Tag Archives: green

Wide-scale use of solar technology in cities would almost cover their full energy needs

Fully-integrating solar panels into buildings could make cities almost self-sustaining, according to new research.

Image credits Ulrike Leone.

Solar panels get a lot of bad press for having a low energy output; individually, that may be so. A small, single panel will not be able to keep your home lit, warmed, and all the appliances running. But the secret with solar energy is to think at scale, a new paper suggests, and to make the most of every bit of free space. According to the findings, the City of Melbourne could generate 74% of its electricity needs if solar technology was to be integrated into the roofs, walls, and windows of every building.

This study is the first to estimate the viability and impact of integrating several types of solar technology including window-integrated and rooftop-mounted photovoltaics on a city-wide scale. The results are promising, suggesting that the City of Melbourne could greatly reduce its reliance on energy produced through the burning of fossil fuels.

Lighting the way

“By using photovoltaic technology commercially available today and incorporating the expected advances in wall and window-integrated solar technology over the next ten years, we could potentially see our CBD (central business district) on its way to net zero in the coming decades,” said lead author Professor Jacek Jasieniak.

“We began importing coal-fired power from the LaTrobe Valley in the 1920s to stop the practice of burning smog-inducing coal briquettes onsite to power our CBD buildings, and it’s now feasible that over one hundred years later, we could see a full circle moment of Melbourne’s buildings returning to local power generation within the CBD, but using clean, climate-safe technologies that help us meet Australia’s Net Zero 2050 target.”

The authors report that existing rooftop photovoltaic technology alone could dramatically reduce Melbourne’s carbon footprint. If technologies that are still being developed, such as high-efficiency solar windows or facade-integrated panels, are also taken into account, solar energy can become the leading source of energy in the city. These estimates hinge on the assumption that such technologies are integrated on a wide scale across the city.

For the study, the team compared the electrical energy consumption in Melbourne in 2018 to an estimate of the energy that could be produced through wide use of building-integrated solar systems. Consumption figures were obtained from Jemena and CitiPower & Powercor distribution companies through the Centre for New Energy Technologies (C4NET), an independent research body in Victoria, Australia. The production estimates were based on city-wide mathematical modelling.

Out of the total potential energy that solar power could provide, rooftop-mounted solar panels could generate 88%, with wall-integrated and window-integrated solar delivering 8% and 4% respectively. However, wall- and window-mounted solar technologies lost a lot less of their efficiency during the winter months relative to rooftop-mounted panels, the models showed. In other words, although they have a lower total output potential, these two types of technology deliver power more reliably and at more constant levels throughout the year.

Building height had a particular impact only on window-integrated solar technologies; in highrise neighborhoods, its potential rose to around 18% of the total generated energy. In areas with low average building height, the total wall and window areas available are small, reducing their overall potential to generate power. The window-to-wall surface ratio also tends to be greater in commercial buildings compared to residential buildings.

The modeling took into account the impact of shadows cast in the city by elements such as buildings, shading systems, or balconies, and natural factors such as sun incidence angle and total solar potential of different areas across Melbourne. The technologies used as part of the simulations were selected based on their technical characteristics, limitations, and costs of installation and operation.

All in all, the study worked with the 37.4 km2 area of central Melbourne, which consists mainly of residential and commercial buildings. In 2019, a total of 35.1 km2 of the studied perimeter was built floor area. This area was selected because it offered one the greatest potential for window-integrated solar in Melbourne, the team explains.

“Although there’s plenty of policies supporting energy-efficiency standards for new buildings, we’re yet to see a substantial response to ensuring our existing buildings are retrofitted to meet the challenges of climate change,” says co-author Dr. Jenny Zhou. “Our research provides a framework that can help decision-makers move forward with implementing photovoltaic technologies that will reduce our cities’ reliance on damaging fossil fuels.”

“In the near future, market penetration and deployment of high-efficient solar windows can make a substantive contribution towards the carbon footprint mitigation of high-rise developments,” adds first author Dr. Maria Panagiotidou. “As the world transitions towards a net-zero future, these local energy solutions would play a critical role in increasing the propensity of PVs within urban environments.”

The paper “Prospects of photovoltaic rooftops, walls and windows at a city to building scale” has been published in the journal Solar Energy.

Billion-year-old green algae is a relative of all plants on dry land

Researchers at Virginia Tech report finding what may be a relative of today’s land plants ancestors — tiny green algae in modern China.

The algae fossils seen under the microscope.
Image credits Shuhai Xiao, Qing Tang / Virginia Tech.

Scientists have recently discovered a new fossil species of green algae. These diminutive seaweeds belong to a species known as Proterocladus antiquus, and each individual measures 2 millimeters in length, making them around the size of a common flea. Currently, this represents the oldest species of green algae ever discovered.

The green chlorophyll inside their tissues strongly suggests that Proterocladus antiquus could be related to the oldest ancestors of all the plants currently dotting the Earth’s dry landmasses.

Plant, I am your father

“The entire biosphere is largely dependent on plants and algae for food and oxygen, yet land plants did not evolve until about 450 million years ago,” said Shuhai Xiao, co-lead author of the paper and a Professor at Virginia’s Department of Geosciences.

“Our study shows that green seaweeds evolved no later than 1 billion years ago, pushing back the record of green seaweeds by about 200 million years. What kind of seaweeds supplied food to the marine ecosystem?”

The microfossils were found in rocks recovered at a site near the city of Dalian, in the Liaoning Province of northern China, an area that used to be a shallow ocean. The discovery suggests that green seaweeds were an important player in global ecosystems long before plants took root on dry soil.

These tiny algae were first spotted by Qing Tang, a post-doctoral researcher at Virginia’s Department of Geosciences, using an electron microscope. He shared this with Xiao and the duo worked to improve the imagining of the algae, and to date and describe the species.

A digital reconstruction of the species in a shallow ocean environment.
Image credits Shuhai Xiao, Qing Tang / Virginia Tech.

There are three groups of seaweed, brown (Phaeophyceae), green (Chlorophyta), and red (Rhodophyta) algae, each containing thousands of species. Red algae, the most common group today, are known to have existed from as far back as 1.047 billion years ago. Shuhai explains that land plants are believed to have evolved from green algae which moved and adapted to life on dry land. However, Xiao adds that not everyone is in agreement with this hypothesis.

“Not everyone agrees with us; some scientists think that green plants started in rivers and lakes, and then conquered the ocean and land later,” he says.

Red algae do photosynthesize, but they use up a different part of the light spectrum than green plants (namely the color blue, which penetrates water more easily). However, red algae use the pigment phycoerythrin to absorb blue light — making them appear red. This points to green seaweeds as a more likely ancestor for today’s plants. Furthermore, the team reports that “a group of modern green seaweeds, known as siphonocladaleans, are particularly similar in shape and size to the fossils we found.”

Today, plants underpin complex life on the planet by providing food and oxygen (through photosynthesis) for all animals. However, around 2 billion years ago, the Earth had no green plants at all in oceans, Xiao said.

“[Proterocladus antiquus displays] multiple branches, upright growths, and specialized cells known as akinetes that are very common in this type of fossil,” he adds. “Taken together, these features strongly suggest that the fossil is a green seaweed with complex multicellularity that is circa 1 billion years old. These likely represent the earliest fossil of green seaweeds. In short, our study tells us that the ubiquitous green plants we see today can be traced back to at least 1 billion years.”

According to Xiao and Tang, the tiny seaweeds once lived in a shallow ocean, died, and then became “cooked” beneath a thick pile of sediment, preserving the organic shapes of the seaweeds as fossils. Many millions of years later, the sediment was then lifted up out of the ocean and became the dry land where the fossils were retrieved by Xiao and his team, which included scientists from Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology in China.

The paper has been published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Most people think they’re doing more for the environment than everyone else — but that’s not how averages work

People tend to (wrongly) overestimate the greenness of their personal lifestyle.

Image credits Gerd Altmann.

A study from the University of Gothenburg found that people are likely to overestimate how environmentally-friendly their own lifestyle is — and that it’s ‘greener’ than that of an average person. The study included over 4,000 participants from Sweden, the United States, England, and India.

Greenier than thou

“The results point out our tendency to overestimate our own abilities, which is in line with previous studies where most people consider themselves to be more honest, more creative, and better drivers than others. This study shows that over-optimism, or the “better-than-average” effect, also applies to environmentally friendly behaviours,” says environmental psychology researcher Magnus Bergquist, the paper’s sole author.

Bergquist asked the participants to what degree sustainability and environmental friendliness shapes their behavior by asking how often they perform specific activities such as buying eco-labeled products, saving household energy, and reducing purchases of plastic bags. She also asked the participants to estimate how their behavior in this area compared to that of the average person.

The majority of respondents rated themselves as more environmentally friendly than others, be them friends or strangers. However, Bergquist says that their responses don’t reflect this view. The participants regularly overestimated their engagement in activities they performed often, the study reports, and this led them to conclude that they perform such activities more often than others.

