renewable energy

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These Farms Are Living a Double Life

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/06/2022 - 6:00pm in

The organic farm community of Heggelbach in the rural alpine upland of Germany’s Baden-Wuerttemberg state is like something out of a fairy tale. Hens cluck in front of the quaint yellow farmhouse, majestic Braunvieh cattle graze among spring daisies in the meadows, and wheels of Camembert ripen in the recently built cheesery. But 20 feet above the crops is something altogether more modern: Steel columns holding 720 gleaming panels comprising 27,000 square feet of state-of-the-art solar technology.

Heggelbach, which adheres to the strict biodynamic rules of the Demeter Federation, is engaged in a radical experiment. Under the guidance of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE) and the University Hohenheim, the farming community built Germany’s biggest solar installation under which crops can grow, a method known as agrophotovoltaics (APV). In winter, the panels ward off the snow; in the summer heat, they afford much-needed shade. And they are high enough for farmer Florian Reyer to navigate his tractor through the rows of potatoes, celery, trefoil grass and wheat seedlings underneath. The researchers chose these four varieties for a reason. “They wanted to test a vegetable, a grain, grass, and potatoes as a typical German staple food,” Reyer explains. 

farmerCan crops and solar panels coexist? Credit: Hofgemeinschaft Heggelbach

In the summer of 2016, the researchers installed the pilot panels at a cost of 660,000 euros ($700,000 USD). They then spent three years analyzing temperatures, harvest and water saturation to answer a question for struggling farmers worldwide: Could the pairing of innovative solar technology and regenerative farming allow farmers to harvest an abundance of vegetables and electricity?

Farming food and sun

Squeezed by rising energy prices and declining crop returns, farmers from Asia to the United States are looking for ways to reap multiple streams of revenue from their land. At the same time, many countries are looking for more places to install renewable energy projects. In places where electricity brings in more money than crops, they’re eyeing vast tracts of farmland. Researchers at Oregon State University calculated that if nearly one percent of agricultural areas worldwide could be converted into solar farms, global energy needs could be satisfied. 

But “only” one percent is actually a lot. In most countries, every acre of farmland is badly needed. Worldwide, the ratio of farmland to person sank by 50 percent in the last 50 years. Meanwhile, the world will need to grow 50 percent more food by 2050 to keep pace with population growth, even as food crops are cleared to make space for more roads, buildings and biofuel crops. In Germany, for instance, 250 million acres of farmland have been planted with monocultures such as corn and grains that are not grown for consumption, but for conversion into so-called biodiesel. Our hunger for energy leads to actual hunger. 

solar farmThe agrovoltaics model that could provide a path forward for both struggling farmers and energy-hungry societies. Credit: Hofgemeinschaft Heggelbach

This is why passionate farmers like Reyer demand that farms not be given over to solar arrays. “Solar parks are not sustainable and not ethical,” he says with a surprising sharpness. “I view the trend to build solar parks on agricultural grounds very skeptically.”

Yet Reyer’s fears are being realized. Solar farms currently cover more than 25,000 acres of agricultural areas in Germany, funneling up to 5,000 euros per hectare in leasing fees to the farmers who own the land. “I could lounge on my couch, sit back and earn more by giving my acres to a solar park investor than by using my manpower to grow wheat or potatoes,” Reyer says, shaking his head. “No way!”

But what if it wasn’t a choice between one or the other? Can crops and solar panels coexist? Some farmers let livestock graze beneath solar panels, but livestock require far more arable land than crops. “Sure, I could install solar panels and let some sheep graze underneath,” Reyer says. “But this is not sustainable long-term. We won’t be able to feed the population this way.” What he and his fellow farmers at Heggelbach are attempting is far more complex. If they can pull it off, it’s a model that could provide a path forward for both struggling farmers and energy-hungry societies.

solar farmSolar farms currently cover more than 25,000 acres of agricultural areas in Germany. Credit: Hofgemeinschaft Heggelbach

Pioneering a solar-powered community

The Fraunhofer Institute recently published findings that detailed the advantages of Heggelbach’s novel system of perching solar panels high above its crops. The study found that the panels produced significantly more electricity than predicted, and maintenance was easier than farmer Reyer had feared. “We thought we would have to clean the panels much more frequently,” he says. “Even in winter, the snow simply glides or melts off.”

The farming community rents the panels from Fraunhofer and uses the electricity produced to run the farm, the cheesery and the milking machines. The panels are bifacial, meaning both the front and the back transform sunlight into electricity, making them extremely efficient. Any surplus is fed back into the grid, especially in the summer, when it exceeds the community’s needs. 

The Heggelbach community was an early adopter of innovative energy generation. In 2006, the pioneering farmers installed solar panels on their roofs. In 2008, they built the first wood gasifier, which heats their homes, the cheesery and the hay dryer. The next year, they received the German Solar Award for their sustainable energy production. 

Like most in the community, Reyer is deeply passionate about sustainable farming. “I’m a farmer with an affinity for technology, not a technician,” he says. His parents co-founded this community and raised him here. Now he lives here with his wife, their three kids and four other families. Not to be mistaken for a country bumpkin, he follows developments in agrophotovoltaic technology closely. The governments of South Korea, Japan and China, for instance, are subsidizing hundreds of thousands of AVPs, and testing new modules with flexible panels that follow the sun or filter radiation harmful to plants. “South Korea deliberately invests in AVPs because they don’t have enough farmers, similar to us,” says Reyer. “The AVPs finance pension funds, and the young farmers can work underneath the panels without making giant investments.” 

