Day: May 25, 2021

New tool helps New York gas utility planners align business decisions with climate goals

Read the full story from EDF.

As the New York debate over natural gas builds, experts from Environmental Defense Fund today filed comments in a state proceeding aimed at overhauling gas utility planning in an effort to help the state shift away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner energy sources. EDF’s filing includes a first-of-its-kind greenhouse gas emissions lifecycle tool developed with MJ Bradley & Associates, an ERM Group Company, that gives the New York Public Service Commission, or PSC, and utilities the data they need to align business plans with the state’s climate goals.

Northern forest fires could accelerate climate change

Read the full story from Boston University.

New research shows that the global models used to project how Earth’s climate will change in the future underestimate the impact of forest fires and drying climate on forests’ ability to capture and store atmospheric carbon.

Scientists find more complexity in microplastics polluting the Great Lakes

Read the full story at Bridge Michigan.

Microplastic pollution has been building up in the Great Lakes for at least four decades, but our understanding of its impact on fish and other aquatic creatures is only just catching up.

Now new research from the University of Toronto shows its harm to wildlife is due to a wide range of factors that is not generally considered in toxicology testing — the plastics’ size, shape and chemical makeup.

Anti-racist framework created by Illinois art professor helps identify racialized design

Life's a Bridge board game
Life’s a Bridge is a board game developed by a student in Mercer’s class. It is designed to teach about power and privilege in society through the example of the design of bridges into New York City that were too low to accommodate public buses, whose passengers were mostly people of color.
Courtesy Lisa Mercer

University of Illinois graphic design professor Lisa Mercer co-developed Racism Untaught, a framework that uses the design research process to explore issues of racism and other forms of oppression. She uses the framework in her classroom and in workshops for universities and corporations to identify design that perpetuates racism.

A graphic design professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is using the design research process to explore issues of race and racism.

Lisa Mercer co-developed the framework Racism Untaught with Terresa Moses, a graphic design professor at the University of Minnesota. They use it in the classroom and in workshops in higher education and the corporate world to help identify design that perpetuates racism and find ways to solve problems through anti-racism projects. They developed the toolkit more than three years ago but demand has increased significantly in the past year and a half, particularly after the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

Photo of Lisa Mercer
Graphic design professor Lisa Mercer (Courtesy: Lisa Mercer)

Mercer and Moses were looking for ways to have meaningful conversations about race, diversity and inclusion.

“People need to lean into these difficult conversations, and we’re creating space to have the opportunity for these conversations,” Mercer said.

She and Moses have led several workshops for faculty members and staff at Illinois and at other universities, as well as for corporations – including the training of high-level managers at a national retailer to run a workshop for 600 product designers.

“We were looking to see if what we do in academia applies in industry. What we’ve found is this applies really well,” Mercer said.

The workshops – which recently have taken place on Zoom – start with building context by looking at a specific situation given as a prompt. Participants are asked to identify elements of racism in the prompt. They could be experiences (a racial slur), artifacts (use of a degrading, stereotypical image) or systems (a disciplinary code that more heavily penalizes people of color).

The prompts come from experiences described in surveys of the university campuses participating in the workshops or examples from industry. Mercer identifies as a mixed-race Latinx woman and Moses as a Black woman, and they have used some of their own experiences as prompts. For example, Mercer has been questioned about her language and heritage.

Some of the prompts used in Racism Untaught include racist branding for pancake mix; a skin cream ad that promotes and encourages lighter skin; and the public highway system designs of urban architect Robert Moses, which specified bridges over highways into certain areas of New York City be built too low for public buses, effectively excluding passengers – primarily people of color – from those areas.

Participants also consider how the problems exist at an individual, institutional or cultural level. Then they come up with ideas to re-imagine the racialized prompt and be agents of change, and they test those ideas for their impact and any unintentional consequences.

Image of a quote from the Just Say Hi campaign
A student in Lisa Mercer’s class created “Just Say Hi,” a campaign to help people understand why questions about a person’s race or ethnicity, language or sexuality can be insulting. (Courtesy: Lisa Mercer)

Mercer has used the Racism Untaught framework in her design classes. One student project was a board game, Life’s a Bridge, that uses the Moses architecture example to teach about power and privilege in society. Another student developed a campaign called “Just Say Hi” to help people understand why questions about a person’s race or ethnicity, language or sexuality can be insulting.

“If students are really given the space to analyze this, they start to understand the systems in place that uphold these levels of oppression. That is typically my favorite conversation with students,” Mercer said.

She and Moses are expanding the framework to add information about sexism, and they hope to include ableism next.