Bergquist doesn’t want to rain on anybody’s parade. However, he notes that perceiving ourselves as more engaged in environmental efforts than our peers can reduce our motivation to act in a way that benefits the environment in the future. Overall, the study found, this mentality causes people to actually become less environmentally-friendly than the average individual.

One of the ways we can fight back against this faulty perception is to try and foster a more realistic and objective view of our own environmental efforts.

“If you think about it logically, the majority cannot be more environmentally friendly than others,” Bergquist notes.

“One way to change this faulty opinion, is to inform people that others actually behave environmentally friendly, and thereby creating an environmentally friendly norm. Social norms affect us also in this area, we know this from previous studies.”

The main takeaway from this study is that we’re all subjected to our own biases, wittingly or not. It’s not a crime — life, after all, is a deeply subjective experience. But if we don’t strive to be aware of our own biases, they can and will shape our behavior to a large extent.

The paper “Most People Think They Are More Pro-Environmental than Others: A Demonstration of the Better-than-Average Effect in Perceived Pro-Environmental Behavioral Engagement” has been published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

More green spaces can help some cities keep cool

Researchers looking into how to help keep our cities cool say that more green spaces can help, although not everywhere.

Image credits Khusen Rustamov.

The urban heat island effect is a phenomenon through which the temperature in a city is noticeably higher than in the surrounding rural area. Which is, obviously, very irritating.

In a bid to find out how to control the effect, an international team of researchers looked at the role of precipitation and population size have on city temperatures compared with the surrounding countryside. All in all, they report that more green spaces can help bring city temperatures down, but not everywhere.

Plant some plants

“We already know that plants create a more pleasant environment in a city, but we wanted to quantify how many green spaces are actually needed to produce a significant cooling effect,” says Gabriele Manoli, former postdoc with the Chair of Hydrology and Water Resources Management at ETH Zurich and lead author of the study.

When urban heat island effects compound with the sort of heatwaves that hit most of Europe this summer, it can pose a very real and deadly threat to the elderly, sick, and other vulnerable groups.

The team looked at urban heat islands across the globe and at the different heat-reduction strategies they employ. The effectiveness of these strategies depends heavily on regional climate, they explain.

Manoli and his team — with members from ETH Zurich, Princeton University and Duke University — studied data from around 30,000 cities worldwide and their surrounding environments. The factors they analyzed include average summer temperatures, population size, and average annual rainfall.

The larger the city, the more dramatic its urban heat island, the authors explain — but also more rainfall in the region. As a rule of thumb, more rain means more plant growth, meaning that areas surrounding large cities are much cooler than them. This effect is the strongest when annual rainfall averages around 1500 millimeters (as in Tokyo), but does not increase further with more rain.

Cities in very dry regions (like Phoenix, Arizona) can, through carefully-targeted planting efforts, bring their average temperatures below that of the surrounding countryside. Those surrounded by tropical forests on the other hand (such as Singapore) would need far more green spaces to reduce temperatures — but the authors warn that this would also increase humidity.

Therefore, cities located in tropical zones should look to other cooling methods, such as increased wind circulation, more use of shade, and new heat-dispersing materials.

One of the main takeaways from the study, Manoli explains, is a preliminary classification of cities to help guide planners on possible approaches to mitigate the urban heat island effect.

“There is no single solution,” Manoli says. “It all depends on the surrounding environment and regional climate characteristics.”

“Even so, searching for solutions to reduce temperatures in specific cities will require additional analysis and in-depth understanding of the microclimate. Such information, however, is based on data and models available to city planners and decision-makers only in a handful of cities, such as Zurich, Singapore or London.”

The team is now working to determine which types of plant are most useful for reducing the heat island effect.

The paper “Magnitude of urban heat islands largely explained by climate and population” has been published in the journal Nature.

Bacterial cement.

What is the house of the future going to look like?

How will our homes morph in the future to meet the demands of today?

House.

Image via Pixabay.

Computers are rapidly becoming ubiquitous in many areas of our lives. We’re also becoming more environmentally-conscious, and more technologically-savvy. At the same time, we’re more and more pressed for time in today’s hectic world. Throughout history, our homes have changed to keep pace with our wants, needs, and possibilities, so it’s a pretty safe bet that the home will transform to both meet the requirements of modern life, as well as to take advantage of its advances. But what, exactly, will this transformation involve?

We don’t really know — but we do have some pretty good guesses. Today, let’s take a look at what future homes could be built from, how they’ll handle utilities, how we’ll get around inside them, and how to keep them at a comfortable temperature.

A brick-by-brick analysis

Fans of English architecture, sorry to break it to you, but the tried-and-tested brick’s prospects don’t look so good. Many traditional building materials, from bricks and mortar to steel and cement, release a lot of CO2 during their manufacturing processes. This doesn’t jive very well with our efforts at fighting climate change, however, so they will probably be increasingly phased out of use.

MycoTecture.

This structure was grown from the fungus Ganoderma lucidum.
Image credits Philip Ross.

Instead, why not lay down fungus bricks? Made from dried mycelia, the tangled root-like fibers that grow beneath mushrooms, these are definitely more eco-friendly than traditional bricks. And, they’re good for you too, not just for the environment. They are stronger than concrete, pound for pound, fire-proof, resistant to water and mold, and can be grown into virtually any shape. Philip Ross, an artist and lecturer at Stanford University who spearheaded the development of these mushroom bricks has co-founded MycoWorks, a company that aims to bring the product to markets.

Right now, MycoWorks’s flagship product is a type of fake leather “grown rapidly from mycelium and agricultural byproducts in a carbon-negative process” — so your couch will definitely match the walls. But what is the material like?

“It’s sort of like a plastic that can potentially be used for God knows what,” Ross told Glasstire in an interview.

Cementing eco-friendliness

Bacterial cement.

Image via Eco-Cement.

If bricks just don’t represent you that well, bacteria have got your back (and walls). As part of a European Union-backed project, a company in Madrid has developed a cheaper, sustainable, bacteria-based ‘eco-cement‘. The material starts out as a bacterial mix, which you have to supply with soil and nutrients, then simmer at around 30°C for around three hours. After this initial fermentation process, the bacteria have basically produced limestone (which is a central ingredient of cement). Throw in an armful of sand, industrial cement residue, and rice husk ash and voila — cement!

“Our raw materials are basically all waste. So we don’t have added costs,” said Laura Sánchez Alonso, a mining Engineer and Eco-Cement project coordinator. “For instance, we don’t need to extract and transport the limestone commonly used to produce cement. And we also save the energy costs”

This bacterial approach can shave some 11% off of greenhouse emissions, and 27% off of the production costs of cement. Researchers have yet to determine how many wall-related discussions this cement will spark at your housewarming party, but unofficial estimates say it is ‘a lot’.

Wooden’t you like to live here?

Brock wooden skyscraper.

The wooden Brock skyscraper was constructed ahead of target.
Image credits Acton Ostry Architects, the developeres of the project.

Wood is making a comeback as a building material. It has several very appealing properties: it’s a strong, sustainable material which stores carbon dioxide to boot. It’s also very versatile, and we’re learning to do more and more awesome things with it. If you need steel but want wood, it can do that — just make it superdense. Need windows but all you have are planks? Fret not; transparent wood is stronger than glass and easy to make. From timber skyscrapers to wind turbines, to taller skyscrapers, wood is definitely the most modern ancient building material.

“(As) a building like this becomes a reality, it really paves the way for additional projects across the country, probably throughout North America and throughout the world,” said Lynn Embury-Williams, executive director of the Canadian Wood Council’s Wood Works BC program, who worked on the Brock Commons, a wooden skyscraper student dorm for the University of British Columbia campus.

Insulation

Insulation has a big role to play in making your home energy-efficient. If you’re a sci-fi type of guy, aerogels are right down your alley (and, ideally, up your walls). For the fantasy fans among you, staw might be more palatable — but just as effective.

Heating is cool

Radiator.

Image via Pixabay.

Insulation is just half of the equation — we also want to heat the place up during winter and cool it down in the summer. In other words, we want temperature control. One of the sleekest upcoming systems in this area is a thermal battery developed by the EMPA (the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research). It mixes NaOH (sodium hydroxide, lye) with water to generate heat during cold months. When summer swings by, recharging the battery is as simple as leaving it out in the sun to dry.

Alternatively, if your goal is to stay cool on a budget, this air conditioning unit might spark your fancy. In broad lines, it pushes air through a paper-like membrane to dry it down. Then, this dry air is pumped over metallic plates inside the AC to force water to evaporate at room temperature. Since water needs to absorb energy to turn from a liquid to a gas, this cools down the plates, which in turn cool down the surrounding air. The system also generates about 12 to 15 liters (12.68 to 15.85 quarts) of potable water per day.

Getting around

Elevators.

Image credits Suppadeth Wongyee.