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In Lower Saxony, a company called Agrosolar Europe will soon build a giant new AVP with state subsidies. Its goal is to harvest 30 tons of chives and herbs per year. Then-state secretary Jochen Flasbarth lauded the project at its groundbreaking in June 2021 as “a win-win for the climate, agriculture and food production.

It’s not as easy as some make it sound. “The solar panels reduce our harvest by 10 to 15 percent,” Reyer says. And Reyer needs more time and manpower to maneuver his tractor around the panels’ steel scaffolding. “Financially, we make up the loss of harvest with the gain in electricity,” he says. Some farmers have tried vertical AVPs, an option the Heggelbach community briefly considered but found too expensive and cumbersome.

The weather can also be make or break. “We had severe drought in 2018 and extreme rain and cold in 2019,” Reyer remembers. “During a drought, the plants benefit from the panels’ shade, but when it rains a lot, the main issue is that the water gets distributed very unevenly because of the panels.” Some plants don’t get enough water, while others drown. 

On the other side of the planet, in Colorado, farmer Byron Kominek has had similar experiences. “I plant the squash in the dry spots and the green leaves where it’s wet,” he says. Near Boulder, Colorado, Kominek has built the largest commercially active agrovoltaics system in the U.S. A former diplomat with USAID, he moved back to Colorado in 2019 and installed a multimillion-dollar AVP with 3,200 solar panels to create a 1.2-megawatt community solar garden on his late grandfather’s farm. Now he is experimenting with 40 different crops, from squash to raspberries, to find the best AVP-harvest that can secure the future of the 24-acre farm, which barely makes enough hay to cover its costs. An engineer by training, Kominek primarily works as a solar power consultant for companies and other farms, using his farm as an experimental test plot. He also partners with the Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Center to demonstrate to graduate students from Colorado State University, as well as the public, the possibilities of AVP.

Similar to Reyer, he struggles with unpredictable weather events. Drought dust sometimes covers the panels, and a storm blows trash cans past his window while we speak on Zoom. But he is producing enough energy to sell it to about 300 nearby homes, a cannabis farm, a bank, and the City and County of Boulder. “They all pay a premium to support us,” he says.

Because our climate is warming, Kominek, Reyer, and experts such as Max Trommsdorff, head of the agrovoltaics group at the Fraunhofer Institutes, see AVPs are a solution for the future, especially in hot, arid regions such as Arizona, where the harvest of chili and tomatoes improved under the panels. 

solar farmsA solar farm planted in the organic farm community of Heggelbach. Credit: Hofgemeinschaft Heggelbach

But as a regenerative farmer in Germany, Reyer has to balance multiple factors and goals such as soil quality, biodiversity, crop rotation, harvest and manpower. He pleads for more research — for instance, about how the problematic water distribution issue could be solved. As a pioneer, he answers calls nearly every day from other farmers who are keen to try AVPs. “In reality, we need another four or five years of detailed research to meaningfully investigate how different crops respond to different weather events under the panels long term,” he says. “However, the grant money for the research has run out. It’s extremely difficult.”

His vision is to make the community farm entirely independent by generating enough energy and heat to harvest in harmony with the principles of regenerative farming. “But in terms of money, our society is willing to pay more for electricity than for agricultural products,” he says. “I see this as the biggest discrepancy: We value electricity more because our plates are full.”

To sum up, the solar farmers can solve one problem. But to solve the bigger issue — namely, that our society is more eager to grow watts than wheat — is too big for them to solve alone.

The post These Farms Are Living a Double Life appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

The ‘Red State Green Energy’ Boom Rolls On

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 01/06/2022 - 6:00pm in

Three great stories we found on the internet this week.

Follow the money

Climate change may divide Americans, but according to a recent analysis there’s far more consensus when it comes to creating clean energy. States, whether red or blue, want more of it.

The study, published in Climatic Change and reported by Grist, shows that states passed roughly 400 bills to reduce carbon emissions between 2015 and 2020. Some 28 percent of these were passed by Republican-controlled legislatures — lawmakers who see green energy more as an economic opportunity than a climate imperative. 

Opportunity is right. Some of America’s most ambitious green energy projects are unfolding in red states, as RTBC’s latest series, Red State Green Energy, is documenting. Read the first two stories in that series: In one, Mark Oprea explores how wind energy is preserving family farms in Iowa, and in the other, Anne Kniggendorf ponders the future of Greensburg, Kansas, America’s greenest town.

Read more at Grist

That’s the ticket

In the conservative city of Peshawar, Pakistan, a new bus rapid transit (BRT) system isn’t just solving traffic woes, it’s empowering women and girls. 

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Much of Peshawar’s mass transit consists of privately owned mini-buses that roam the streets, picking up passengers and shuttling them to their destinations. Sexual harassment is common in the crowded vans, enough so that some women can’t or won’t use them. On the new BRT system, however, a quarter of seats are reserved for women, buses come equipped with security cameras and guards, and stations are well lit. These features have allowed more women to use the system to get to jobs or school. Before the BRT, women made up just two percent of the city’s bus passengers. Now, that share has risen to 30 percent.

“My parents had decided to stop my education … because they didn’t like me traveling in the disheveled Mazda wagons,” said one 23-year-old female botany student. Now, she’s back at school and working toward her master’s degree once again.

Read more at Thomson Reuters Foundation

A wing and a prayer

The monarch butterfly is a marvel of evolution. On flimsy wings, the dazzling insects wobble their way across 2,800 miles to Mexico every winter. For decades, the species has been in sharp decline due to climate change and deforestation. But now, some populations are growing again, offering hope for the butterfly’s survival.

