Can Wilderness be Accidental?

An announcement from the Society of Environmental Journalists highlighting winners of the SEJ’s 10th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment alerted me to a great article from Portland-based writer Dave Wolman entitled Accidental Wilderness.

Published in the May 24, 2010 edition of High Country News, the article chronicles the biological richness of lands owned by the Department of Energy and Department of Defense. The sites have familiar names: Hanford, White Sands Missile Range, Nevada Test Site, and more. Many of these lands were acquired in the 1940s and 1950s and have huge security buffers. With limited human interference on roughly 90% of the holdings, they’ve been allowed to flourish.

The lands have also become defacto safe havens for endangered species reintroductions, such as with the Aplomado Falcon on the White Sands Missile Range. Perhaps good can come from what was previously considered bad.

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Falling Mercury

According to a new study by the US Geological Society, fallen autumn leaves contribute as much mercury to the environment as precipitation. This is significant because precipitation was previously the major route for hazardous mercury in the air to be deposited to the environment.

Most of the mercury in fish and food webs come from the air, and specifically from coal fired power plants and other industrial sources. The USGS study examined mercury levels in litterfall from forests over a three-year period in 15 eastern U.S. states. A full copy of the study can be accessed via the USGS website.

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Turn Off the Tap to Cut Emissions

If you want to save energy and cut greenhouse gas emissions then focus on urban water conservation. That’s according to a new report entitled Drops of Energy: Conserving Urban Water in California to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions (May 2011). The policy paper was produced by the UC Berkeley School of Law’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment and UCLA School of Law’s Environmental Law Center & Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment.

But why urban water conservation for greenhouse gas emissions?

The energy-water nexus has long been established. According to the California Energy Commission, consumption of water in California requires approximately 20 percent of the state’s electricity, 30 percent of its non-power plant natural gas, and 88 million gallons of diesel fuel annually. All of this energy consumption generates a lot of greenhouse gases.

When examining the state’s energy-water balance sheet, urban water usage constitutes more than 70 percent of the electricity associated with water supply and treatment (7,554 gigawatts for urban compared to 3,188 gigawatts for agriculture). Urban water usage also accounts for almost 80 percent of the electricity associated with end-uses of water (27,887 gigawatts for urban end uses to 7,372 gigawatts for agriculture). So it makes sense that if you want to reduce energy use in the state (and associated greenhouse gas emissions), then tackling urban water consumption should be on the agenda. But there are challenges.

Study authors held a one-day workshop in October 2010 to examine barriers to reducing urban water consumption. Participants included Google, Safeway, Walmart, and various energy and water utilities, among others. The group identified four key barriers:

1) Lack of Financial Incentives to Conserve
2) Insufficient Data
3) Lack of Consumer Awareness
4) Lack of Funds for Water Efficiency Measures

The first barrier is a no-brainer and must be fixed. Water rates must be structured so that users pay more as they use more water and conservation measures are rewarded with short payback periods.

Two barriers seem ripe for innovation. The lack of adequate data about water consumption among end users poses a challenge for both policy makers and for consumers themselves. Many consumers are unaware of their water use and the energy savings associated with water conservation in their communities, residences, and businesses.

According to the report, water utilities should provide consumers with relevant real-time information about water use, when feasible. This information could also include users’ consumption patterns and expenses, as well as the aggregate consumption of their similarly situated neighbors or regional consumption averages. It should link consumption patterns with cost and strategies to conserve.

Another recommendation is to make all the data searchable with easy customer access. Interactive calculators and real-time scenarios would help consumers realize that they could reduce water and energy use, along with associated costs and greenhouse gas emissions, through simply lifestyle changes.

Tackling urban water consumption to reduce energy and greenhouse gas emissions will not be an easy task. But the first step is educating consumers about how and where they use water, and how that usage compares with their neighbors.

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DIY Climate Modeling

On Monday, the media reported on a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey detailing the consequences of a winter ‘superstorm’ scenario that would strike the US West Coast and produce precipitation levels exceeding those experienced on average once only every 500 to 1,000 years. How bad is that? The model depicted a storm that could last for more than 40 days and dump 10 feet of water on the state. Climate scientists have long said that rising temperatures could increase the intensity of storms and a superstorm is not outside the realm of possibility.

At the same time, the media also reported this week that Russia’s deadly heat wave last summer (the worst in a 1,000 years according to the head of the Russia Meteorological Center) was driven primarily by a natural weather phenomenon, not man-made causes. A natural weather phenomenon killed nearly 11,000 people in Moscow, caused widespread wildfires, and reduced the country’s grain harvest by a third? Yes, according to scientists.