One of the best parts of technology is that it makes life easier and more enjoyable. Getting around the house might not seem like that much of a hassle, but for the elderly or those living with disabilities, it can become quite hard. Stairs are a time-proven feature but are hard to navigate for someone in a wheelchair, for example. Elevators seem like the ideal fix, but let’s be honest — how many of us can afford to install new-age residential elevators? We’re not all French kings, after all.

One British company is touting new-age residential elevators as the ideal solution. Their product is basically a home elevator that can “fit into the corner of a room and ascends through a hole in the ceiling with no lift shaft required,” according to the South China Morning Post.

“You could describe it as a high-end chair lift. People don’t want, in many cases, a chair-lift on their beautiful staircase and they don’t necessarily want a lift; it’s about looking at the lift for the long-term future proofing the property,” said John McSweeney, the company’s founder.

“And unlike a stairlift which is a permanent feature on your staircase, the lift can be sent away when you don’t need it — so it’s never the elephant in the room.”

Water, power, gas

Solar roof.

Image credits Ulrike Leone.

Perhaps the single best way your house can generate its own clean power is with a solar panel roof. When working in tandem with a battery bank, such a roof could, with a bit of luck and help from geography, even make your home energy-independent — or even a net energy contributor to the larger grid. Since it’s clean, relatively cheap and easy to maintain, and quite efficient, I think solar roofs will catch on in the houses of the future. And, if you need to make sure you’re generating as much energy as possible, you can turn your windows into a source of power as well.

Water has always been a little trickier to reliably generate at home. Wells aren’t a realistic option for those of us living in big cities. Even if you own a plot of land big enough to dig said well, groundwater tends to be very polluted underneath cities — so you shouldn’t drink it. But, we have ways to get a drink out of Mother Nature.

This simple, manganese-oxide-coated-sand approach can be used to purify stormwater. The sand particles physically block impurities, while the coating breaks down organic pollutants. The team intended for it to be used on a large scale, to supply displaced communities with clean water aquifers; it can thus easily be turned to the task of supplying ‘placed’ communities with clean water they can then pump out or tap with a well, for example. However, it can probably be adapted to provide clean rainwater for single homes at a time.

Trees are more sustainable than sand, capture CO2, and can also clean your water. By tapping into sapwood’s natural filtration properties, this team of researchers created a simple and elegant water filter. The only thing it can’t filter, the team explains, are viruses.

“Today’s filtration membranes have nanoscale pores that are not something you can manufacture in a garage very easily,” says Rohit Karnik, one of the researchers that developed the filter. “The idea here is that we don’t need to fabricate a membrane, because it’s easily available. You can just take a piece of wood and make a filter out of it.”

So far, so good for all of those who favor a more natural approach — but what if you want to call upon the full brunt of science and precision technology when turning the tap? Graphite may be the filter of choice for you, then. The team behind that filter reports it removes “99% of natural organic matter from water at low pressure,” which is nothing to scoff at.

For potable water, however, I’d recommend going the safe route and doing away with filters completely. Something like a scaled-up Solarball could provide a family with all the drinking water it requires, germ- and contaminants- free.

As far as gas usage goes — just don’t. Use electricity instead.

Eco-Friendly.

Our social brains handle environmental issues poorly — “You can’t kiss and make up with the environment,” researchers say

A team of Sweedish researchers says we treat our relationship with the planet like a social exchange — and that undermines our efforts to protect the environment.

Eco-Friendly.

Image via Picserver.

We often blunder in our personal lives, but we can usually make amends. The planet doesn’t work like that, a new study says, but our brains are so deeply wired to navigate social relationships that it treats it the same way. This leads to the belief that ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘green’ behavior can make-up for our carbon footprint — which is down-right not the case, the authors explain.

They propose that advertisers, government officials, and economic systems currently play on our innate ‘climate compensation’ psychology leading us to harm the environment even as we try to protect it. If we truly want to safeguard the environment and our place in it, they add, we need a paradigm shift.

“You can’t kiss and make up with the environment”

The team says that it’s practically impossible to measure how each of our actions impacts the environment. So we shorthand it to certain rules of thumb that, when followed, we perceive as reducing our environmental footprint. But, while the motivation behind them is definitely commendable, this rule of thumb approach simply doesn’t work.

Such innate, intuitive judgments are borne of the way our brains handle social interactions, they write, where a good decision can cancel out a faux pas. The environment, however, doesn’t work like that. In this arena, a ‘bad’ decision (i.e. consumption) causes permanent damage to the environment, but ‘good’ decisions (i.e. green options) are at best less harmful — not restorative.

“Reciprocity and balance in social relations have been fundamental to social cooperation, and thus to survival, so the human brain has become specialized through natural selection to compute and seek this balance. But when applied to climate change, this social give-and-take thinking leads to the misconception that ‘green’ choices can compensate for unsustainable ones,” says lead author Patrik Sörqvist, Professor of Environmental Psychology at the University of Gävle, Sweden.

“You can’t kiss and make up with the environment. Jetting to the Caribbean will make you a huge environmental burden, no matter how many meat free Mondays you have.”

The study cites past research which showed that climate compensation is wide-spread and pervasive. Sörqvist cites studies which found that people perceive the environmental impact of a shopping cart as staying the same — or even dropping — when items labeled as ‘eco-friendly’ are added to next to their conventional items. For example, people “intuitively” feel that the combination of a hamburger and an organic apple is less environmentally-taxing that the hamburger alone, or that the total emissions of a carpool stay constant when hybrid cars are added — note that it’s ‘added’, meaning the same number of conventional cars remain in use.

When spelled out like this, the inconsistencies are hard to miss. But in our day-to-day, Sörqvist explains, our brains pursue a wide range of these misguided quick fixes to address our eco-guilt.

“People might purchase some extra groceries because they are ‘eco-labeled’; think that they can justify jetting abroad for vacation because they have been cycling to work; or take longer showers because they’ve reduced the water temperature. And companies — nations, even — claim to balance greenhouse gas emissions by planting trees or by paying for carbon offsets through the European Union Emission Trading Scheme.

“Meanwhile, the best thing for the environment would of course be for us to consume less overall,” he stresses.

The team says that stricter legislation regarding marketing ploys and obligatory carbon footprint estimates on products could help people avoid the environmental compensation pitfall. Consumers would benefit from immediate feedback on each product’s environmental impact — even something as simple as the accumulated carbon footprint of your shopping basket at check-out would help.

“Terms like ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’ encourage the view that objects, behaviors and decisions with these labels are ‘good’ rather than ‘less bad’ for the environment,” says co-author Dr Linda Langeborg, also of the University of Gävle.

“Calling a hamburger restaurant ‘100 % climate compensated’, for example, may deceive people into believing that eating dinner at that restaurant has no environmental burden.”

I actually quite like this study. It’s a fresh take on how each of goes about our own little climate-protection efforts, and how our inherent nature may shoot them in the foot. Hopefully, now that we know ourselves a little bit better, we’ll be more aware of these pitfalls — and avoid them.

The paper “Why People Harm the Environment Although They Try to Treat It Well: An Evolutionary-Cognitive Perspective on Climate Compensation” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Green Home.

How to reduce your home’s ecological footprint

Between climate change, pollution, and overconsumption, we’re not treating the planet very well. But what can us little actors on the world stage do?

Image credits: Jack Bulmer / Unsplash.

We may not have much sway over global matters, but we’re all kings and queens of our own castles. So, here’s a list of some of the quickest and most effective changes we can do to greenify our own little slice of the Earth.

Insulation

Quality insulation is the most straight-forward approach to limiting your home’s energy use and environmental footprint. It’s also probably the single most effective energy-related measure on the list. Insulation is comprised of materials that can reflect heat or trap small pockets of air (a very poor thermal conductor) to slow down heat flow. The second type is more commonly seen (and, as a side-note, works pretty much like thick winter clothes).

One of the most traditional approaches is to insulate the walls. However, all parts of a building will benefit from insulation. Windows tend to be the prime drivers of heat exchange, according to a paper published by Jong-Jin Kim and Jin Woo Moon back in 2009. They reported that windows vent roughly 26% of the heat in a home in a cold climate (Detroit, Michigan). Walls only vented a bit over 25%. Keep in mind, however, that windows tend to have a tiny surface area compared to walls.

Wall insulation.

A building facade with outside insulator layers.
Image credits Alina Kuptsova.

Even something as simple as painting your roof white can help insulate your home in blistering environments.

It is estimated that improvements in the level of insulation of the existing buildings can reduce heating requirements by a factor of two to four. Houses built using the latest insulation technology and design in various cold-climate countries use only 10% of the energy for heating compared to their peers, the paper adds. If the house you live in is really old, perhaps selling your home fast to move into a more modern, energy-efficient one is worth considering.

Stop wasting water

Modern households use a huge amount of water — and we don’t even see it for the luxury that it is. Freshwater is in short supply. Our efforts to secure as much of this resource as possible is having nasty effects on ecosystems throughout the world — so don’t waste it! Lifestyle changes are a good place to start: turn off the tap when you’re brushing your teeth, for example. Take shorter showers. Fix any leaks you might find around the house, too. The biggest culprit, however, is your lawn.

