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[1THING] Blog: Archive for April, 2013

[ If It’s Good for Schools, Will It Be Good for Energy? ]

Power lines

Improving the nation’s power grid is a huge task. Is “Race to the Top” the right model? Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. But is duplicating “Race to the Top” the way to get a new energy grid up and running?

If you don’t keep track of education policy, Race to the Top is the Obama administration’s signature schools initiative, with $4 billion in federal grant money awarded to states in a competition for the best education reform plans. In effect, the plan offers a carrot rather than a stick to states that implement broadly-backed reforms such as “common core standards,” new data systems for measuring progress, and overhauls in how teachers and principals are judged.

Since the Obama administration views Race to the Top as a successful approach, it’s no surprise that the president proposed budget includes $200 million for a similar program to improve the nation’s power grid. Overall, the nation’s electricity grid is aging, and without significant improvements it won’t be able to keep up with current demand, much less make full use of renewable and other new technologies.

So the goal is worthy – but so far the plan is short on specifics. Here, in fact, is everything the president’s budget says on the subject:

Challenges States to Cut Energy Waste and Support Energy Efficiency and Modernize the Grid. Modeled after a successful Administration approach in education reform designed to promote forward-leaning policies at the State level, the Budget includes $200 million in one-time funding for Race to the Top performance based awards to support State governments that implement effective policies to cut energy waste and modernize the grid. Key opportunities for States include: modernizing utility regulations to encourage cost-effective investments in efficiency, including combined heat and power and demand response resources, and in clean distributed generation; enhancing customer access to data; investments that improve the reliability, security and resilience of the grid; and enhancing the sharing of information regarding grid conditions.

Even putting the bureaucratic prose aside, this is obviously going to need to be fleshed out quite a lot before anyone can judge how effective it will be. But here are a few questions based on the education world’s Race to the Top that are worth considering:

Do the states have enough skin in this game? There’s no question that education is a state government responsibility. State and local governments put up the lion’s share of the money for public schools, set the standards, hire the teachers, and face the voters when things go wrong.

The electricity grid, by contrast, isn’t something state governments run directly. It’s something states regulate, with most of the money and the management handled by private utility companies. And it’s more questionable whether voters hold states accountable for the grid. Race to the Top could directly affect decisions made in schools. With the power grid, state policy is one step removed from those actually doing the work.  The impact may play out differently.

Is there enough of a consensus on what needs to be done? While Race to the Top could be controversial, generally speaking it promoted ideas that many  governors and educators already accepted. States had to implement certain policies even to participate – for example, states couldn’t have any laws preventing them from using test scores to evaluate teachers. Even so, some states, like Texas and Virginia, passed on the federal competition in order to implement their own school plans. And of course, the debate over the state role in health care reform, where many states resisted participating in different elements of “Obamacare,” shows what can happen if states don’t buy into a federal program.

There are certainly models to follow here – the Energy Department’s Strategic Plan for Grid Modernization presents a compelling example. But have governors bought into these plans on what can and should be done about the grid?

Is this enough money to make a difference? In education, Race to the Top dangled a tasty enough carrot in front of state governments to make it worth their while to change policies and develop plans to participate. New York state alone got $700 million in federal money. But $200 million in energy grants spread out over multiple states isn’t going to go very far. The task before us is massive. Some 30 percent of the grid is 40 to 50 years old, in a network that connects more than 15,000 power plants, 220,000 miles of high voltage lines, and another 5 million miles of distribution. Private utilities spend about $5 billion a year on upgrades, and it isn’t enough. New Jersey’s PSE&G alone has proposed spending $3.9 billion over 10 years to strengthen its system after Hurricane Sandy. Overall, the Electric Power Research Institute estimated we need up to $476 billion to modernize the grid nationwide.

Maybe the $200 million could be effective if focused on crucial sticking points in state government policies. But we still need to leverage those changes to encourage the necessary private investment in the grid.

