EarthTechling Sun, 27 Sep 2015 13:00:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Wood Construction Reaches New Heights in Quebec Sun, 27 Sep 2015 13:00:39 +0000 Origine condominium complex, opening in 2017

Origine condominium complex, opening in 2017

Wood construction is about to hit a new milestone as the tallest wooden building ever built in North America is set to begin construction in Quebec City.

The tallest wooden building in North America is currently the Wood Innovation and Design Centre in downtown Prince George, British Columbia, Canada. But it’s not going to hold that distinction for very much longer, because construction is about to begin on an ambitious wooden residential structure in Quebec City.

The Origine condominium complex is planned for Quebec city’s eco-conscious Pointe-aux-Lièvres district and will consist of 41 meters of solid wood construction – 12 stories – supported by a concrete podium. The Canadian construction company Nordic Structures, whose specialty is Quebec-sourced cross-laminated timber (CLT) and wood construction, will be undertaking the build. They expect to break ground at the construction site on the bank of the Saint Charles River sometime this fall, and the condos will be ready for tenants by early 2017. Ten meters taller than the University of Northern British Columbia’s Wood Innovation Design Centre (WIDC), Origine is the most ambitious modern wood-construction project to be undertaken in North America to date.

Wood consrtuction is green and safe

Cross-laminated timber isn’t a new product – it’s been used since the 1990s in new construction in Europe and is slowly making its way over to the United States and Canada, in commercial and residential buildings only a few stories high. It’s made up of multiple sheets of wood, glued together so that the grain alternates from layer to layer. CLT is an incredibly strong building material, and its manufacturing uses less energy and releases less carbon than the manufacture of concrete and steel. In fact, wood construction is an effective way to sequester carbon, trapping it for as long as the building stands.

But wood construction still makes some construction and zoning officials nervous – most Canadian jurisdictions will only allow wood construction to a height of six stories, citing fire safety concerns. Nordic had to convince the Régie du bâtiment du Quebec, in charge of setting the province’s building codes, that their CLT structure would be as safe as a concrete building if a fire broke out. To prove it, Nordic built a partial model of the building’s floor and walls inside a fire furnace at the National Research Council in Ottawa.  They weighted the model as though it were the lowest floor, bearing the weight of the whole building, and then they burned it. The requirement for current building codes is that the structure should withstand two hours at 1200 degrees Celsius, and the model held up under the fire test for fifteen times that long.

Even though the engineered wood passed the fire tests with flying colors, the human fear of fire is difficult to ignore. Nordic will still be required to cover the internal wood structure with drywall on interior walls and aluminum on the exterior, which will take away much of its natural charm. Still, the Origine building will be the tallest ever built of its kind, and it’s leading the way for other architects and construction firms to follow in wood innovation.

Via The Globe and Mail

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Salt-Powered Lamp Brings Light to the Philippines Fri, 25 Sep 2015 14:04:33 +0000 SALt Lamp

SALt Lamp

When you’re living in a remote area that’s miles away from the grid, you need to find alternative ways to power your daily activities. The SALt lamp requires only a cup of salt water in order to provide eight hours of bright LED light.

Some communities who live on the most remote of the 2000 populated islands of the Philippines turn to alternative power sources by necessity, because the distance between the islands makes it almost impossible to connect them all to the electrical grid. It was on one of these islands that engineer and co-founder of SALt, Aisa Mijeno, conceived of the salt-powered lamp. After seeing how natives of the Butbut community relied on inconsistent moonlight and kerosene lamps in order to do evening work, Mijeno designed an alternative. Kerosene lamps work well for their purpose, but they are a significant fire hazard, and users need to continually purchase more fuel to refill the lamps. Produced from fossil fuel sources, Kerosene isn’t renewable over the long-term. Burning it releases pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and fine particulate matter into the air. Battery-powered lamps exist as an alternative, but they only run for so long before needing to be recharged. Because the SALt lamp uses seawater as its battery’s electrolyte solution, there’s no recharging necessary at all.