Lawn Sprinkling.

“Aahhh, I can hear the planet dying already!”
Image credits Rudy Skitterians, Peter Skitterians.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that one-third of all U.S. residential water is used for irrigation. Over 50% of that water is wasted by inefficient use, however. You don’t need to give up your lawn, but there are tricks and tweaks you can apply to reduce water use. Some of the simplest changes you can make are to monitor natural precipitation and reduce irrigation accordingly, water your lawn between 4 a.m. and 10 a.m (reduces water loss to wind and evaporation), and switching to water systems that stay close to the ground.

Actually, stop wasting anything

While they can be quite a hefty up-front investment, smart meters can help keep heating expenditures in check. They come in handy especially during winter.

Energy-efficient appliances are also pretty good — but they tend to be expensive. Bulbs, however, are pretty cheap. So change your aging bulbs with some crisp energy-efficient ones, i.e. LEDs. Bills go down, you get quality light, and the penguins get to keep their home. Everybody wins.

Produce more on-site

Vegetable balcony.

Image credits Marcel Oosterwijk / Flickr.

The first points were more of a case of waste not, want not. But one of the easiest ways to reduce emissions from power plants, or plastic waste from packaging, is to not use them in the first place.

There are several commercially-available energy production options to choose from out there. Solar is probably the least hassle-intensive, while wind or geothermal have their own selling points. The first can work around the clock, the latter is pretty install-and-forget, and both produce ample power. However, they’re both hampered by relatively high up-front costs, making them better suited for communities (or y’all richer folk out there).

All that energy will keep your house going, but what will fuel you? Well, people have been growing food around the house for as long as people have known how to grow stuff. Probably.

We’re much more space-constrained these days, but any space around the house you can fit a planter in will net you some tasty tomatoes, a handful of carrots, or whatever else you fancy. Even a meager harvest will still be a big win for you — gardening, and interacting with nature in general, has been shown to bring ample mental health and life quality improvements. The plants will also help freshen and clean up the air in your home.

Plus, think of all the bragging rights you’ll win when your friends come over for lunch next time.

If you do have the room for it, a compost bin will provide lots of quality fertilizers for your crops, and help reduce the amount of trash you sent to the landfill. Of course, for those who don’t have any growing space at all, buying local whenever possible should significantly reduce the carbon footprint of your groceries, while helping your local community at the same time.

Sahara desert.

Clean energy could make the Sahara green

Installing solar and wind power in the Sahara would have benefits for both the region and the world’s grids, a new paper concludes.

Sahara desert.

Image via Pixabay.

The Sahara may be a deserted place, but according to the new study, green energy could also help the desert itself become greener: filling in all that empty space with solar and wind farms would help liven up the place — all while supplying ample green energy. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UI) found that such installations would increase local precipitation levels, which in turn would lead to increased vegetation.

The paper also reports that such power plants would also increase local temperatures under current conditions. However, this effect would likely be ‘very different’ in the field, due to the shift in vegetation patterns associated with changes in precipitation.

Greening Sahara

“Previous modeling studies have shown that large-scale wind and solar farms can produce significant climate change at continental scales,” says lead author Yan Li, a postdoctoral researcher in natural resources and environmental sciences at the UI.

“But the lack of vegetation feedbacks could make the modeled climate impacts very different from their actual behavior.

The team focused on the Sahara for several reasons: for starters, it’s the largest desert in the world. It’s also sparsely inhabited, and “highly sensitive to land changes”, Li explains. Furthermore, its geographical position — in Africa, but fairly close to both Europe and the Middle East — would also make it an ideal place to build plants that cater to these areas’ large (and growing) energy markets.

Li and colleagues simulated the effects of wind and solar farms covering in excess of 9 million square kilometers (roughly 3.5 million sq miles). On average, the simulated wind plants would churn out 3 terawatts, and solar ones 79 terawatts, of electrical power per year. Needless to say, that is a lot of powerplants: global energy demand in 2017 totaled about 18 terawatts, making the team’s scenario a tad overkill.

But what the team really wanted to see was what environmental effects solar and wind installations would have on the desert — as such, they needed to model the plants on a huge scale.

Their work revealed that wind farms do indeed increase near-surface air temperatures. Changes in minimum temperatures were greater than those seen in maximum temperatures, the team adds — i.e. wind farms increase minimum temperatures more than maximum ones.

“The greater nighttime warming takes place because wind turbines can enhance the vertical mixing and bring down warmer air from above,” the authors wrote.

Precipitation levels also increased by as much as 0.25 millimeters per day on average in regions with wind farm installations. The Sahel region saw the largest increases in average rainfall — 1.12 millimeters per day where wind farms were present.

Sahara changes.

Impacts of wind and solar farms in the Sahara on mean near-surface air temperature (in Kelvin) and precipitation (millimeters per day).
Image credits Li // Nature.

Overall, the increase in precipitation levels was double “that seen in the control experiments,” Li said. Such levels of precipitation would, in turn, lead to increased vegetation cover, he adds, “creating a positive feedback loop”.

“The rainfall increase is a consequence of complex land-atmosphere interactions that occur because solar panels and wind turbines create rougher and darker land surfaces,” says study co-author Eugenia Kalnay from the University of Maryland.

Solar farms had a similar effect on temperature and precipitation. Unlike the wind farms, solar installations had almost no effect on wind speeds.

Put together, the changes seen in the team’s model could have a very positive effect on the economic and social well-being in the Sahara, Sahel, Middle East, and other nearby regions, the team writes. The combination of clean (and cheaper) energy and increased rainfall and vegetation would also help boost local agriculture, they add.

The paper “Climate model shows large-scale wind and solar farms in the Sahara increase rain and vegetation” has been published in the journal Nature.

Electric car.

Europe is now home to over one million electric vehicles

Europe can boast one million electric vehicles.

Electric car.

Image credits Mike / Pixabay.

A huge sales increase in the first half of the year propelled the European market over the one-million-electric-vehicles mark, reports industry analyst EV-Volumes. This is the second market to pass the benchmark after China (which did so in 2017), which is a much larger market (so EVs have a small market share). The US is still lagging behind, but estimated to pass the one-million-mark later this year.

Grid-fed vroom-vrooms

Roughly 195,000 new electric cars were sold in Europe during the first half of this year, EV-Volumes reports, representing a 42% increase from last year’s sales profile. The figure includes fully electric cars and vans, as well as plug-in hybrids, which can travel a short distance off a battery before switching to a conventional engine, sold in the European Union as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and Norway.

Among all countries in Europe, Norway recorded the largest sales numbers of such vehicles with 36,500 sold EVs and 37% of new registrations. It’s also true that the country’s market does benefit from generous government incentives aimed at EVs. Germany, however, seems poised to overtake Norway by the end of the year for total sales.

The Netherlands and Denmark also saw good growth in sales of electric vehicles. The UK remained the runt of the litter, with 30,040 EV sales and seeing only “moderate” growth — sales of fully electric cars dipped by 6% but plug-in hybrids surged by 50%. EV-Volumes estimates this sluggishness was owed to a lack of compelling models from domestic manufacturers, Ford and Vauxhall.

The analyst further estimates that sales of EVs in Europe will reach 1.35 million by the end of the year.

“A stock of one million electric vehicles is an important milestone on the road to electrification and meeting emission targets but it is of course not enough,” said Viktor Irle, a market analyst at EV-Volumes.

Europe, however, seems determined to bet on EVs. Late last year, international energy company E.ON and Denmark-based e-mobility service provider CLEVER detailed plans to roll out 10,000 charging stations and an ‘electric highway’ across the continent. Sweden also unveiled the world’s first fully-electrified road, and several countries (including France, Norway, and Scotland) are poised to ban the sale of new fossil-fueled vehicles in the close to medium future.

City of London.

London’s Square Mile to use 100% renewable energy by October

The City of London will draw on 100% renewable energy by the end of the year.

City of London.

City of London skyline.
Image credits Diliff / Wikimedia.

London’s famous “Square Mile” central district is going green — not in paint, but in spirit. Though not technically still a mile, as the district’s official bounds now enclose some 1.12 square miles, the major financial center will source 100% of its power from renewable sources starting this October, according to the City of London’s ruling body. The supply will come from solar panels installed on local buildings, further investments in larger solar and wind projects, and clean energy already in the grid.

The renewable mile

The City of London Corporation, the governing body of Square Mile (also colloquially known as the City of London), announced that it wants to draw only on renewable power from October 2018 onward. The City of London will install solar panels on the buildings it owns and will invest in installations such as wind and solar farms elsewhere in the UK.