The idea of a “race to the top” for the energy grid is certainly appealing. There’s no question we need new and compelling methods to get states and utilities to the starting line. But it still isn’t clear whether the federal government is envisioning a dash or a marathon – or whether states will want to run the race at all.



[ Green Quiz: Geothermal Energy ]

Green Quiz: Geothermal Energy


Honza Soukup

Over 450 geothermal power projects are being developed around the world today. According to the World Bank, nearly 40 countries have enough geothermal potential to meet a significant proportion of their electricity needs.

Which region of the world supports the largest collection of geothermal plants in operation?

A. El Tatio-La Torta, Chile

B. Nesjavellir, Iceland

C. Soultz-sous-Forêts, France

D. The Geysers, Northern California

Be one of the first three responders to email the correct answer to info@earthshare.org and you’ll win a green prize from EarthShare.


[ Reshaping Flight for Fuel Efficiency: Five Technologies on the Runway ]

The Boeing Dreamliner 787, poised to retake the skies soon, was one approach to more efficient flight. But aviation is looking to geared turbofan engines and radically new shapes and materials for deeper cuts in fuel consumption.


[ Greenhouse Gas Emissions: EPA Cries Foul on Keystone, Gov. Forecasts Fall Short ]

Two news items surrounding greenhouse gas emissions moved over the past week. One on the trajectory of said emissions from government number-crunching. The other on what the proposed Keystone pipeline might mean for emissions.

We start with Keystone. On Monday the Environmental Protection Agency weighed in [pdf] on the Keystone XL pipeline project. Its conclusion? ”Insufficient information.”

A Hole in Proponents’ Arguments for the Proposed Pipeline

Remember the draft supplemental environmental impact statement* on TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL Pipeline that would allow crude from Canadian tar sands to flow to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries? Prepared for the State Department, which must OK the project because it crosses an international border, the draft statement concluded with music to the ears of the pipeline’s proponents: “The proposed project … would [pose] no significant impacts to most resources along the proposed Project route.” (See my post for more on the draft statement.)

After it was released on March 1, interested parties and agencies had 45 days to submit comments on the draft and the pipeline, which has become one of the most contentious environmental issues in Obama’s presidency. That public comment period ended at midnight on Monday, and among the reported tens of thousands of comments (some say over a million) that poured in during the comment period was a seven-page reaction from the Environmental Protection Agency submitted just under the wire.

The agency’s assessment in short: “Based on our review, we have rated the [draft supplemental environmental impact statement] DSEIS as E0-2 (‘Environmental Objections – Insufficient Information’).”

Need help on the government-speak? E0-2 or Environmental Objection #2 refers, as indicated, to an objection on environmental grounds because of “insufficient information” or because, as not indicated, the EPA has “identified new reasonably available alternatives that are within the spectrum of alternatives analyzed in the draft EIS, which could reduce the environmental impacts of the action.” Did you get all that? If not, basically EPA is saying that it doesn’t buy the State Department’s assessment because it failed to consider all the options.

One Sticking Point: Estimated Emissions from Tar Sands Oil

A major EPA objection to the impact statement concerned the State Department’s assessment that the pipeline itself, as a conduit for transporting bitumen from Canadian tar sands, would have little impact on greenhouse gases. The stated reasoning for such a conclusion: Even if the pipeline were not built, the tar sands oil production would be largely unaffected as other means of transport (e.g., rail, other pipelines) would be used to bring the heavy crude to market.

EPA was not convinced:

“We note that the discussion in the DSEIS regarding energy markets, while informative, is not based on an updated energy-economic modeling effort. The DSEIS includes a discussion of rail logistics and the potential growth of rail as a transport option, however we recommend that the Final EIS provide a more careful review of the market analysis and rail transport options. … recognizing the potential for much higher per barrel rail shipment costs than presented in the DSEIS. This analysis should consider how the level and pace of oil sands crude production might be affected by higher transportation costs and the potential for congestion impacts to slow rail transport of crude.”