Credit: Cam Miller / Flickr

Last winter, in the Mexican forests where the butterflies settle, 35 percent more monarchs were present than the year before. Their range appears to have expanded, as well. What’s causing the uptick? One theory is that the species is adapting to climate change — last year, the butterflies departed Mexico earlier than usual, starting their journey north in February instead of March. Scientists will be watching closely next winter to see if the trend holds.

Read more at The Verge

The post The ‘Red State Green Energy’ Boom Rolls On appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

Solar Microgrids Are Keeping Ukraine’s Hospitals Running

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 23/05/2022 - 6:00pm in

Two months ago the streets of Kyiv were desolate, the sounds of ordinary life replaced by near-constant air-raid sirens and its people either fleeing or confined indoors as Russian forces tried to take Ukraine’s capital city. 

Today normal life is slowly returning, and families and couples once again stroll the streets. But reminders of the war that still rages in the country are everywhere, from the anti-tank “hedgehogs” and concrete blocks dominating many of the city’s roads to the armed soldiers continuing to enforce a city-wide curfew.

Then there are the huge queues of cars stretching away from every remaining gas station as customers desperately try to re-fill their tanks. It’s a scene currently being repeated across Ukraine and a stark indication of the acute fuel shortage the war-besieged country is facing.

During any conflict, fuel sources and power grids are a critical target for an invading force. In Ukraine, Russian missiles have attacked the country’s only fully-functioning oil refinery and a blockade of Ukrainian seaports means resupplying the country by tanker is not possible. In April, Russian hackers targeted the Ukrainian power grid, attempting to cause a blackout that would have impacted two million people.

So it was that as the first missiles fell on Ukraine in February, American renewable energy experts Will Heegaard and Paul Shmotolokha lept into action to support Ukrainian hospitals — themselves believed to be the subject of a Russian “terror bombing” campaign — in anticipation of the fuel and power crises that they knew would soon take hold.

“You have to look at the vulnerability of the grid,” says Shmotolokha, CEO of New Use Energy. “What we see in Ukraine is the physical damage to transmission infrastructure, to power generation. All those flying missiles that are going after diesel and gas supplies.”

Eric Youngren, New Use Energy’s vice president of product developmentEric Youngren, New Use Energy’s vice president of product development, changes a microgrid battery unit to the Ukrainian voltage and frequency. Credit: Footprint Project.

Shmotolokha is the son of Ukrainian World War 2 refugees and his wife grew up in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine. He met Heegaard, operations manager for the Footprint Project, in 2019 when they worked together on a solar microgrid project in Colorado. 

To date, the two have mainly worked on projects in the U.S., and never before in Ukraine. Leveraging their contacts network to establish transport routes into the country, and supported by disaster relief nonprofits on the ground, they began by sending LED lighting equipment and headlamps to hospitals, before expanding the program to include portable solar microgrids, which can recharge the LED kit as well as other essential medical and communications equipment. They also sent microgrids to a refugee camp in Moldova, a country bordering Ukraine which suddenly found itself hosting tens of thousands of people fleeing the war.

It’s these last items, the solar microgrids, which are being touted as a game-changer in disaster relief settings. Unlike diesel generators, which are traditionally used to provide emergency backup power but which can only produce energy in real time, solar microgrids such as those deployed by Heegaard and Shmotolokha can produce and store energy independently from the main grid without relying on dwindling supplies of fossil fuels.

Heegaard and Shmotolokha say they have now shipped more than two dozen 2kWh portable solar battery systems to 13 hospitals in cities all over Ukraine. In areas under heavy Russian bombardment, such as the city of Kharkiv, these solar microgrids are helping save lives.

“[The hospitals there] have intermittent power, they’re in the middle of operations and the lights are going out,” says Shmotolokha.

It’s not necessarily the case that these hospitals don’t have traditional generators, adds Heegaard. “But if you can’t access diesel then that fossil fuel generator becomes a giant, redundant paperweight.”

Medical professionals in UkraineMedical professionals in Ukraine with solar-powered kit. Credit: Footprint Project.

And because a solar microgrid is a clean source of energy, there are a number of other benefits.

“Noise, fumes and localized air pollution — none of that exists with solar,” says Heegaard, who explains that solar microgrids are therefore perfect for refugee camps. “Refugee partners we’re working with are dealing with folks who have PTSD from the conflict and trying to sleep next to a really loud [diesel] generator isn’t helpful.”

In a conflict where power sources may be targeted, a solar microgrid has the additional advantage of being less detectable than a diesel generator, both because it’s quieter and because it gives off less heat. It also negates the need to store large amounts of highly flammable fuel.

But solar panels are not exactly inconspicuous. “Traditional glass panels reflect light so they could easily be targeted,” says Heegaard. “But there are also flexible panels that don’t contain glass and just look like a black mat … All the units in Ukraine are flexible panel systems.”

There are some disadvantages. Cooking and heating both draw huge amounts of power and will drain a solar-powered source quickly meaning, until the technology improves, there’s still a role for fossil fuels. The microgrids supplied by Shmotolokha and Heegaard aren’t intended to replace the entire power system of a hospital or refugee camp, but instead provide the resilience needed to withstand fluctuations in the traditional grid or the supply of fossil fuels.

“Our focus is on distributed power,” explains Shmotolokha. “So instead of having one big generator, we might have four or five of our systems that can be wheeled around into different rooms. The ones that are already in Ukraine can run a WiFi computer station for 24 hours or a surgical suite with lighting for six to 12 hours, depending on how efficient their equipment is.”

