record-breaking number of billion-dollar disasters struck the nation last year. A record number of named tropical storms formed in the Atlantic, with a record 12 making landfall. The nation also had its most active wildfire year on record due to very dry conditions in the West and unusually warm temperatures that gripped much of the country, NOAA reports in its annual recap of the climate and extreme weather events. 

Saudi Arabia plans to build zero-carbon city

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has unveiled plans to build a zero-carbon city, with construction starting in the first quarter of this year. Reuters describes the project as an ultra-futuristic and sustainable city to be the first major construction project at NEOM, a 10,000 plus square mile development in northwestern Saudi Arabia, aimed at diversifying the economy of the world’s largest oil exporter. According to the announcement, the city will be over 105 miles long, able to house one million residents, and it will be powered by 100% clean energy. The project, known as “The Line,” is expected to contribute $48 billion to the kingdom’s gross domestic product and create 380,000 jobs. The city’s infrastructure would cost $100 billion to $200 billion.

BNSF and Wabtec begin battery electric locomotive trials

BNSF, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.B) and Wabtec have begun testing a battery-electric locomotive in revenue service between Barstow and Stockton, Calif., according to a report in the International Railway Journal. The report says the pilot test will run from January until the end of March. The battery-electric locomotive is expected to reduce the environmental impact from emissions along the route, while improving the fuel economy for the entire consist by at least 10%. If the initial pilot proves successful, BNSF will look to expand testing to other locations and operating conditions on its network. The story quotes John Lovenburg, BNSF vice president for environmental matters, as saying, “We’ve got everything in place and we’re ready to see how this next-generation locomotive performs in revenue service. BNSF is focused on continuing to reduce our environmental impact, and we’re committed to doing our part to test and assess the commercial viability of emerging technologies that reduce emissions.” 

Spain slammed by rare snowstorm, more cold ahead

Storm Filomena blanketed parts of Spain with the heaviest snowfall in decades, and more winter weather is expected in the coming week. CNN reports the Spanish government is sending convoys carrying the Covid-19 vaccine and food supplies to areas cut off by the storm, which dumped snow across central Spain and killed four people. In the Madrid area, rescuers reached 1,500 people trapped in cars, while police broke up a large snowball fight after authorities appealed for citizens to stay at home for risk of accidents or spreading coronavirus, according to the report. Forecasters warned of dangerous conditions in the coming days, with temperatures expected to fall to as low as -14 F. next week and the prospect of snow turning to ice and damaged trees falling.

Energy storage boom is here

Battery storage has entered a new phase of rapid growth, brought on by falling prices for lithium-ion batteries and rising demand for electricity sources that can fill in the gaps in a grid that is increasingly fueled by wind and solar, Dan Gearino writes for InsideClimate News. He notes high demand is leading to a boom in investment in battery companies, and fueled speculation about new kinds of batteries. He points out that five years ago, a 20-megawatt battery storage project was considered big, and now a 300-megawatt project — the largest in the world — has gone online in California, and even bigger battery projects are coming this year.