EPA also noted that the State Department’s evaluation of pipeline alternatives is not “sufficient to enable a meaningful comparison to the proposed route and other alternatives.” In addition, the agency reported that it would like to see a more rigorous analysis of the existing pipeline corridor, as it avoids not only the Sands Hills aquifer (which was one of the sticking points of the first proposed route) but the Ogallala aquifer as well. (See related interactive map of the route: “Keystone XL: Mapping the Flow of Tar Sands Oil.”)

What’s Comes Next?

So what happens now is more hurry up and wait. The release of the draft environmental impact statement and the conclusion of the public comment period following that release means that the preparation of a final impact statement can now officially begin. That “Final Supplemental EIS,” said State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell, would include “additional analysis and incorporate public comments received on the Draft SEIS.” As for all those many public comments, State has promised to publish each and every one. ($ub req’ed) There’s no word yet on when.

And remember all this is for just the environmental assessment. In all, eight federal agencies [pdf] will need to weigh in on the project before State renders its decision.

Whither U.S. CO2 Emissions?

While we’re on the subject of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. it is relevant to note that the Energy Information Administration (EIA) has begun releasing its Annual Energy Outlook for 2013. One item published last week was the forecast for U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions through 2040. This projection along with EIA’s past projections between 2004 and 2012 is illustrated below.

CO2 Forecasts Plus Copenhagen Commitment

AEO: Annual Energy Outlook, from EIA’s archived forecasts issued in a given year and its latest, AEO 2013 (Additional info here.) U.S. commitment in the Copenhagen Accord [pdf]

There is certainly good news here. Since 2004, the EIA’s estimate for future U.S. emissions has consistently fallen for each projection. As discussed previously (see here, here and here), this decrease can be attributed to a number of factors including the global recession, fuel-switching away from coal and petroleum and toward natural gas, decreasing energy intensity, milder winters, and so on.

But lest we get carried away congratulating ourselves, the news from the EIA’s 2013 projection is not all roses. While U.S. emissions have been falling since the economic downturn of 2008, EIA projects they will begin a modest upturn in 2017 that will continue through 2040.

And even given the sizable (some might say remarkable) decrease in our projected emissions over the next few decades, as compared to earlier projections, the current forecast falls quite short of the emissions reductions President Obama committed to as part of the Copenhagen Accord [pdf], as illustrated in the above graphic. (See also here.)

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons EPA is concerned about the potential emissions from tar sands. Of course the State Department’s answer could be that if EIA just keeps ratcheting down its emissions projections, maybe we’ll meet our emissions commitment without even trying. So why worry about a little bit of extra greenhouse gas emissions (on the order of about 19 million metric tons annually, according to EPA estimates) from tar sands? Why indeed.


End Note

* Because of a previously proposed route for the pipeline, which had its own environmental impact statement (which was ultimately rejected), the statement issued in March is a “supplemental” environmental impact statement [pdf]. A final supplemental statement will be issued after more analysis and review.


[ For Military, a Solar Energy Solution Lightens the Load and Could Save Lives ]


The great military book is from early China, The Art of War. There is no art of soldiering. You heavy up, go for a walk, look for trouble for a few hours. Or days.

 Pete Newell is a U.S. Army colonel. Soldiering doesn’t change, he says. Technology does.

 “The average weight on a soldier’s back,” says Newell, “is some-where around 104 pounds. 27 of it [is] batteries.”

Colonel Newell is the director of the Rapid Equipping Force – REF – a think tank, hardware store, tech lab for combat soldiers. A perfect solution to a soldier problem – a Humvee redesigned against IEDs, for instance, might take years.

 REF tries to find pretty good answers that already exist, or are about to exist. “What we’ll describe is, ‘Find the first, best, fastest solution we can,’” explains Newell.

 Here’s an example, something REF helped develop to answer a soldier problem – again, with IEDs. And if you wonder what all those batteries are for – well, Newell says, “It’s called the Thor III.”

 Thor. It sounds heavy. 