Members of the City of London Corporation’s Policy and Resources Committee backed measures that would turn their own sites across London into electricity-producing units. They also signed off on investments in off-site renewable energy installations and backed the purchase of renewable energy already available in the grid. Some of the buildings the Corporation plans to turn into renewable-generation units include social housing across six London boroughs, 10 high-achieving academies, three wholesale markets, and 11,000 acres of green space including Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest. More than enough space for the City to develop clean energy for the city as a whole.

“Sourcing 100% renewable energy will make us cleaner and greener, reducing our grid reliance, and running some of our buildings on zero carbon electricity,” Catherine McGuinness, Chairman of the City of London Corporation’s Policy and Resources Committee, said in a statement.

“We are always looking at the environmental impact of our work and hope that we can be a beacon to other organisations to follow suit.”

The Greater London area has been struggling with pollution for the past few years. However, they’re also making important efforts to change — like adopting more electric vehicles and taxing polluting ones, creating more green spaces, and relying more heavily on clean energy. Electric taxis and buses are already zipping through the streets, and last December Shadiq Khan, the city’s mayor, announced plans to extend the Ultra-Low Emission Zone to include London-wide buses, coaches, and lorries, as well as expanding the Zone to include North and South circular roads for all vehicles.

Middelgrunden.

Massachusetts and Rhode Island to build new offshore wind farms totaling 1.2GW

The US is set to build two new — and significant — offshore wind farms.

Middelgrunden.

Middelgrunden offshore wind farm, Denmark.
Image credits Kim Hansen / Flickr.

The states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island have both awarded major offshore wind contracts this Wednesday, a testament to the economic shifts that are making this renewable source of energy too attractive to ignore any longer. The two farms will have capacities of 800MW and 400MW, respectively.

Energy from thin air

The Massachusetts installation — christened “Vineyard Wind” — will be constructed in state waters some 14 miles (22.5 km) off of Martha’s Vineyard and is planned to be ready surprisingly fast: the farm is earmarked to start feeding the grid as soon as 2021, reports Green Tech Media. The two companies who won the contract — Avangrid Renewables and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, both based in Europe — will share ownership of the project equally. The two will begin negotiations for transmission services and power purchase agreements shortly, according to a joint press release.

Vineyard Wind comes as part of Massachusetts’ recently-approved goal of building 1.6GW of wind energy by 2027 — and should cover half of that pledged capacity. Overall, it’s expected to reduce the state’s carbon emissions by over 1.6 million tons per year, roughly equivalent to the exhaust of 325,000 cars.

The project is likely to propel further offshore wind development in the area, similarly to what we’ve seen happen in Europe. The port of New Bedford has already been retrofitted to handle the immense load of traffic and infrastructure that development of Vineyard Wind will require, notes the New York Times — which is likely to make further development even more attractive and convenient.

The second contract, awarded by Rhode Island to Deepwater Wind, aims to provide 400MW capacity — although not on such short notice. Construction on the farm, called Revolution Wind, could begin “as soon as 2020” writes Megan Geuss of ArsTechnica, citing a company spokesperson. Deepwater Wind is an US-based firm that has previously collaborated with the state of Rhode Island to built the first offshore wind in the US: the 30MW unit off the coast of Block Island.

The added capacity from this farm will help Rhode Island to reach 1GW of renewable energy by 2020, a goal that state Gov. Gina Raimondo recently called for. Deepwater Wind will also need to start power purchase negotiations and get federal regulatory approval before construction can begin. Revolution Wind, like Vineyard Wind, will be built in state waters.

What’s next?

Block Island offshore.

Aerial view of the Block Island offshore wind farm.
Image credits Ionna22 / Wikimedia.

Judging by what happened in Europe, however, both Massachusetts and Rhode Island stand a lot to gain in the long term from these offshore wind developments. Europe currently hosts roughly 15.7GW of offshore wind, and the experienced energy companies have gleaned here has consistently knocked down installation costs — which made the tech is so attractive even in the US.

Similarly, the early experience and logistical base these two states will gain could provide them with a decisive edge in further offshore developments in the US — which are bound to pop up as installation costs drop. For example, the Department of the Interior recently opened 390,000 acres of federally-controlled waters off the coast of Massachusetts for offshore wind. New Bedford is ideally suited to provide shipping and support for developments here without any further investments — so Massachusetts will surely stand to benefit as more actors join the US offshore wind market.

And more are joining already — the state of New Jersey is also eager to plug its grind into offshore wind farms, with Governor Phil Murphy signing into law a commitment to 3,500 MW, the largest state offshore wind policy to date, on Wednesday, as well. The Union of Concerned Scientists applauds the developments-to-be, writing that these will likely spur states such as Connecticut, New York, Maryland, or Virginia into dipping their toes in offshore wind.

But it’s not just about what states gain. We’ve written before about the benefits renewables bring to local communities. These range from jobs (here and here), air quality improvements, reductions in carbon emissions, and a lower energy bill once the projects are up and running. All good things, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Solar Panel Workers.

Clean energy creates more than twice as many jobs than fossil in the US, report finds

Clean energy is providing more jobs for Americans than fossil fuel across the country. Big win for team green!

Solar Panel Workers.

Image via Pixabay.

A new report from environmental group Sierra Club shows that clean energy is making its mark in the United States’ economy. We’ve already talked about how investment in green tech seems to be more profitable and cost-efficient than fossil fuels, and people seem to have caught on to the fact. There are now more jobs in the renewable energy sector than in coal, oil, and gas in 41 American states and Washington D.C., the group reports.

Panel-to-paycheck

So when people think of green energy they probably think wind turbines, solar panels, and maybe dams. But the market as a whole includes a lot of fields, from generation, to storage (which is used to compensate for fluctuations in power output), to smart grid technology applications which make sure as little of the power is wasted as possible. Taken together, these jobs exceed those in the coal, oil, and gas sectors from extraction to processing and power generation. Drawing on job data recorded by the Department of Energy for 2017, Sierra Club found that clean energy jobs outweighed those in fossil fuels by more than 2.5 to one.

“Nationally, clean energy jobs outnumber all fossil fuel jobs by over 2.5 to 1; and they exceed all jobs in gas and coal sectors by 5 to 1,” the paper reads.

The report had many questioning the current’s administration’s motives for pursuing a fossil fuel agenda with such gusto.

“Right now, clean energy jobs already overwhelm dirty fuels in nearly every state across America, and that growth is only going to continue as clean energy keeps getting more affordable and accessible by the day,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune.

“These facts make it clear that Donald Trump is attacking clean energy jobs purely in order to boost the profits of fossil fuel billionaires.”

The report goes on to say that despite the president’s best efforts, clean energy is growing strong in the US, with “over twenty cities nationwide” having set the goal to use 100% clean energy by 2030. The groups also warns that faced with this rapid development, we should be careful “not to make the mistakes of the past”, and ensure that the benefits brought by clean energy are equitably shared instead of pooled by a few individuals or companies.

The way forward

Putting workers and the community first, especially those who depended on fossil fuels in the past, is the way to go, Sierra Club says. The report highlights job stability, opportunities for fair and merit-based upward mobility in the industry, and secure pathways to the middle class for workers as a way to ensure this equitable sharing of benefits.

“This means supporting high road job strategies like responsible trade policies, project labor agreements, community benefits agreements, employer neutrality in union organizing drives, local hire, union apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs, and efforts to open more of those opportunities to communities of color and low-income people,” the paper explains.

“In practice, this means working tirelessly to ensurethat the communities and workers historicallydependent on fossil fuels are prioritized and putfirst at every stage of our ongoing transition to aneconomy powered more fully by clean energy.”

Investment in workforce development should also be a prime focus for the industry, as almost three-quarters of employers across all energy sectors found it difficult to hire skilled workers. The report concludes that policies aimed at investing in and incentivizing clean energy could generate millions of new jobs across America — more than the fossil fuel sector ever could.

You can read the full report on Scribd.

 

Living in a park: Sydney’s One Central Park proves cities can be green

Sydney can boast the tallest vertical garden in the world. Completed in 2014, the city’s One Central Park is a towering residential building dressed in dazzling green plant garb.

They’re stuffy, they’re gray, they’re dusty — they are cities. To satisfy our ever-growing need for space, engineers have paved and built over green areas, leaving only a tiny sliver behind as parks. But cities and greenery can coexist marvelously, Parisian architect Jean Nouvel and French artist and botanist Patrick Blank believe. The duo’s vision was proven right in 2014 as Sydney’s 166 meter (544 feet) high One Central Park.

The residential high-rise is part of an “urban village” in downtown Sydney that houses residential towers, shops, and common spaces for artists and architects to enjoy. Cloaked in living greenery, OCP’s facade houses 250 species of native Australian plants hopping from balcony to balcony from a park at the heart of the complex. An assembly of motorized mirrors sprawls at the top to capture and direct sunlight down for the plants to enjoy. And after sunset, the building burst in LED lights designed by lighting artist Yann Kersalé to be renewably-powered.

The complex includes two residential towers atop a five-story Central shopping center. The western tower is 84 meters (275 feet) high and accommodates 240 homes, while the 117-meter-high (383 feet) eastern tower contains 383 apartments — including 38 penthouse flats with access rooftop sky garden.

