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The top 10 Canary Media stories of 2021

Check out our most popular pieces of the year. It turns out that people love unexpected good news about clean energy breakthroughs.
By Julian Spector

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The end of the year is a time to reflect. We could pause and think back just a few months to a time when life was getting back to normal and landmark national climate legislation seemed imminent.

But that would be a real downer, so instead, I dug into our data to find the 10 Canary Media stories that resonated most with you readers since our launch in April. If you enjoyed these articles when they were first published, consider revisiting them. Or if you missed them originally, now’s the time to catch up. It’s the end of the year. Nobody’s expecting you to work.

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Our traffic numbers serve as an informal straw poll of what dedicated climate and energy readers care about. I spotted a few trends from the hit parade:

  • Clearly, y’all gravitate to stories of meaningful climatetech breakthroughs that are startlingly close at hand. The most-enjoyed stories recounted how key energy technologies are on an empirically measurable cost-reduction trajectory, how used car batteries are already storing solar energy cost-effectively, and how today’s electric trucks could replace a vast number of fuel-burning trucks across North America.
  • You also appreciated hopping off the treadmill of federal policy coverage to see what state governments did to enact meaningful economywide decarbonization. 
  • And there was considerable interest in long-duration storage, the technology that could convert the ups and downs of wind and solar into reliable power whenever it’s needed. I find that to be an exceptionally fascinating sector of the clean energy world, rife with exotic and often highly speculative concepts — and suddenly flush with cash like never before.

I speak for all my colleagues in saying we’re honored that you came to Canary Media for your clean energy news in our first year of existence. We look forward to telling more stories in the year to come. You can help us do just that by donating to Canary Media — through the end of the year, donations will be matched!

Without further ado, here are our most-read stories of 2021.

10. Long-duration storage roundup: News, players and technology

Come for the Dali image of time slipping away, stay for a crash course in the wild world of long-duration storage. These technologies purport to turn renewables into a functional, round-the-clock source of electricity. But besides pumped hydro — a classic, long-running technology — long-duration technologies are still grasping for meaningful scale and commercial success. That hasn’t stopped the companies named in this article from raising money and embarking on projects that could launch them into the big time.

9. Long-duration energy storage can help clean up the grid, but only if it’s super cheap

Why should you care about entry No. 10? Entry No. 9 has the answer. David Roberts explains why we need long-duration storage to complete the clean energy system, and then walks through the leading contenders in the space and what they need to accomplish in order to be successful.

8. Uber and Lyft are hurting, not helping, the climate and society

Uber and Lyft have been touted for reducing dependence on car ownership. But new research quantified the real cost to society from all the extra miles cars travel just to reach the passengers they are transporting. The study concluded that ride-hailing is better for local air quality compared to people driving their own cars, but worse for greenhouse gas emissions, congestion, crashes and noise. Electric Uber and Lyft cars don’t solve the problem, but carpooling in a ride-share does make it better for society than driving yourself around.

7. The many varieties of lithium-ion batteries battling for market share

Generalizing about lithium-ion batteries” is kind of like railing against the media” or religion”: Cool critique and all, but which one are you talking about? For those who crave granularity, this article breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of the lithium-based varietals that are already reshaping the power and automotive industries. It’s worth understanding, especially if you want to bet some life savings on solid-state battery stocks.

6. Jigar Shah’s big idea for getting rooftop solar and smart appliances to low-income Americans

The Department of Energy helped jump-start the era of Big Clean Energy beginning in 2009 by lending money to large solar projects when private investors were too timid to back them. Now Jigar Shah, the clean energy investor turned head of the DOE’s Loan Programs Office, wants to use that lending power to bring smart energy appliances to lower-income households. A key barrier is the high-interest-rate loans offered to people with lower credit scores, which drive up costs. But with some government lending as a backstop, companies could get controllable energy appliances and devices in far more households, then link them up to make the overall grid cleaner and more reliable.