Demonstrating the flexible black mat panelsA demo of the flexible black mat panels that Footprint Project and New Use Energy have sent to Ukraine. Credit: Footprint Project.

Sinéad Magill, a managing partner at Palladium, an international advisory and management company which has been running disaster response globally for the past 15 years, says that a key benefit of solar microgrids is that they allow local people to address local needs beyond immediate power supply issues.

“Unlike some aspects of a response, which can feel like a plaster on a bullet wound, these microgrids solve ongoing energy supply issues not just for the response but for the long term,” she says.

Solar microgrids have already been tested in humanitarian situations, one of the most well-known examples being Elon Musk’s initiative to build huge solar microgrids in Puerto Rico after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

The project highlighted a number of problems in the context of disaster response, not least that to rely on solar power alone requires huge arrays of power-producing panels. Pictures of Hospital del Nino, a children’s hospital in San Juan which was one of a number of sites to receive support from Tesla, show panels taking up nearly the entirety of the building’s car park, something that wouldn’t go unnoticed by an enemy in a conflict zone.

Down the line it also became apparent that installation and upkeep are two very different beasts. Two years after Hurricane Maria, one reporter visited Puerto Rico, which he described as “a solar graveyard” where regulatory and maintenance issues had led to fields of unused and damaged solar panels.

But less ambitious projects have been a success. Smaller projects initiated after Hurricane Maria that aimed to power individual buildings rather than great swathes of the island produced much better results. Months after the hurricane first hit, a solar microgrid was able to keep a community center functioning even when power for the rest of Puerto Rico was out.

Are solar microgrids the future of humanitarian response? In one sense, that future is already here. That said, there’s still a place for more powerful diesel generators until solar technology further improves.

“It depends on what the mission is,” says Shmotolokha. “If you’re housing refugees in a stadium and you need to power the stadium lights, you’re going to need a megawatt diesel generator. But if you want to run a community center that’s distributing food, then we’ve already done that a bunch so no problem there. There’s a lot of innovation happening. What we’re doing today, you just couldn’t have done even two or three years ago.”

The post Solar Microgrids Are Keeping Ukraine’s Hospitals Running appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

Women-Only Rangers Are Changing the Way Zimbabwe Fights Poachers

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 19/05/2022 - 2:38am in

Ranger ready

The Akashinga unit is Zimbabwe’s first all-women anti-poaching unit: 200 heavily armed rangers who patrol eight reserves in the Lower Zambezi Valley. Akashinga isn’t just about promoting gender equality in the workplace (the workplace being, in this case, the wild), it’s about women changing Zimbabwe’s anti-poaching efforts for the better.

Poachers have decimated wildlife in Zimbabwe, home to about one-fifth of Africa’s elephants. But the areas patrolled by the Akashinga rangers have seen improvements. The unit has made more than 300 arrests without firing a shot, and are partially credited with the Zambezi Valley’s 80 percent decrease in elephant poaching since 2017. Their strategy is unusual: they focus on preventing poaching by engaging communities, creating jobs and improving the lives of local villagers. 

Akashinga rangers during a training at their training camp in Phundundu Wildlife Park in Hurungwe, Zimbabwe. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Farai Shawn Matiashe

The job benefits them, too. Many of the rangers are survivors of abusive relationships and child marriages, and the job offers them stability and a good salary. “The opportunity of becoming a ranger came when I needed it the most,” said one member of the unit. “I am now able to look after my mother, my child and my community.”

Read more at Thomson Reuters Foundation

Think globally, capture carbon locally

A growing number of cities are pledging to be carbon neutral in the coming years by installing more renewable power, conserving energy and upgrading infrastructure. But those measures alone might not get them there, which is why a small handful of cities are starting to embrace the still-evolving practice of carbon dioxide removal (CDR).

Flagstaff, Arizona. Credit: Darryl Kenyon / Flickr

Grist reports on a coalition of cities in the American West that are banding together to fund CDR projects in their region to meet their climate action goals. For a group of small cities to get in on this game is highly unusual — most CDR projects are still in the moonshot phase, piloted by tech giants and wealthy philanthropists. But two of the coalition leaders — Flagstaff, Arizona and Boulder County, Colorado — believe cities can not only help grow the industry, but give communities a voice in how the projects are implemented.

The coalition is still nascent. Its goal is to raise $1.25 million to pay for the removal of 2,500 metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. On a global level, this is a drop in the bucket, but the aim isn’t to solve climate change themselves, but rather to put new stakeholders on the playing field. “I think it’s more of a perception and appearance kind of thing than materially making a difference — for now,” said one climate scientist.

Read more at Grist

Gay guides

Coming out as LGBTQ can be tricky. Shouldn’t there be a manual for that?

In China, now there is. Trueself, a Chinese LGBTQ nonprofit, has put together what it calls “A Journey to Trueself Kit” designed to help people open up about their sexuality to loved ones, colleagues and peers. While attitudes in China have become more tolerant in recent years, it’s often still a tough place to be a sexual minority. A 2016 survey found that only five percent of LGBTQ respondents chose to reveal their sexuality.

The kit costs $15 USD, with proceeds benefiting the nonprofit. “If 20 out of 100 people find it useful, the product will have proved its worth,” said Trueself’s founder. “But we will increase that with our efforts.”