“We have been very deliberate in holding space for conversations on race and racism before we include other forms of oppression. We have begun adding prompts focused on sexism and ableism to work toward an intersectional conversation on oppression. The ultimate goal is to extend the framework to include homophobia, transphobia, cissexism, gender binary, ageism and other forms of oppression,” Mercer said.

She would like to create a class using the Racism Untaught framework that meets the U. of I.’s general education requirements to reach students from disciplines across campus. A graduate student is translating the framework into Spanish.

“We’d also like to make it more accessible, not just for people in academia or industry who have money, but to grassroots community organizers who need tools to create anti-racist design,” Mercer said.

Mercer and Moses will present a Racism Untaught workshop in June at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity.


Editor’s notes: To contact Lisa Mercer, email lemercer@illinois.edu. More information about Racism Untaught is available online.

The Re-Wind Network

Prototype tower from a decommissioned Clipper wind turbine blade at Georgia Tech (Photo credit: ReWind Network)

The goal of the Re-Wind Network is to compare sustainable end–of–life (EOL) repuposing and recycling strategies for composite material wind turbine blades.

Research is being conducted four areas:

  • Wind Energy and Society,
  • Design for the Built Environment,
  • Structural Mechanics, and
  • Geographic Information System (GIS).

The objective of this research is to develop a methodology for use by relevant stakeholders, which include national and local energy and waste management policy makers, wind energy company executives, wind turbine manufacturers, and installers and community members.

The network is a partnership between Georgia Tech, Queen’s University Belfast, The City University of New York, and University College Cork (Ireland). It’s funded by Investi/Department for the Economy, Science Foundation Ireland, and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Installing solar panels over California’s canals could yield water, land, air and climate payoffs


The California Aqueduct, which carries water more than 400 miles south from the Sierra Nevada, splits as it enters Southern California at the border of Kern and Los Angeles counties. California DWR

by Roger Bales (University of California, Merced) and Brandi McKuin (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Climate change and water scarcity are front and center in the western U.S. The region’s climate is warming, a severe multi-year drought is underway and groundwater supplies are being overpumped in many locations.

Western states are pursuing many strategies to adapt to these stresses and prepare for the future. These include measures to promote renewable energy development, conserve water, and manage natural and working lands more sustainably.

As engineers working on climate-smart solutions, we’ve found an easy win-win for both water and climate in California with what we call the “solar canal solution.” About 4,000 miles of canals transport water to some 35 million Californians and 5.7 million acres of farmland across the state. Covering these canals with solar panels would reduce evaporation of precious water – one of California’s most critical resources – and help meet the state’s renewable energy goals, while also saving money.

Conserving water and land

California is prone to drought, and water is a constant concern. Now, the changing climate is bringing hotter, drier weather.

Severe droughts over the past 10 to 30 years dried up wells, caused officials to implement water restrictions and fueled massive wildfires. As of mid-April 2021, the entire state was officially experiencing drought conditions.

At the same time, California has ambitious conservation goals. The state has a mandate to reduce groundwater pumping while maintaining reliable supplies to farms, cities, wildlife and ecosystems. As part of a broad climate change initiative, in October 2020 Gov. Gavin Newsom directed the California Natural Resources Agency to spearhead efforts to conserve 30% of land and coastal waters by 2030.

Most of California’s rain and snow falls north of Sacramento during the winter, while 80% of its water use occurs in Southern California, mostly in summer. That’s why canals snake across the state – it’s the largest such system in the world. We estimate that about 1%-2% of the water they carry is lost to evaporation under the hot California sun.

In a recent study, we showed that covering all 4,000 miles of California’s canals with solar panels would save more than 65 billion gallons of water annually by reducing evaporation. That’s enough to irrigate 50,000 acres of farmland or meet the residential water needs of more than 2 million people. By concentrating solar installations on land that is already being used, instead of building them on undeveloped land, this approach would help California meet its sustainable management goals for both water and land resources.

Climate-friendly power

Shading California’s canals with solar panels would generate substantial amounts of electricity. Our estimates show that it could provide some 13 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity, which is about half of the new sources the state needs to add to meet its clean electricity goals: 60% from carbon-free sources by 2030 and 100% renewable by 2045.

Installing solar panels over the canals makes both systems more efficient. The solar panels would reduce evaporation from the canals, especially during hot California summers. And because water heats up more slowly than land, the canal water flowing beneath the panels could cool them by 10 F, boosting production of electricity by up to 3%.

These panels could also generate electricity locally in many parts of California, lowering both transmission losses and costs for consumers. Combining solar power with battery storage can help build microgrids in rural areas and underserved communities, making the power system more efficient and resilient. This would mitigate the risk of power losses due to extreme weather, human error and wildfires.