 “The piece of equipment itself weighs 25 pounds,” explains Newell. “Over a three-day patrol, a platoon of 28 soldiers will have three of these systems because of the bands that they operate at.”

 Thor is a signal jammer. Everybody adapts technology, including the people trying to kill us. A favorite tactic: a hidden bomb with a cellphone trigger. Wait for the soldiers to get close, call the number…boom. If you’re going out on patrol for three days, you want a Thor III, batteries included. If Thor is working, the bomb triggers will not.

 Newell says it takes 238 pounds of batteries to run Thor III for 3 days. “So, [that’s] 238 pounds distributed across 28 bodies, on top of the weight for the system and the weight of all the other stuff they’re carrying.”

 Colonel Newell is a former brigade commander, awarded a silver star and a unit commendation for leadership at Fallujah, the biggest fight in Iraq.

 He knows soldiering, but when he took over REF three years ago, he didn’t think about energy. “I would tell you that I really did not see that as a major task for the Rapid Equipping Force,” he says.

 But combat outposts – remote, battlefield camps for 20 to 150 soldiers – use a lot of fuel. The convoys to supply them are magnets for bombs and snipers. They’re the Army’s single greatest vulnerability in Afghanistan. It’s also true for a single soldier – heavied up, and walking patrol.

 The Thor III is a REF solution. Too heavy, too power-hungry…but it works right now with existing technology, until they design something better.

 Still, in January, at REF headquarters at Fort Belvoir outside Washington, the colonel was more excited by something else. He pulled out a solar panel. “These are solar recharging blankets and you’ve probably seen them before. So this is a 10-watt blanket and it’s about two feet by three feet, the size of a poster.”

 It folds neatly, it weighs 12-ounces, and it comes in camo. Its 10-watts of power is enough to fully charge two smart phones in an hour.

 Nine months ago, Newell says, this was the best thing he could find on the market for being developed.

 Then he put aside the poster-size charger and showed me what looked like a camo napkin.

 “This is a 10-Watt solar blanket,” he explains. “This weighs 3.8 ounces. So, within nine months, we went from what we thought was really, really, really good to a 28% efficient solar cell, and reduced the size down to a third of what it was before.”

 REF just bought two kilowatts of these cells for $2 million – $100 per watt. That is way too expensive for normal use, but it’s a tenth what the cells would have cost a year ago.

 And in another two years, Alta Devices – the Silicon Valley company that makes them – hopes to have the cost down to $10 a watt.

 Meanwhile, soldiers are going to be using these, and if they come to trust the mats, maybe some of those 27 pounds of batteries can stay back at base.

 For all the technological wonders, REF’s social tech impressed me most.

 The fuel-eating combat outposts I mentioned earlier – REF is prototyping a radical redesign. They put one up at a gunnery range by Fort Bliss, Texas, and got two-dozen soldiers to live in it for two weeks.

 And then REF hired a leading Silicon Valley marketing firm, IDEO, to run a three-day exercise to try to understand what the soldiers had learned, and what they would change.

 It’s the kind of thing very big tech firms do – because it works. REF thinks of the soldier as the customer. Among changes the soldiers suggested: an emergency intercom system. REF is working on it.

 REF directors – Colonel Newell and those before him – spend a lot of time with high tech firms and venture capitalists, and at the best engineering and business schools, trying to understand how to be very, very agile.

“Stop trying to solve the problem,” the colonel advises. “Spend your time trying to understand what it is you’re supposed to be doing. The problem will eventually solve itself.”

 Colonel Newell left his post at REF last week. He’s retiring from the Army. The Department of Defense has just decided to change REF’s status from interesting experiment to permanent agency. We’ll see how that works.

 But I was in the Army long ago, and even at Fort Bliss for a while. It wasn’t this smart.

Alex Chadwick is the host of the public radio series, BURN: An Energy Journal, from SoundVision productions and American Public Media’s Marketplace, produced with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.