Read more at Sixth Tone

The post Women-Only Rangers Are Changing the Way Zimbabwe Fights Poachers appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

New Mexico Offers Free Child Care to Pretty Much Everyone

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/05/2022 - 11:33pm in

Three great stories we found on the internet this week.

Care package

When it comes to supporting the average parent, no U.S. state has gone as far as New Mexico, which began offering free full-time child care to most of its families this month.

Under the program, families earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level — for a family of four that would be $111,000 per year — are eligible for free child care. The initiative is funded by an endowment sustained by taxes on oil and natural gas production, which is projected to be comfortably flush with $4.3 billion by 2025. Advocates say free child care will help residents get back to work after Covid-related job losses. And some are thinking even bigger, hoping New Mexico’s success could provide a blueprint for other states to finance similar initiatives. 

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“This is the road to a universal child-care system,” said Governor Lujan Grisham. Nationally, the U.S. offers far less support to parents than most wealthy countries. President Biden’s monthly cash payments for parents, part of pandemic relief, dramatically reduced child poverty, but the payments were ended last year by Republican opposition. 

Read more at the Washington Post

Membership’s privileges

Next time you’re checking out a copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn from your local library, you may be able to grab a packet of seeds and grow something yourself. 

libraryCredit: San Jose Public Library

As public libraries reinvent themselves to better serve their communities, some are stocking seeds that members can “check out” to plant in their yards, gardens and pots. The seed offerings sprout from the American Library Association’s charter, which recently added “sustainability” to its list of core values. 

Planting seeds supports that. Native plants are a great way to contribute to biodiversity, and garden vegetables can help combat hunger. “It gets people outside, gets children involved with gardening,” said a librarian at the public library in Mystic, Connecticut, which offers 90 types of seeds that any patron can partake of. “The library has become so much more than just a place to come in and get books.”

Read more at Civil Eats

15 minutes of fame

It finally happened: After years of installing more and more renewable energy, California, the world’s fifth-largest economy, finally — briefly — ran on 100 percent green power.  

The milestone occurred on Saturday, April 30 at 2:45 p.m., at which time the state’s grid was fueled by green energy alone for exactly 15 minutes. About two-thirds of the power was solar, with the rest generated by wind, geothermal and other carbon-free sources. Even after 15 minutes, the grid stayed mostly green, with just three percent non-renewable sources sneaking their way into the mix.

While the event is great news for a state that has pledged (at least informally) to be carbon neutral by 2045, it will take a lot of work before April’s milestone can be achieved year-round. “Now we need to get our state running on 100 percent clean energy for the whole day, the whole week, and the whole year,” said the state director of Environment California.

Read more at Elektrek

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The Chicago Neighborhood That Will Generate Its Own Energy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 09/05/2022 - 6:00pm in

Take a stroll around Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood on a sun-filled spring afternoon and it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll come across Romanesque-style greystones, classic brick three-flats and the sound of children deep in an after-school game of kickball echoing from the back alleys. What you might not be expecting is the brightly-colored mural emerging out of a vast, vacant lot along South Michigan Avenue — and, more significantly, the massive electrical battery that lies behind that painted cinder block wall.

That battery is but one part of the Bronzeville Community Microgrid, which combines rooftop solar, natural gas-fired generators and batteries to produce and store energy at a local level. Once fully operational, it will, in effect, render the entire neighborhood “energy independent,” giving it the ability to disconnect from and reconnect to Chicago’s citywide grid at will.

This will earn it the accolade of becoming the country’s first neighborhood-scale microgrid, (although its founders, Commonwealth Edison, or ComEd, point out that there could be other initiatives in the works of which they are unaware), with energy experts suggesting it could serve as a model for utilities and communities across the U.S.

Earlier this year, the project, which is funded in part by a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, passed efficacy tests demonstrating that the basic design of the system works, although it still faces a number of engineering and permitting hurdles. Once those have been cleared, the microgrid will be able to power more than 1,000 homes, businesses and public institutions such as hospitals.

Bronzeville Community Microgrid muralA mural painted onto the sides of the microgrid’s battery box features prominent Black leaders from the neighborhood. Credit: ComEd.

This kind of self-sufficiency will likely prove increasingly vital. Like many cities, Chicago’s first electrical grid began taking shape well over a century ago. These grids have become increasingly rickety as they age, and climate change is only exacerbating their deterioration. Last year, millions in the U.S. faced power outages amid heat waves, hurricanes and winter storms. 

To mitigate this, ComEd has sought to improve electric grids throughout the region over the last 10 years, including through the development of the Bronzeville microgrid. This has happened alongside more recent investments in national energy infrastructure, such as the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, signed into law last winter, which includes $65 billion for electric and grid infrastructure — the largest such investment in the country’s history. 

As part of the investments in the nation’s energy systems, microgrids are increasingly being recognized for their ability to create energy security at the community scale. Their value proved critical in northern California in 2019 when 13,000 people sought refuge — and functioning electricity — at a microgrid-powered casino owned by the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe as wildfires led to blackouts across the region. 

Bronzeville’s neighborhood microgrid offers more than energy resiliency, however — it has also become a blueprint for reducing communities’ contribution to climate change. This is due to the fact that the system gives its operators the ability, at scale, to introduce more renewables into its energy mix while reducing “line loss,” the electricity lost as it travels across power lines.

“Some estimates have said we lose up to 50 percent of electricity production through line loss,” says Yami Newell, a Bronzeville resident and the associate director of community projects at Elevate, a nonprofit that focuses on equitable solutions to community climate change issues. “So the shorter you can make the distance between where energy is generated and where it has to be delivered, the more significantly you reduce the problem.”