Its name is no coincidence either. The spacious 6,500 square meter (69,965 sq. feet) park at the base of the complex is reminiscent of New York’s famous Central Park. With large open lawns, chessboards, an open air cinema, and spaces for festivals or concerts, it is the architects’ hope that this park will provide a respite from city life just like its counterpart in the US.

But it’s not all relax-this and enjoy-that. OCP and similar concepts serve as a blueprint for what many people hope urban architecture will become in the future. With concrete dominating skylines around the world, green-starved cities bake in their own tiny urban heat islands and smog. Combining built space with greenery could offer a healthy, environmentally-friendly alternative in the future.

“Hydroponic irrigation systems, for one, make it possible to grow a soil-less vertical veil of vegetation in planters and on walls all the way up to the tower tops. The resulting green facades trap carbon dioxide, emit oxygen and provide energy-saving shade,” said said Ateliers Jean Nouvel in a statement.

The concept has had huge success — all apartments list as “sold out” on One Central Park’s website.

Startup plans to fuel our cities by turning windows into power plants

SolarWindow Technologies is a Maryland-based company that hopes to provide the world with means to produce “extraordinary amounts of clean electricity”. That’s a pretty ambitious goal. The startup says they can deliver on this promise with its flagship technology — see-through coating which can produce electrical power.

SolarWindow™ module in neutral colors. Image captions SolarWindow.

SolarWindow™ module in neutral colors.
Image captions SolarWindow.

Development of the technology started in 2009.  Since then, SolarWindow has created a liquid “organic photovoltaic solar array”, mostly comprised of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen that can be applied to transparent surfaces. It can come in a variety of colors or neutral tint, all see-through. A transparent mesh of conducting cables transports the energy generated throughout the coating to the sides of the window, from where it’s taken to the grid.

As you probably well know by now, we’re nothing if not green here at ZME Science. So we weren’t about to pass on anyone making such a promise. We just got off the phone with the company’s CEO John Conklin and we’re here with the inside scoop on how to turn skyscrapers, houses, whole cities, into sources of power.

The coatings of power

“The world is at a crossroads between climate change and the depletion of natural resources. In the middle of the crossroads is the ever increasing need for energy by a growing population,” John Conlkin told ZME Science.

“We can take advantage of our lessons learned and create opportunities and solutions for a new, greener tomorrow. Our goal is to commercialize SolarWindow transparent electricity-generating coatings to address that increasing energy demand and contribute to a greener future.”

This is John. Image credits SolarWindow.

This is John. SolarWindow President and CEO by day, purveyor of epic photographs also by day.
Image credits SolarWindow.

I have to admit, even after reading up on SolarWindow my first instinct was to consider it an extension of the conventional solar industry. In a way, that’s not wrong — the end result is creating energy from light. But the way each technology goes about it is very different.

When people say “solar energy” what pops into mind are the ubiquitous big blue photovoltaic (PV) panels adorning rooftops or languishing in sunny fields. SolarWindow wanted to take surfaces we already have and make them generate electricity instead. They also designed their technology to be fully transparent, seamlessly integrating into the buildings we have today while discreetly producing power.

With a background in chemical processes, applied coatings, and an early interest in renewables, John helped the company develop a coating which could stick to glass or plastic and generate electricity from the huge quantity of light that passes through our windows each and every day.

How did you start working on renewables?

“I started work with PV since I was very young, in my early days of high school with the boyscouts,” John told me.

His work has come a long way since then. Conventional solar certainly does a lot of good for the environment, but as John explained what SolarWindow’s technology can do the main selling points became apparent. For starters, you don’t have to designate free space for the system — if there’s a window, you apply the coating to it and it will start generating electricity. It also doesn’t require direct sunlight to function. The coating can produce energy even in shaded areas, drawing on diffused light.

“SolarWindow doesn’t rely on direct sunlight like normal PV does. Any coated side of the two buildings will generate electricity even just from diffused light,” he said.

Because of this, SolarWindow can turn an entire skyscraper into a green energy power plant. For a typical 50 story high building, it can churn out 50 times more power than rooftop-installed PVs. The company advertises an under-one-year return on the price of installing the system.

Since most of us don’t live in skyscrapers, I asked John how the technology works for household users. A big part of why SolarWindow can churn out so much power for commercial buildings is that they have a lot of “window”. Typical houses are designed with smaller windows and a lot of walls, meaning there’s less effective space to apply the coating on. But even so, the system does have some advantages over typical PVs.

“We don’t want this to be something only for the rich and powerful,” John said. “[SolarWindow] works with natural or artificial light so it’s not just sunlight. All that light coming from your fixtures, for example, can be used to generate power.”

So while you won’t see the same gross return of power as a household user, SolarWindow can help capture some of the energy that goes about untapped, all around us. You can even install it inside if you’ve got the room.

Dr.Scott Hammond testing the coating under artificial light. Image credits SolarWindow.

Dr.Scott Hammond testing the coating’s output under artificial light.
Image credits SolarWindow.

The more frequent use windows see in households, compared to those in skyscrapers, shouldn’t damage the connectors between the coating and the rest of the electrical wiring, either. The company is working on creating connectors for every type of window frame out there, with systems for typical hinged or sliding frames already available. I’ve also talked to John about the possibility of stacking several layers of glass coated with SolarWindow, and he confirmed that all layers would produce power. Depending on how many panes of glass your windows have, you could get three or four times their effective surface as coating.

And since it doesn’t use light same way as traditional PV technology does, John told me that the coating generates as much power in colder countries where sunlight is weaker as it does in warmer, more sunlit areas.

One really exciting prospect of SolarWindow’s coating is that it addresses one of the key criticisms of traditional solar — their perceived unreliability. PVs only work during the day (for obvious reasons) but because they rely on the sun shining, a cloudy day can tank their output. And there’s not much we can do to change the weather just yet. But, by working with any type of light of any intensity, SolarWindow solves that problem.

It’s a technology with very much potential, and with a little creative, thinking it can generate power from unlikely sources. John told me they’re looking into a way of installing the coating on existing streetlamps, for example. But we could see the coating tailored to space and military applications further down the line.

“The possibilities are endless,” he concluded.

There isn’t any word on the final cost per sq meter of the coating, but John seemed determined to make it as accessible as possible. They also aim to have their product available all over the world in the future.

China covered all its new energy demand with renewables in 2015 — and there was still plenty left to spare

China is drawing more and more power from renewables — in fact, new data collected by Greenpeace shows that in 2015 the country’s growth in wind and solar energy more than exceeded its increase in electricity demand.

Ningxia Wind Farm in Northern China.
Image credits Land Rover Our Planet / Flickr.

“Eco-friendly” probably isn’t the first word most people would use when describing China. But for all the smog and pollution, the country is actually putting a lot of effort into going green. Greenpeace reported that China’s electricity consumption rose by half a percent last year, from 5522 TWh (terawatt hours) to 5550 TWh. All this new demand was easily met by wind and solar power, which produced 186.3 TWh and 38.8 TWh of power in 2015, compared to 153.4 TWh and 23.3 TWh the year before — that’s an increase of 21% and 64%, respectively.

To put these numbers into perspective, China installed half of the world’s new solar and wind capacity last year. Its wind farms alone could have met half of the UK’s needs in 2015 (304 TWh.) According to the data, the extra 48 TWh of solar and wind China installed in 2015 alone could have powered two Irelands (24 TWh consumption) for the whole of 2015.

Image credits Greenpeace.

But the Chinese aren’t just beefing up their renewable capacity, they’re also cutting down on coal. The new clean energy plants being installed along with a shift away from heavy industry means that coal use in China has been dropping for three years in a row.

China, however, remains the biggest emitter of CO2 in the world, but they’re working on that too — last week, the country announced that it was ratifying the Paris climate agreement, alongside the United States.

So hats off to the Chinese! Hopefully, their achievements will spur the United States to catch up in the race to lead the post-fossil fuels global economy.

Why the first, tiny offshore wind farm in the U.S. is a huge step forward

The U.S. has finally begun following Europe’s example in green energy with the country’s first offshore wind project, the Block Island Wind Farm, completed last week. While relatively tiny, the farm marks the start of a new American industry, and will feed power into New England’s electric grid.

Image credits Phil Hollman.

It has only five turbines and can power an estimated 17,000 homes — which isn’t much for a power plant of this type. But the inconspicuous Block Island Wind Farm is a U.S-first, and many hope that its example will lead to the creation of a new, cleaner energy industry in the country.

We’ve seen several European countries invest heavily in off-shore wind farms over the past few years, and for good reasons. Installing the turbines offshore is more expensive, but they can harvest the energy of the sea’s strong, steady winds. This means they can produce more power, and produce it more reliably, than their land-locked counterparts. There’s also the advantage of taking the turbines away from populated areas, limiting noise pollution and the risk of accidents.