[ The Unsung Renewable Energy: Geothermal ]

The Unsung Renewable Energy: Geothermal


nicksarebi / flickr

When it comes to renewable energy, solar and wind power take the
spotlight. Their power plants are highly visible and iconic: most people
instantly recognize solar panels and spinning wind turbines. But ask someone to
describe a geothermal plant and the task is more challenging.

Despite this, use of geothermal power is growing fast. Over
450 geothermal plants are in production
around the world, up from just 30
several years ago. About 175 of those are located in the US. The world’s only
green-powered country, Iceland, gets nearly 30% of its electricity from geothermal power (and almost 90% of its heat and hot water).

So how does it work? As the name suggests, geothermal harvests the
energy produced by the earth’s hot core. Pipes are drilled into the ground and
the steam or heat that escapes is either used to generate electricity or is
directed straight to a building for space heating. You can usually find billowy
white clouds of steam surrounding a geothermal power plant.

Unlike conventional energy sources like coal and gas, geothermal power
doesn’t produce dangerous greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide or methane. One
of Iceland’s most iconic tourist spots, the Blue Lagoon (pictured above), was
created by diverting water unearthed by a nearby geothermal plant. Geothermal
also has an advantage over other renewable technologies in its consistency: the
heat produced by the earth’s core never wanes.

It’s not just utility companies that are taking advantage of
geothermal power. Individual homeowners are building smaller geothermal
installations too. Geothermal heat pumps (also known as “ground source heat
pumps”) that draw heat from the ground beneath one’s home or business can slash
HVAC costs. More than 600,000 U.S. homes and other buildings already use such
pumps, which are placed at a depth of 20 feet or deeper.

geothermal energy doesn’t come without its challenges. Large power plants can
only be built in certain regions, typically near fault lines. It takes time and
money to find the best place to put one. So far the US has geothermal plants in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and
Wyoming (although smaller systems can be installed just about anywhere).

In large
systems that aren’t “closed-loop”, sulfur dioxide (SO2) from the steam can be a
minor pollution concern – although SO2 emissions are
about 30
times lower per megawatt-hour
than from coal plants, the nation’s largest
source of SO2 emissions. Drilling for geothermal has also been known to cause small earthquakes
and certain designs can compete with other users for freshwater, albeit
significantly less than conventional forms of energy like coal.

Want to learn
more about solar and wind’s unsung yet powerful cousin?
Visit the Union of Concerned Scientists’ page on geothermal
or Google’s comprehensive map of geothermal resources. Interested in learning more about the role of this and other often overlooked renewable resources? Listen to this EESI Congressional briefing. And if you’re interested in installing your own geothermal heat pump, the Department of Energy has great resources to get you started.



[ Europe’s Carbon Market Crisis: Why Does it Matter? ]

In a blow for global efforts to mitigate climate change, the European Union’s eight-year-old carbon market is collapsing. Is this the death knell for cap and trade, or a useful lesson?


[ Earth Day Volunteer Challenge ]

2013 Earth Day Volunteer Challenge


Many thanks to our colleagues, friends and the local residents who joined EarthShare and the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) for the 19th Annual Earth Day River Cleanup on April 20th!

EarthShare again sponsored the Kingman Island site in NE DC where we picked up 2 tons of trash with the help of great volunteers from Accenture, Friends of the Earth, Engility Corporation, Living Classroom, APCO Worldwide, BRTRC, and ERM Insight.

Thanks again to everyone who gave their time on a windy but sunny Saturday morning to help protect and restore the Anacostia River and its watershed communities. We couldn’t have done it without you!

Visit our Facebook page to check out photos of our amazing volunteers at the clean up site! Join our mailing list to learn about the 2014 cleanup event, and stay in touch with EarthShare all year long.


We proudly partner with the organizations below who share our commitment to supporting our community and creating a cleaner environment:




Please share!


[ Give the Earth a Gift on Earth Day ]

Give the Earth a Gift on Earth Day


whirledkid / flickr


Would you consider making one donation this Earth Day if you knew it could accomplish all these things … and more?