These two events indicate that we really don’t understand climate as well as we should. That’s where we come in to play.

Most are aware of the distributed computing project known as SETI@home, which is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Everyday citizens participate by running a free program that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data on their home computer.

Climate modelers have gotten in on the game of using distributed computing with Climateprediction.net.

The scientists’ goal is to produce predictions of the Earth’s climate through year 2100. These predictions must be tested for accuracy, which can occur by using the ‘free time’ on home computers. Participants give up processing time on their computers when the machines are turned on, but not used to their full capacity.

Do It Yourself climate modelers can choose various scenarios to support. One such project is the Seasonal Attribution Project, which runs simulations to determine the extent to which the risk of extreme weather events is attributable to human-induced climate change. Specifically, the team examines the United Kingdom floods of Autumn  2000, the wettest on record since 1776. The region received roughly 19 inches of rain, or double the seasonal average. The models examine various scenarios both with and without various human-induced variables.

Climateprediction.net is one way that we can all lend a hand to better understand the consequences of climate change. Download the necessary software and start analyzing climate data in your (computer’s) free time.

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QR Codes in Nature

With the rise of smart phones and camera phone technology, quick response or QR codes are popping up everywhere from display ads to building permits to trail markers.

A QR code is a type of bar code consisting of black modules arranged in a square pattern on a white background. The information encoded can be text, a URL, or other data. Marketers are using QR codes to link back to specific offers or provide additional information. In a recent blog post, marketer Heidi Cohen identifies 12 places to use QR codes for marketing.

There are other, very interesting uses of QR codes.

Last month, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that QR codes will be on all Department of Buildings permits. Imagine a permit card hanging on a construction site. Pedestrians can use their smart phone to access building permit history, retrieve information about planned changes, or find out who to contact to ask questions. Stories about New York’s program also cite uses such as retrieving info about renting an apartment or lodging a complaint.

An equally interesting use of QR codes is for interpretive purposes. The city of Port Townsend, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula is using the codes on hand-drawn pictorial maps to link to events, local businesses, and sponsored YouTube videos. The code itself doesn’t change but the associated content can be modified or updated as needed.

The Lake County Forest Preserve District (south of Chicago) has begun using QR codes throughout its forest preserves. Hikers can use their smart phone to link to online maps. Staffers simply create QR codes on stickers and then affix them to signage around the preserve. Other uses include accessing historic information and upcoming nature programs. Imagine self-guided nature walks with QR codes identifying tree species or geologic features.

The Augusta Canal National Heritage Area in Georgia is also using QR codes to link visitors with specially created mobile web pages. The Augusta Canal was built in 1845 as a source of power, water, and transportation, and is currently the only intact industrial canal in the American South still in use. Although man-made, many areas along its bank have returned to a more natural state and boast an urban wildlife refuge home to varied flora and fauna.

Interpretive staff have placed small signs at half mile intervals along the Augusta Canal DigiTrail at historic sites and natural features. Hikers can pull up written info, photos, maps, and more, making it a truly interactive experience.

If you know about other uses of QR codes in natural settings, leave a comment or link below.

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Desalination and the Dodo bird

For a country with only 1.2 million residents and a record rainfall of almost three meters per year, you wouldn’t think that the tiny island nation of the Republic of Mauritius would have a water supply problem. But as of January 2011, local reservoirs are only at roughly 30-40 percent of capacity and the Minister of Energy and Public Utilities is pushing legislation to encourage local hotels to install desalination units saying that such technology is a reliable alternative to treating fresh water as a result of energy-efficient technologies.

Since 2005, all new hotels in Mauritius are required to accommodate desalination as well as recycling and reuse of water. Some hotels are currently desalinating 800 cubic meters of water per day or roughly 200,000 gallons. In the US, hotels use an average of 209 gallons of water each day per occupied room.

Due to the water crisis, the government has passed regulations restricting the use of potable water to wash vehicles, pavements, buildings, and to water lawns.  Violators could be subject to fines of Rs 200,000 (US$6,800) and up to two years in prison.

Despite plans for two new large water storage projects, the opposition party is also calling for increased desalination noting that the new water sources will not be operational for 10 years. The island nation, located 560 miles east of Madagascar in the middle of the Indian Ocean, has the dubious honor of being the former home of the Dodo bird. Perhaps the descendants of those that drove the Dodo to extinction can learn from the lessons of a changing environment.