We estimate that the cost to span canals with solar panels is higher than building ground-mounted systems. But when we added in some of the co-benefits, such as avoided land costs, water savings, aquatic weed mitigation and enhanced PV efficiency, we found that solar canals were a better investment and provided electricity that cost less over the life of the solar installations.

Solar panels shade canals and canals cool the panels.
Solar panels installed over canals increase the efficiency of both systems. Brandi McKuin, CC BY-ND

Benefits to the land

Solar canals are about much more than just generating renewable energy and saving water. Building these long, thin solar arrays could prevent more than 80,000 acres of farmland or natural habitat from being converted for solar farms.

California grows food for an ever-increasing global population and produces more than 50% of the fruits, nuts and vegetables that U.S. consumers eat. However, up to 50% of new renewable energy capacity to meet decarbonization goals could be sited in agricultural areas, including large swaths of prime farmland.

Solar canal installations will also protect wildlife, ecosystems and culturally important land. Large-scale solar developments can result in habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation, which can harm threatened species such as the Mojave Desert tortoise.

They also can harm desert scrub plant communities, including plants that are culturally important to indigenous tribes. As an example, construction of the Genesis Solar Energy Center in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts in 2012-2014 destroyed trails and burial sites and damaged important cultural artifacts, spurring protracted legal conflict.

Clearing the air

By generating clean electricity, solar canals can improve air quality – a serious problem in central California, which has some of the dirtiest air in the U.S. Solar electricity could help retire particulate-spewing diesel engines that pump water through California’s agricultural valleys. It also could help charge growing numbers of electric light- and heavy-duty vehicles that move people and goods around the state.

Yet another benefit would be curbing aquatic weeds that choke canals. In India, where developers have been building solar canals since 2014, shade from the panels limits growth of weeds that block drains and restrict water flow.

Fighting these weeds with herbicide and mechanical equipment is expensive, and herbicides threaten human health and the environment. For large, 100-foot-wide canals in California, we estimate that shading canals would save about US$40,000 per mile. Statewide, savings could reach $69 million per year.

Solar panels would form a glass roof over canals.
Artist rendering of a solar canal system for California. Solar Aquagrid LLC, CC BY-ND

Bringing solar canals to California

While India has built solar arrays over canals and the U.S. is developing floating solar projects, California lacks prototypes to study locally.

Discussions are underway for both large and small demonstration projects in the Central Valley and Southern California. Building prototypes would help operators, developers and regulators refine designs, assess environmental impacts, measure project costs and benefits, and evaluate how these systems perform. With more data, planners can map out strategies for extending solar canals statewide, and potentially across the West.

It will take a dozen or more partners to plan, fund and carry out a solar canal project in California. Public-private partnerships will likely include federal, state and local government agencies, project developers and university researchers.

California’s aging power infrastructure has contributed to catastrophic wildfires and multi-day outages. Building smart solar developments on canals and other disturbed land can make power and water infrastructure more resilient while saving water, reducing costs and helping to fight climate change. We believe it’s a model that should be considered across the country – and the planet.

Roger Bales, Distinguished Professor of Engineering, University of California, Merced and Brandi McKuin, Postdoctoral Researcher in Environmental Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

High Plaines Climate Center develops tool to accompany release of new Climate Normals

When a meteorologist says that a chilly day in May was 12 degrees lower than normal, the normal being referenced is typically from the official 30-year U.S. Climate Normals. Updated every decade, the Normals are based on 30-year averages of climate observations recorded at thousands of weather stations across the country.

On May 4, the 1991-2020 U.S. Climate Normals are being released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). In conjunction, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s High Plains Regional Climate Center is publishing a new tool that allows users to examine what normal looks like relative to longer or shorter timeframes than the most recent 30 years.

Microplastics are everywhere — but are they harmful?

Read the full story in Nature.

Scientists are rushing to study the tiny plastic specks that are in marine animals — and in us.

Behind Dallas-Fort Worth’s grand goals to be the greenest airport on the planet

Read the full story at Skift.

Dallas Fort Worth International Airport is hoping to become a global model for a modern-day green airport.

How online natural retailer Thrive Market is going climate-positive

Read the full story at Supermarket News.

Thrive Market has always been an eco-conscious enterprise, offering foods made of real ingredients that are safe for the environment, delicious and fairly priced. Already, the e-retailer has committed to a no-air-shipping policy and utilizing all-recyclable shipping materials; it also recently earned B Corp certification. But Thrive Market isn’t stopping there: The company recently announced a number of new initiatives that will further shrink its environmental footprint.

According to chief marketing officer Jeremiah McElwee, Thrive Market has set a goal to be zero-waste certified in 2022, plastic neutral by 2023 and completely carbon negative by 2025.

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