But the U.S. never got its hands on a piece of this very profitable pie. While European countries were installing these machines by the thousands, proposals in the U.S. faltered due to a lack of expertise in the field (which drove installation costs up), opposition from locals who didn’t want their view of the ocean ruined by the turbines, and a murky legislation about the use of seafloor.

“People have been talking about offshore wind for decades in the United States, and I’ve seen the reaction — eyes roll,” said Jeffrey Grybowski in an interview on Block Island. “The attitude was, ‘It’s not going to happen; you guys can’t do it.’”

Jeffrey Grybowski, CEO of Deepwater Wind of Providence, R.I., has now proved that they can. With backing from the political leadership of Rhode Island, which took up the torch for this newly born industry ahead of bigger states like New York of Massachusetts, the company set up the Block Island Wind Farm.

They’ve also been helped by improving legislative conditions — starting from a law passed by Congress in 2005 and signed by President George W. Bush, the Obama administration has been clarifying the ground rules for off-shore turbine farms. They’ve also been leasing out large patches of ocean floor for wind-power development, so there are nearly two dozen such projects currently in development — setting the stage for the United States to dramatically expand on offshore wind.

Even at state level governments have begun making big pushes towards renewable power, driven by a growing sense of urgency regarding climate change. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York set a goal of drawing 50 percent of the state’s power from renewables by 2030, and the state will probably need large offshore wind farms to help achieve that. Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts also signed a bill ordering the state’s utilities to develop contracts with offshore wind farms for an immense amount of power — 50 times the expected output of the Block Island Wind Farm. Other states, too, are looking to cash in on wind power and the Department of Energy believes that many thousands of these turbines could one day circle the United States coastline.

Right now, the focus in on the Northeast. There are a lot of power-hungry cities here so energy sells well, but there’s fierce opposition to building new power plants on land — thankfully, its coastlines have some of the world’s fiercest winds and the water stays relatively shallow for miles off shore so turbines can be installed where they won’t be seen from the beaches.

The Unites States might also have to profit from the extensive expertise others have on offshore wind turbines. The technology has been proved in Europe, with each turbine now costing up to $30 million to build, install and connect to the power grid. It’s a billion dollar industry, and the companies that install them have developed accordingly. Where European nations once used to promote wind farm by agreeing to sell the power at a premium price, they now use competitive bidding to drive down the cost of the projects. While installation will still be pricier than in Europe because local companies don’t have the technical base and the same know-how, the U.S. will still save a lot of money off of these falling costs — the Block Island turbines were built overseas by a division of General Electric and were installed by a ship from Norway, brought over at a cost of millions of dollars, with help from an American vessel.

The hude Fred Olsen Windcarrier helped install the turbines.
Image credits kees torn / Flickr.

However, if the plans laid down right now follow through, the costs will fall dramatically as domestic industry groups scale up to meet the demand. For the Block Island project, a company in Houma, La., won the contract to build the metal foundations in the water, and several Gulf Coast businesses specialized in offshore oil structures see wind power in the Northeast as a potential new market.

A future being decided right now, with the 5-strong Block Island Wind Farm sending a clear message: the U.S. can be powered without choking our air with smog.

“I do believe that starting small has made sense,” said Bryan Martin, Deepwater Wind’s chairman and D. E. Shaw’s head of United States private equity investment. “I would say that the next projects are going to be substantially bigger.”

Initial financing for the $300 million project came from the D. E. Shaw Group, a big investment firm based in Manhattan. The turbines are locked for now, but they will be turned on sometime in October and after a few weeks of testing and fine-tuning, America’s first offshore wind farm will begin pumping power into the New England electric grid.

 

 

UK set to unveil the world’s largest floating solar array

The largest floating solar array in the world is to be unveiled later this month, on the Queen Elizabeth II reservoir, at Walton-on-Thames. The array is estimated to generate almost 6 million kWh in its maiden year of operations. The energy will be used to power London’s water treatment plants.

Ennoviga Solar and Lightsource Renewable Energy workers are busy getting the largest floating solar array ever built ready for its big unveiling, scheduled early March this year. The £6m (US$8.5m) project was commissioned by Thames Water five years ago, as part of the company’s pledge towards a more sustainable business model — their goal is to supply 33% of their energy requirements from clean sources by 2020.

Once completed, the 6.3 MW array will be the largest floating solar park in Europe, and the second-largest in the world.
Image via pv-magazine.

“Over the last five years we have successfully completed ground and roof installations of all shapes and sizes, but this project has some obvious differences and has presented our team with a set of fresh challenges to overcome,” said Lightsource CEO Nick Boyle.

Thames Water has already set-up 41 other solar-panel sites which cover 12.5% of their needs. But the company knew it had to go big to reach such a hefty goal — and with the Queen Elizabeth II reservoir array they went full out.

The QEII array consists of 23,000 solar photovoltaic panels perched atop 61,000 floating platforms, with everything held tidy in place by 177 anchors. The final structure covers roughly 128.3 hectares in size (or ~6% of the reservoir’s surface) with a perimeter of 4.3km. It has a projected capacity of 6.3 MW, able to generate around 5.8 million kWh during the first year of its operation. All this power will help provide clean drinking water to a populace of close to 10 million people in greater London and the south-east of England, a huge and often unrecognized drain on electricity, rather than nearby homes.

Officials noted that floating arrays have several advantages over their land-lubber counterparts. Firstly, they’re cheaper to build, as panels can be constructed on individual platforms and then attached to the main structure and anchored. They use space that would otherwise just go to waste and is dirt-cheap compared to regular dirt — and as a bonus, that land remains free to use for other resources. But most importantly, the water body’s cooling effect reduces maintenance hours and costs for the panels, meaning more power at a lower price.

The floating array uses a mounting system developed by Ciel et Terre, which has been pivotal in providing floating technology that has brought buoyancy to a relatively new section of the solar industry.

“This is our largest project outside of Japan and the first one with European bank financing, proving that our technology is not only suitable for water utilities, but has also been recognized as bankable in Europe as well as Asia,” said Ciel et Terre international business development director Eva Pauly.

In the case of the QEII project, the array also shields the water from the sun reducing algae growth, a problem that reservoir staff has had to deal with before.

The array’s record however will be overtaken by other projects already under construction (such as Japan’s massive array that will be completed in 2018.) But officials wish them the best of luck, noting they are proud to be leading the way and hope others will be inspired by what they have created.

“This will be the biggest floating solar farm in the world for a time – others are under construction,” said Angus Berry, energy manager for Thames Water, which owns the site. “We are leading the way, but we hope that others will follow, in the UK and abroad.”

MIT develops new solar cells, 400 times more efficient and light enough to drape a soap bubble

An MIT research team has developed a new technology that will allow for the creation of lighter and thinner solar cells than ever before. While the team says there is still work to be done before making them commercially available, the panels already proved their efficacy in laboratory settings. They hope that their work will power the next generation of portable electronic devices.

To demonstrate just how thin and lightweight the cells are, the researchers draped a working cell on top of a soap bubble, without popping it.
Image credits Joel Jean and Anna Osherov / MIT

The key to the new approach is to create the solar cell, the substrate that supports it and the protective overcoating – all in one process, says MIT associate dean for innovation and Fariborz Maseeh Professor of Emerging Technology Vladimir Bulović. Unlike conventional solar-cell manufacturing processes, which employ harsh chemicals and high temperatures, this method only calls for a carrier material in a vacuumed solvent free environment at room temperature.

“We put our carrier in a vacuum system, then we deposit everything else on top of it, and then peel the whole thing off,” explains research assistant Annie Wang.

“The innovative step is the realization that you can grow the substrate at the same time as you grow the device,” Bulović says.

Bulović says that like most new inventions, it all sounds very simple once it’s been done. But actually developing the techniques to make the process work required years of effort.

The team used parylene, a common flexible polymer, as both the substrate and overcoating and an organic material known as DBP (for the light absorbing layer) to test their new method of production. The substrate and the cell itself were “grown” through vapor deposition techniques on a sheet carrier material, in this case glass. Because the substrate is build in-place and doesn’t need to be handled during fabrication, it’s not exposed to dust or other contaminants that plague solar cells’ performance either. After the construction process is complete, the parylene-DBP-parylene sandwich is lifted off the glass using a frame of flexible film.

While they used a glass carrier for their solar cells, co-author Joel Jean says “it could be something else. You could use almost any material,” since the processing takes place under such benign conditions. The substrate and solar cell could be deposited directly on fabric or paper, for example.

The end result is the thinnest and lightest complete solar cell ever made — just one-fiftieth of the thickness of a human hair, including the substrate and overcoating.

“If you breathe too hard, you might blow it away,” says doctoral student Joel Jean.

Showing off? Yea, a bit. The cell in this demonstration is not especially efficient because of it’s low weight — but it’s power-to-weight ratio is among the highest ever achieved. Where typical glass-covered modules peak out at around 15 watts of power per kilogram of weight, the new cells churn out 6 watts per gram, or 400 times more energy. In applications where weight is a limiting factor, such as spacecraft or on high-altitude, this gives them an undeniable edge.