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Governor’s Signature Could Help Propel Energy Storage Market to $35 Billion

In a state where the legislature is dysfunctional and often prefers to legislate through the initiative process, California lawmakers passed the California Energy Storage Bill – AB 2514.

The bill requires the Public Utilities Commission to set targets for systems that store energy. Such systems are regarded as important for the efficient operation of an electrical grid with high proportion of renewable energy sources like solar and wind. The state’s renewable portfolio standard is currently 20% by 2010, with legislation to increase that to 33% by 2020. Analogous to TIVO’s time-shifting features, energy storage allows users to consume energy generated during non-peak hours. The bill is sitting on Governor Schwarzenegger’s desk and he has until September 30 to sign or veto it. If he chooses not to act, it becomes law.

According to Pike Research, the sale of energy storage technology generates $1.5 billion in annual revenues. This market could become a $35 billion business by 2020, bolstered by more wind and solar farms coming online. Additional technological developments positively affecting the storage market includes the roll out of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles, and the deployment of smart grid technology.

The AB 2514 roll-out schedule includes:

  • March 1, 2012: CPUC to open rule-making proceeding
  • October 1, 2013: Adopt energy storage system procurement target for load-serving entities
  • October 1, 2014: Adopt target for publicly owned utilities
  • December 31, 2015: Achieve target (load-serving)
  • December 31, 2016: Achieve target (publicly owned utility)
  • December 31, 2020: Achieve second target (load serving)
  • December 31, 2021: Achieve second target (publicly owned utility)

Energy storage is expected to benefit many constituents. According to the California Energy Storage Alliance, it creates value for multiple stakeholders:

  • Customers: reduced energy and demand costs, emergency backup, demand response, improved reliability
  • Utilities: load leveling, T&D relief/deferral, improved power quality, reduced peak generation and spinning reserve needs
  • System Operators: ancillary services, grid integration, improved grid reliability and security
  • Society: more renewables, fewer emissions, healthier climate, more jobs

Sign the bill, Governor Schwarzenegger, and let’s get started.

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$5.91 billion per minute

When you’re submitting a bid to replace the KC-X aerial refueling tanker at $29.55 billion for 179 airplanes, every second counts. Literally and figuratively. Unfortunately when your bid is 5 minutes late and is disqualified, it works out to $5.91 billion per minute. That’s what allegedly happened to Los Angeles-based US Aerospace and its Ukrainian partner Antonov.

Bids were due at 2 p.m. EST at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio on July 9. According to US Aerospace, the company’s messenger arrived at the Air Force base at 1:30 pm and was denied entry, given bad directions, and told to wait by Air Force personnel. The Air Force stamped the proposal received at 2:05 pm. US Aerospace was notified July 22 that the company’s bid was late and would not be considered as part of the source selection.

The US Aerospace/Antonov team has filed a formal protest with the Government Accountability Office. According to the GAO, “…bidders or others interested in government procurements may have reason to believe that a contract has been, or is about to be, awarded improperly or illegally, or that they have been unfairly denied a contract or an opportunity to compete for a contract.” The bid protest process does not address programmatic issues such as whether the KC-X tanker program is needed or whether US Aerospace’s proposal is better, but rather, were the procurement rules followed. The US Aerospace team filed a protest (File # 403464.1) on August 2, 2010 and a decision is due October 6, 2010.

According to Aviation Week, at issue is when the US Air Force took control of the proposal documents submitted by US Aerospace. Was it when the messenger stepped on the base? The GAO will sort through the sequence of events.

Skilled in business development, proposal experts stress the importance of following the prospect’s submittal rules, however crazy those rules may be to everyone else. Getting disqualified because the submittal failed to meet the basic administrative requirements is every proposal specialist’s worst (and avoidable) nightmare. If they ask for a ‘soft-sided’ binder, then you should make sure you go out and find a soft-sided binder for your proposal. If they want the proposal delivered to Hawaii on a Monday before noon, then you need to make alternative arrangements because no delivery service will guarantee it before 5pm.

In government procurement, some rules are not meant to be broken. Good luck, however, to the US Aerospace/Antonov bid. Increased competition will only make the troubled KC-X tanker procurement process better in the long run.

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New Study Says 35% Wind and Solar is Grid Feasible

Today, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory based in Golden, CO released the Western Wind and Solar Integration Study. The goal of the study is to better understand the costs and operating impacts due to the variability and uncertainty of wind, photovoltaic, and concentrated solar power.

The study found that a 35-percent target for wind and solar is technically feasible and does not necessitate extensive additional infrastructure, but does require key changes to current operational practice.

A full copy of the 536 page report is available on NREL’s website.

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