  • Help establish clean car standards that will raise automobile fuel efficiency to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. (NRDC)
  • Create projects to plant 1.8 million trees across the U.S. and around the world in 2013. (American Forests)
  • Help Oregon pass comprehensive legislation to develop a state-run livestock compensation and wolf co-existence program. (Defenders of Wildlife)
  • Organize and execute the world’s largest volunteer effort to clean up waterways and the ocean. (Ocean Conservancy)
  • Successfully defended a ban on new uranium mining on 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon. (Earthjustice)


These are just some of the achievements made possible by people like you. As we approach Earth Day, consider making a gift to help EarthShare’s charities continue changing the world for the better!

Only EarthShare lets you support so many conservation and environmental causes with just one donation. Your gift is an investment in our natural resources and quality of life, and EarthShare and its member charities have worked hard for 25 years to maximize your return on that investment.


What we’ve already achieved together is amazing, but your investment is needed now to ensure that these successes continue. Please consider giving a little back to the Earth. You can make a secure, tax-deductible online donation right now.

Please help make our planet healthier and more sustainable by showing your support today. Thank you so much!


Please share!


[ Greening STEM on National Environmental Education Week ]

Greening STEM with Environmental Education


Photo courtesy of NEEF


Guest post by the
National Environmental Education Foundation

In Chicago,
students use a smart phone scavenger hunt app to learn about endangered animals
at the Lincoln Park Zoo. In southeast Michigan, scientists and students
interact through video streams and virtual fieldtrips to monitor local water
quality. And at middle schools around the country, students can take actual
photos of the Earth from cameras aboard the International Space Station.

Technology, sometimes
seen as a distraction in the classroom, can actually inspire greater engagement
in learning, especially when it comes to environmental science.

indicates that 77% of teachers believe using technology in the classroom increases
student motivation to learn, while 75% of surveyed educators said students who
spend regular time outdoors tend to be more creative and better
problem-solvers. That’s why the National Environmental Education Foundation
(NEEF) is marrying technology and the outdoors during National Environmental Education Week (EE Week), taking place from April 14-20, 2013.

EE Week is the
nation's largest celebration of environmental education held each year the week
before Earth Day to inspire environmental learning and stewardship. In 2012, EE
Week kicked off a multi-year Greening STEM (science, technology, engineering
and math) initiative on the important role the environment plays in engaging
students in STEM learning and helping them solve 21st century challenges. This
year, EE Week will focus on Taking
Technology Outdoors


students with opportunities to connect with and learn about nature through
technology can also mean improved workforce readiness: The number of STEM jobs is expected to
increase by 20.6% between 2008 and 2018, compared to 10.1% for all other jobs. A
significant 71% of STEM jobs will be within the technology field.

The environment offers
a perfect gateway to STEM learning through hands-on, real-world projects on topics
like energy efficiency and resource conservation that incorporate all four
pillars of STEM. Deborah Wasylik, 2012 Environmental Education Award Winner,
noted, “When you teach environmental science, STEM is already integrated
beautifully in the curriculum.”

NEEF provides these
resources and case studies
to support environmental projects that reinforce STEM learning during EE Week:

  • Are you an educator
    or parent? Register for EE Week (it’s free!) to learn how today’s technology
    can enhance environmental learning and develop 21st century skills.
  • Download and
    share the EE Week Infographic, Tech & Our Planet, for interesting facts about technology and
    environmental education.
  • Join an April 12th EE Week Google+ Hangout to go live, behind the scenes on weather forecasting using cutting-edge technology. The Hangout is inspired by EE Week’s theme on taking tech outdoors and is part of a series of biweekly Google+ Hangouts with scientists leading up to Google’s third annual Science Fair.
  • Connect with NEEF
    on Facebook
    and Twitter to stay posted on activities and resources
    around EE Week.


To learn more
about the importance of environmental education, visit the EarthShare environmental education issue page. And to bring your own technology outside, download
one of these green mobile apps from EarthShare member organizations.