Getting connected 

A key aspect of the Bronzeville microgrid that could multiply its impact is its connection to an existing microgrid in the neighborhood, housed at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Previously, the IIT grid only serviced the surrounding campus. By connecting it to Bronzeville’s, ComEd is able to expand the reach of the grid to the entire area.

A model of the university campus at IIT which uses different colors to denote the different minigrids serving each part of the campus.A model of the university campus at IIT which uses different colors to denote the different minigrids serving each part of the campus. Credit: ComEd.

The “clustering” effect created by connecting the two microgrids allows them to share energy. So, if one has generated more electricity than it requires at that point in time and the other doesn’t have enough, then the one with excess can transfer that power to the other, keeping all customers in service without needing to tap into the less efficient citywide grid.

As no microgrid has ever been built on this scale in the U.S., getting to this point hasn’t been without challenges. In addition to significant delays due to engineering issues and the City of Chicago’s arduous permitting process, ComEd initially struggled to win the acceptance of the wider community.

Reasons for the latter are linked in part to the disinvestment and financial redlining the neighborhood has faced for the last 70 years. More recently, the community has seen an increase in investment by commercial and real estate developers. While celebrated by some, for many others this represents a story unfolding in cities across the country — one where shiny new developments and amenities are superimposed on communities without buy-in from the people who have been there the longest. 

In response, ComEd has been working with the community, including an advisory board of local leaders and residents, to help educate people about the purpose of the initiative and ensure it meets the needs of local residents.

One outcome of this collaboration was ComEd’s integration of local history and arts into the installation of the grid by commissioning a mural to be painted onto the sides of its battery box. The mural features the South Side Community Arts Center, located nearby the battery storage site, as well as prominent Black leaders from the neighborhood including journalist Ida B. Wells and inventor Lewis Latimer.

This addressed concerns that the battery storage site, located in the middle of a residential block, created an overly industrial-looking eyesore and disrupted the historic nature of the surrounding area. 

“That’s where the emphasis of the mural came into play — to improve the aesthetics of the battery energy storage site, but also, more importantly, to draw attention to the community,” says Cory Foster, the administrator of ComEd’s diversity enrichment program and external affairs manager.

Creating the muralThe idea for a mural came out of ComEd’s engagement with the community via an advisory board of local leaders and residents. Credit: ComEd.

In addition to gaining buy-in, Newell points out that initiatives like the Bronzeville Community Microgrid have the potential to create direct opportunities for local residents.

“When it comes to the jobs that exist to maintain and to build out all sorts of infrastructure around these kinds of projects, the goal is … prioritizing folks who are from those communities,” she says. “As we see more projects like this come online, including renewable projects, who’s going to fill those jobs? Will the people that are working there look like the people who live there? I think Bronzeville gives us an opportunity to say, yes, we can do that.”

Like other urban areas in Chicago and across the country, Bronzeville is dealing with a multitude of community issues, including public safety and population loss, in addition to more recent concerns around public health and job loss arising out of the pandemic. 

But local Alderman Pat Dowell sees the neighborhood microgrid as a step forward in establishing forward-thinking energy solutions and making sustainability a political priority. 

Already forthcoming in Bronzeville are new permits that will allow ComEd to install electric charging stations along major thoroughfares, which Dowell hopes will increase the amount of electric vehicles in the area. 

“We’re being forward thinking about how we can adapt to the changes that we see coming,” she says.

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What Is the Future of America’s Greenest Town?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 19/04/2022 - 6:00pm in

On the night of May 4, 2007, when an EF5 tornado 1.7 miles wide swallowed their town whole, Gary and his daughter Alanna Goodman were watching Wedding Crashers in their upstairs living room. Gary had just called his wife Erica, away in Garden City, Kansas, on business, to comment on the massive hail that had interrupted the movie. Then the sirens started blaring.

It was common practice in Greensburg, Kansas, to run the aging siren system for only about three minutes during warnings. Residents would retreat to their basements, wait for silence, then go about their business. But according to Erica (and town lore, told and retold as part of the collective narrative of the event), on that Friday the county’s emergency management coordinator was storm chasing. Erica says he was in neighboring Comanche County when he witnessed three tornadoes drop and combine to make an almost two-mile-wide wedge and head straight north toward Greensburg.

“He called dispatch and he said, ‘Turn the sirens on,’ And she said, ‘How long should I run them?’” recalls Erica. “And he said, ‘Don’t you dare turn them off unless you hear from me.’”

Dispatch sounded the sirens until the wind razed the power station.

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Shifting Winds

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 14/04/2022 - 6:00pm in

It was one of Iowa’s longest droughts in recent years, and it arrived just as the 2020 pandemic was surging across the American Midwest. 

Gerald Leng, a stocky corn and soy grower in his eighties, watched as friends and acquaintances around his town of Primghar succumbed to the virus. Then June — usually the wettest month — came and went with barely a drop of rain. The drought continued into the fall, wilting crops and cracking the ground. Like others, Leng upped his federal crop insurance from 70 to 85 percent. Lake Big Spirit, one of his getaway spots up north, dropped a resounding two feet.

But Leng, a generally positive man with a grandfatherly wit, did not flinch. Like hundreds of other farmers around O’Brien County, his land contains not just corn and soybeans, but an array of massive wind turbines, which, besides delivering power to homes as far south as Houston, provides Leng and his brother Arnie with tens or sometimes hundreds of thousands of leasing dollars per year.