“It could be so light that you don’t even know it’s there, on your shirt or on your notebook,” Bulović says. “These cells could simply be an add-on to existing structures.”

But the researchers acknowledge that their demo cell may be a tad too thin to be practical; luckily, they say that parylene films of up to 80 microns in thickness can be easily deposited using equipment commercially available today, without sacrificing the benefits of the in-line substrate formation.

Taking the concept from laboratory-scale work to a full manufacturable product with take time, the team says. But the sheer versatility and affordability this process lends to solar cells is unquestionable.

“We have a proof-of-concept that works,” Bulović says.

“How many miracles does it take to make it scalable? We think it’s a lot of hard work ahead, but likely no miracles needed.”

And others are also excited to see the technology brought from the lab in the “wild.”

“This demonstration by the MIT team is almost an order of magnitude thinner and lighter” than the previous record holder, says Max Shtein, associate professor of materials science and engineering, chemical engineering and applied physics at the University of Michigan. He was not involved in this work.

“It has tremendous implications for maximizing power-to-weight (important for aerospace applications, for example), and for the ability to simply laminate photovoltaic cells onto existing structures.”

“This is very high quality work,” Shtein adds, with a “creative concept, careful experimental set-up, very well written paper, and lots of good contextual information. The overall recipe is simple enough that I could see scale-up as possible.”

The full paper, titled “In situ vapor-deposited parylene substrates for ultra-thin, lightweight organic solar cells” has been published online in the journal Elsevier and is available here.

These are the greenest countries in the world

Get it together, world – the top 10 greenest countries in the world are all European!

The greenest countries

greenest countries

The 2016 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is a Yale-developed method to quantify the environmental performance of a state; it’s a measure of how ‘green’ a country is. Of course, like any index it has its pros and cons, its supporters and contestants, but this is one of the most widely used and most representatives measures of what a country is doing right. It’s highly intriguing that no country outside of Europe manages to make the top 10.

The main findings are pretty clear: improved access to water and sanitation has spread throughout the planet, and as a result waterborne diseases have dropped massively. There has also been improved emphasis on habitat protection, as many countries declare more and more protected areas. But not all is good. The world’s fisheries are drawing closer and closer to a total collapse, and air pollution grows to unprecedented levels, causing 10% of the total global fatalities.

greenest countries 2

“While many environmental problems are the result of industrialization, our findings show that both poor and wealthy nations suffer from serious air pollution,” said Angel Hsu, Assistant Professor at Yale-NUS College and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) and lead author of the report. The EPI shows that focused, coordinated global efforts are essential to make progress on global goals and to save lives.
“The EPI sends a clear signal to policymakers on the state of their environment and equips them with the data to develop fine-tuned solutions to the pressing challenges we face,” said EPI co-creator Kim Samuel, Director, Samuel Group of Companies and Professor of Practice at McGill University’s Institute for the Study of International Development. “With the very survival of the planet at stake, we hope leaders will be inspired to act—especially in urban areas where an increasing majority of the world’s population lives.”

Playing our part

Coming after the COP21 in Paris, this report arrives at a highly opportune time; we now agreed that the world’s climate is in dire straits, we’ve decided that we have to do something, and we’ve quantified who’s playing their part and who isn’t – now it’s up to the policy makers to actually do something.

“Even when data exists, policymakers often struggle to apply this information appropriately,” notes Marc Levy, Deputy Director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University. “The EPI works to identify and address these blind spots within existing policy goals. For instance, a new biodiversity indicator weeds out protected areas that do not intersect with species’ habitats, showing where national parks may be ineffective at protecting species.

Big countries like the United States should take a hint too – their standing is not so great at 26th. Also, while these are country level estimates, local or regional areas can vary greatly within the same country, so while the broad information is extremely useful, local information is even more useful for policy makers. Appraising environmental quality at the city or regional level can sharpen environmental management strategies, but large-scale information offers a much needed benchmark for countries as a whole.

 

HOW TO: Green Your Christmas Tree

Christmas is just around the corner, and the good old Christmas tree is one of the most enjoyable traditions of the holiday season. Thankfully, more and more people are starting to realize that cutting a tree and ultimately throwing it in the street or in the dump is not the way to go! But that doesn’t mean you can’t have an awesome holiday – here are the some of the best eco-friendly tips to have the greenest and most awesome Christmas tree ever!

 

Go for a living tree!

Image Source: Design Mom.

Living trees produce oxygen, suck up carbon dioxide, and are a pleasant sight all year round, even without the Christmas decorations. You don’t have to kill a tree, and you get to keep that natural tree look and smell year after year. These living Christmas trees are usually pretty small, but you can use that to your advantage: you don’t need so many decorations, and you can put one (or why not, 2 or 3) in each room.

There is one thing you have to be careful about though – they don’t really thrive indoors. Most varieties don’t survive more than two weeks indoors, so you have to either:

– plant then in a garden or on your lawn
– store them outside on your porch/balcony.

They can deal with the cold temperatures and snow – no problem; they also do well in almost any soil, so you shouldn’t worry about that – just be sure that you get them outside after 7-14 days. This is probably the best option for a truly green Christmas tree – not only are you not doing any damage to the environment, but you’re also helping, and you get to enjoy the real deal.

 

Try a rosemary tree!

Image Credits: Flower fast.

Who says it has to be a pine or a fir? If you just want a small Christmas Tree, rosemary is just perfect ! You can find these cute little trees pretty much everywhere, even online like on Amazon. They look Christmasy, they smell great, they thrive indoors, and they provide healthy, tasty herbs throughout the entire year! What more can you want?

 

Rent a (potted) Tree

Again, living trees emit oxygen, and they improve the air quality, making us feel better. This also ensures that the trees aren’t killed just so that we can enjoy them for a meager period. These trees are typically planted somewhere, cared for all year round by the company, and just placed in special pots when they are delivered. You also don’t need to do anything, avoiding the rush and crowd that always seems to accompany Christmas tree shopping – the trees are delivered to your doorstep.

This may or may not be an option – depending on where you live, but Google’s your friend here! Virtually all major American cities have this service available, and the trend is also rising in Western Europe. Just type ‘Rent Christmas tree [city where you live]’, and you should be good to go.

 

If you buy a cut tree, at least recycle it!

There’s nothing sadder than putting a Christmas tree to waste after the winter holidays are over! So if you really want to buy a cut tree, there are still somethings you can do to recycle it.

The best thing would be to plant it. If you have a garden or a backyard, it’s perfect! If you’ve got the space for it, getting a tree with roots and replanting it is obviously the most eco-friendly solution. If that is not an option, then there are some things you can do, like recycling it into compost. Most cities offer this options (or host companies which do this for you); the tree is still killed, but at least the timber won’t go to waste. In isolated cases, you can also stuff it in a private pond – it offers refuge to fish and provides a nice addition to their ecosystem. Just be sure that it hasn’t been sprayed with damaging chemicals.

If you’re stuck with no backyard, no pond, and no compost recycling, you really shouldn’t buy a cut tree in the first place.

 

Decorate an outside tree!

Image Credits.

Sure, it may not be traditional and you won’t get the Christmas tree smell in your living room, but the cheapest option is to simply decorate an outdoor tree for Christmas. You’ll have more money for decorations, and it will make for a pleasant sight for all the people passing by – truly a great way of sharing the Christmas spirit. If you decorate a tree that you can actually see from your window, you’ll feel like it’s actually inside your home!

Tip: be extra careful if you’re doing this in a stormy area, the decorations might fly or fall over.

 

If you’re thinking about a fake tree… think again!

An artificial Christmas tree might seem like the greener option, but that’s rarely the case. They’re typically made from PVC, which is hard to recycle; as Grist puts it: “No vinyl, ever! We are boycotting vinyl to the greatest extent possible”. Furthermore, most of them also contain lead, which is commonly used to stabilize PVC products. But that doesn’t mean we should take faux trees out of the question, just that we have to be a touch more creative.

Try cardboard! Skip the cheap, impersonal made in China or Taiwan PVC lead Christmas trees and go for a more pleasant and interesting cardboard tree, or a plywood tree, or just let your imagination fly! I’ll have another article ready soon discussing other creative options.

 

Make your own tree from branches and cones!

Image Credits.

This is another ultra-cheap, green way to have a nice, eco friendly Christmas. You can use a couple of small branches, cones driftwood – just get creative. This is a great idea to try with your children – just let your imagination fly while having quality time with your little ones and teaching them healthy environmental values at the same time!

BONUS: use LED lights

No Christmas celebration is complete without multi colored lights. LED Christmas lights consume 90% less energy than incandescent lights, they’re made with less polluting substances and the LEDs never get broken (unless you smash them or something) – so there’s no reason not to use them instead of the traditional lights.

Image Credits.

Here’s to a Green Christmas!