5. Washington state now has the nation’s most ambitious climate policy

Imagine a world where legislators come together in Washington, D.C. to hash out the intricacies of societywide decarbonization, and then pass a law to make it a reality. This actually did happen in 2021 — but in the other Washington. The state managed to build consensus around pricing carbon by doing it in a way that directs revenue towars building clean infrastructure and fostering environmental justice. Carbon pricing has achieved little political momentum elsewhere in the U.S. lately, so it’s valuable to see what complementary policies can make it more politically palatable.

4. Here’s how we can build clean power infrastructure at huge scale and breakneck speed

There’s a gigantic mismatch between the pace of clean energy construction needed to hit science-based midcentury decarbonization targets and how long it actually takes to build big projects. This article delves into why that is and what we can do about it. Just the right amount of nerdy for our Canary readers.

3. Electric trucks could handle millions of short-haul routes across North America

Trucking was supposed to be nigh impossible to clean up via electrification. But it turns out 5 million medium- and heavy-duty truck routes could go electric today, according to real-world tests done by major freight companies. Today’s battery-powered vehicles are ready to take on the half of North American freight trips that are less than 100 miles. It’s one of those the future is here already” moments that clearly resonated with Canary readers. And no wonder — transportation is now the biggest source of U.S. emissions, and meaningful improvements are actually within reach.

2. Used EV batteries are storing solar power at grid scale — and making money at it

The future is here already” also describes this tale of a bootstrapped startup making money by turning used Nissan Leaf car batteries into a solar storage plant for California’s grid. B2U Storage Solutions is doing something that’s been talked about as a speculative, far-off possibility for too many years. If you want to see for yourself, check out the short video I recorded from the scene of the breakthrough. Getting out of the home office once in a while pays off!

1. The unstoppably good news about clean energy

Never underestimate the power of positive headlines. But optimism alone doesn’t keep the lights on. In this Q&A, Kingsmill Bond, a financial analyst turned energy thinker, lays out a rigorously quantitative argument for why clean energy is poised for turbocharged acceleration. The key finding is that solar, wind, battery and hydrogen-electrolyzer technology all have documented learning curves, meaning that the more they’re installed, the cheaper they get, in predictable ways. As Bond puts it:

The cost of transition, just in purely financial terms, is cheaper than the cost of business as usual, and as many others have pointed out, technically all of this stuff is completely feasible.

Bonus round: Staff favorites!

That’s a whirlwind tour of major themes in today’s struggle toward a lower-carbon world. But a few other stories lodged in the minds of our staff. I wanted to highlight them alongside the blockbuster pieces above.

  • As coal mining companies go bankrupt, they’re leaving behind toxic mines for states to clean up, thanks to loopholes in the laws that provide for reclamation funds.
  • Canary interviewed entrepreneur Robert Blake, whose company Solar Bear installs clean energy infrastructure on tribal lands and puts formerly incarcerated people to work.
  • A long environmental justice campaign paid off for residents of Oxnard, California with the completion of a massive new battery instead of the gas-burning plant that once seemed inevitable.
  • This call to recognize the little-known and oft-forgotten U.N. COP on biodiversity is the closest thing to a lyrical essay that we have ever published,” according to Canary Media copyeditor Michelle Vessel.
  • Tell the boating enthusiast in your life: Electric vessels are on the way.
  • Global climate finance is often structured in ways that deny help to the exact vulnerable countries it’s meant to assist.
  • We published a whole multimedia series on how the million-person island of Oahu, Hawaii is racing against the clock to shut down its largest fossil-fueled power plant and replace it with clean energy and batteries. You can experience that storyline via feature reporting, newsletters and video. (And stay tuned for a podcast episode early next year!)
  • While you’re decompressing for the holidays, tune in to Canary Media’s climate and energy playlist, which Mike Munsell, author of our Friday Social column, curated from hundreds of reader submissions.

Which stories stuck with you this year? Tweet us at @CanaryMediaInc. And we’ll keep the hits coming in 2022.

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.