Credit: Mark Oprea

These turbine leases are the lynchpins in a multipronged, mutually beneficial arrangement that makes Iowa one of America’s most prolific producers of renewable energy. The system brings together farmers, energy companies and the federal government to capitalize on two of Iowa’s most prominent resources: strong winds and vast expanses of land. The result is thousands of megawatts of green energy, reliable income streams to offset bad harvests, and substantial private sector profits aided by generous federal tax credits. 

“It’s just like another crop,” Leng says of his turbines from behind his desk at the Primghar Savings Bank, which he’s owned since 1994. “It’s diversification. If the weather doesn’t cooperate and we don’t have enough corn and soybeans, we might have enough wind.”

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2021 Wind Energy report, some 57 percent of the power generated in Iowa last year came from wind — the highest share in the nation. And Iowa is second only to Texas – which produces more wind power than most countries — in the total amount of wind power it is capable of producing. A politically conservative state that voted for Donald Trump twice over, Iowa is a trailblazer in the clean energy sector. And the bulk of all this wind power was captured in what Iowa is known best for: corn fields.  

Since 2005, when federal tax breaks incentivized energy companies to invest heavily in wind, agents from these companies have fanned out across the Hawkeye State, visiting Iowa’s rural farms and ranches to convince the owners to install turbines, many of which soar well over 200 feet in height, among the rows of their crops. 

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Oregon Is Turning Sewage into an Endless Supply of Green Energy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 17/03/2022 - 7:00pm in

In the summer of 2020, as wildfires burned across more than a million acres in Oregon, workers at Clackamas County’s water treatment facility started calling each other. From their homes, they could see that the towers of flames were closing in on the wastewater treatment plant. Power was failing all over the state. If the facility lost power, it could flood the Willamette River with untreated waste, causing untold environmental damage. 

In the end, the facility remained powered up and the Willamette was spared. But with wildfires and extreme weather increasingly common, the incident underscored how generating and storing renewable power on site could build resiliency into the system. 

water treatmentGrey Eyerly with the tank that safely stores a fluctuating level of methane gas. Credit: Britany Robinson

“It’s extremely energy consumptive to treat wastewater,” says Dave Moldal, program manager at Energy Trust of Oregon. As the region grows in population, the more energy the wastewater plant requires. But what if increasing volumes of wastewater could provide the treatment plant with more energy rather than consume it? That’s exactly what’s been happening at Clackamas County’s Tri-City Water Resource Recovery Facility for the past seven months.

Since August 2021, the plant has been pumping out renewable power produced from methane, a natural byproduct of human waste decomposing in an oxygen-free environment. Now, this loop of green energy represents a powerful example of how waste can become something we benefit from rather than expend resources disposing of. By turning human waste into power, wastewater treatment facilities have the potential to become energy generators instead of consumers, while creating clean water that’s returned to the local ecosystem.

A very renewable resource

When wastewater arrives at Clackamas Water Environment Services’ treatment plant, it contains pretty much what you’d expect — human waste, paper, food, soap, sand — plus a random assortment of items that people accidentally flush or drop into drains, like a miniature Stormtrooper helmet, a Pee-wee Herman doll and a rubber elephant, all of which are proudly on display at the facility. 

But the individuals who work here don’t consider this to be a mere waste treatment facility. Instead, they see it as a place where clean water and fertilizer for non-food crops is produced. And now, they’ve added a third item to the list of beneficial resources they churn out: green energy. 

water treatmentTrash pulled from the facility’s waste flow are among the few things that can’t be turned into something useful. Credit: Britany Robinson

When wastewater arrives, it first must be pumped into the facility. Five motors, each running 100 to 200 horsepower, are needed to lift the flow up into the machinery that will treat it. “That’s a huge energy consumer right there,” explains operations supervisor Darren Eki. 

Once the water is pumped up, screens are used to pull out the biggest solids, like paper and rags. “It can cause clogs and damage — all kinds of bad stuff,” says operations manager Greg Eyerly. “They clog our pumps and cost millions of dollars a year for municipalities. So all of that goes to landfills. This is essentially the only waste product we have.” 

Grit is removed next, which includes asphalt, limestone and concrete, as well as eggshells, coffee grounds, seeds, bone fragments and other organic food waste particles. 

water treatmentFoam rises to the water’s surface as activated sludge forms. Credit: Britany Robinson

Up until this point, the water has been moving pretty fast as junk and grit are filtered out. Now it slows through open-air channels where the remaining solids settle to the bottom. About 40 percent of waste is filtered here in this natural process. 

Then it’s bacteria’s turn to do the work. In the human stomach, microbes help to break down food. Water treatment plants like Clackamas County’s employ a similar process. It takes a long time to grow the right kind of microbes, though, so if a treatment facility is starting from scratch, they might borrow some bacteria from another plant to kickstart their own, not unlike a friend might lend you their sourdough starter. Once those microbes are working, it’s called activated sludge, and it’s a key player in cleaning water. “We’re replicating what happens in nature, but we’re doing it in a matter of hours, rather than days or weeks,” says Eyerly. 

“This biological treatment, nobody had that before 1972,” explains capital program manager Lynne Chicoine. That’s when the Clean Water Act was passed, forcing wastewater treatment facilities to do a better job at cleaning the water they released into nearby rivers. The federal government funded retrofits at many of those facilities around 50 years ago, including this one. “And now a lot of them need to be expanded or upgraded,” says Chicoine. That need for expansion is part of what prompted the plant’s latest upgrades.

water treatmentGraphic courtesy of Clackamas Water Environment Services

While clean water goes in one direction to disinfection, and ultimately, the river, the remaining biomass goes in another, to one of three anaerobic digesters, the newest of which is a 1.3 million-gallon tank that operates like a hulking metal stomach. Inside, naturally occurring microorganisms further break down organic matter in an oxygen-free environment that allows for the concentrated production of methane. The methane rises to the top of the digester and is transferred to a new 600 kW lean-burn co-generation engine, which converts it into heat and electricity. The co-generation engine creates heat for five of the buildings on site and an estimated 4,324 megawatts of electricity, providing about half of the facility’s energy usage. 

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Chicoine estimates that they’ll save $319,000 on electricity and $99,500 on heat in the first year — savings that will only increase with ever larger volumes of wastewater. “As our population grows,” she says, “the average annual savings are anticipated to be about $619,000 on power and $191,000 on heat over the life of the engine.”

The solids that settle out of this process don’t go to waste, either. They’re removed to create nutrient-rich fertilizer, which is delivered to farmers in Eastern Oregon who use it on their non-food crops. 

truckA truck filled with fertilizer to be delivered to the region’s farms. Credit: Britany Robinson

Prior to this co-generation system upgrade, the water treatment process still emitted methane, but it was simply burned off — natural energy created and immediately lost. Overall, it cost about $35 million to add the co-generation system, an expense that’s not financially feasible (or politically attractive) to all cities. But Eyerly recalls managing a treatment facility in Iowa, where excess methane was burned in flares. “People would drive by and see those flares, and they’d ask me, ‘What’s that?’” And he’d tell them: “That’s a waste of money.” 

Energy Trust of Oregon has contributed about $2 million toward the cost of the project. “They didn’t have to install this co-generation system,” says Moldal of the people making decisions at Water Environment Services. But with wildfires a growing threat to the area’s power supply, the potential energy independence the system creates could prove increasingly critical. The site isn’t set up to run independently on biogas just yet, but Moldal envisions a future where this is the case. 

By harnessing the natural production of methane, wastewater treatment facilities can turn one of the worst accelerators of global warming — methane emissions — into renewable energy that reduces local reliance on fossil fuels. Co-generation systems like Clackamas County’s aren’t yet commonplace, but they’re growing in popularity in the United States, China, Brazil, Argentina and Norway. 

“There’s a people element to this,” says Moldal. “If it weren’t for the people here — they had to sell this to their local officials. And thankfully, they said yes.” 

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Can I Have a Sip?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 02/03/2022 - 7:00pm in

Three great stories we found on the internet this week.

Water under the bridge

“Water, by its very nature, is used to extinguish fires, not to ignite them,” wrote Munther Haddadin in his book Diplomacy on the Jordan, an apt metaphor for Israeli-Jordanian diplomacy. For years, the two countries have used water exchanges made possible through joint desalination efforts to forge a stronger cross-border connection. Now, new research suggests that Mexico and the U.S. could do something similar, using desalination to reduce tensions over declining flows in the Colorado River.

The U.S. and Mexico share the river’s water supply, but today it provides less water than we can sustainably take from it — 1.2 billion cubic meters less, to be precise. The new research proposes a solution similar to what Israel and Jordan worked out: a desalination plant that would benefit both countries. The plant, which the U.S. would pay for, would be located on Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. The water it provides Mexico would allow the U.S. to take a larger amount from the Colorado River without its neighbor to the south feeling the pinch.

colorado riverThe Colorado River winds its way through Utah torward Mexico. Credit: Simon Morris / Flickr

As climate change and development strains global water supplies, these types of water exchanges are increasingly being seen as a way to preemptively circumvent future conflicts over water. As one observer put it, binational desalination is “a bargaining chip to make people come together… Everybody needs water, everybody wants water, and it creates opportunities for people to come together and create solutions.” 

Read more at Ensia

Better blasting

For the world to go green, it needs rare earth elements (REEs) — metals like yttrium and neodymium that provide crucial components for wind turbines, solar panels and rechargeable batteries for electric cars. The problem is, these metals are often as hard to extract as they are to pronounce. They exist in such low concentrations that that mining them requires blasting through massive amounts of ore.

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Instead of extracting REEs from the earth, what if we could extract them from stuff we’re not using anyway? A new method does just this, using heat to separate REEs from certain types of industrial waste. Take coal: after it’s been burned, the REEs it contained remain stuck in the ash, trapped in microscopic bits of glass that can be shattered with pulses of extreme heat. Once released, the REEs can then be collected and used. The technique has proven twice as efficient as other methods of extraction and uses no polluting chemicals.

One big hurdle is the high amount of heat that’s required, which makes scaling the process up tricky. But if that dilemma can be worked out, say the researchers, there is more than enough coal ash in the world to give us all the REEs we need. “We don’t need any more coal to be burned for this [recycling] process to work,” said one. “We have sufficient mountains of this forever.”

Read more at Science

All about perspective

This month, the Baltimore Museum of Art will unveil an exhibit curated by the people who probably spend more time with the art than anyone else: the security guards.

Since last year, the guards have been working with the museum’s curatorial staff to learn how to curate an exhibition. Many chose pieces that spoke to them personally, from a sixth-century pre-Columbian sculpture to a 2021 protest painting. One who is studying to become a singer chose a Hale Woodruff oil painting after asking himself, “If these paintings could sing, what would they sound like?” All of the guards involved were paid extra for the time, and will be able to explain the reasoning behind their choices. The exhibit, titled “Guarding the Art,” opens March 27.

Read more at NPR

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