A saltwater-powered battery

SALt stands for Sustainable Alternative Living, and conveniently also tells us what the lamp’s power source is: salt. A battery consists of two electrodes submerged in an electrolyte solution, and in the case of the SALt lamp, that solution is salt water, which is refilled by the user as needed. The LEDs inside will work for approximately eight hours for every cup of salt water. The housing for the lamp includes a small USB port, too, so the battery inside can be used to recharge small electronics – a critical function in a remote area, or one recovering from a natural disaster.

The SALt lamp can charge small electronics

The SALt lamp can charge small electronics

The recipe for the electrolyte solution is two tablespoons of table salt to one cup (8 ounces) of water – tap water is fine – which means that it’s incredibly easy to use.  It’s even more convenient for communities that live near the ocean, because the salinity of seawater is exactly right for the SALt lamp. Just scoop up salt water at the beach, and you’ve got light that will last all evening. With appropriate maintenance, the electrodes can withstand daily use for over six months before needing to be replaced. If the light is used less frequently, their useful lifespan can be extended to over a year.

The SALt lamp has earned its creator several innovation and entrepreneurship awards, and is currently in production to meet local need in the Philippines. It isn’t yet available for purchase online, so don’t go fumbling for your salt shaker in the dark quite yet. You can add your email address to their mailing list, though, if you want to stay up-to-date on the project and learn when you can buy a lamp of your own.



Images from

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Faster Rising Seas if Antarctica Melts Thu, 24 Sep 2015 16:52:47 +0000 antarctica

Image credit: via FlickR under CC license

Seas could rise much faster than previously thought – nearly three meters every century for 10,000 years, if we continue our business-as-usual rate of burning fossil fuels.

New simulations of the future impact of climate change have revealed a much speeded up rate of sea level rise – by about ten-fold.

New information about the rate at which Antarctica is melting has caused scientists to revise their estimates.

Until very recently, scientists assumed that it would be impossible for the massive ice sheets of Antarctica to substantially melt — or at least, that that would take thousands of years before temperature rise was high enough to begin to melt them.

Antarctica melt rate by emission level

Image credit: Riccarda Winkelmann and Ken Caldeira

But new simulations published at Science Advances in September of 2015 suggest that rather than this melt being in the far future, Antarctica could begin to contribute to sea level rise as soon as the present century. The effect means that this sea level rise will begin in this century.

One author of the paper, Riccarda Winkelmann at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research told Scientific American that emitting greenhouse gases within just a few decades triggers changes that will be felt by many generations to come, and in the worst case could entirely melt Antarctica.

“Humanity can indeed melt all of Antarctica’s ice, if we were to burn all of the fossil fuels,” she said.

Arctic sea ice has been much studied, but Winkelmann and climate scientist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University teamed up to lead an exploration of the long-term effects of carbon combustion on the earth’s other icy pole.

They used a computer model developed by Andy Ridgwell of the University of Bristol to simulate how the atmosphere and ocean respond to increasing levels of greenhouse gases.

Then they fed rising temperatures generated from rising CO2 levels into an ice sheet model developed by Anders Levermann of Potsdam University. The model showed how ice will flow and dwindle as it melts in response to temperature changes in the atmosphere and ocean, along with increased snowfall as a resulting from the increased warming or the additional melting as glaciers dwindle.

The researchers then modeled different emissions scenarios.

The world’s current annual rate of carbon emissions is about 10 billion metric tons; nearly 10 gigatons that are added to the atmosphere every year.

They looked at the effects of different possibilities, ranging from another decade of emitting carbon at the current 93 gigatons per decade rate, to a high of 12,000 gigatons as if the world were to combust all the carbon available from already discovered and recoverable deposits of coal, oil and natural gas over the next few centuries.

If, rather than switch to safe clean energy, we were to combust all the carbon now known, over the next few centuries, then the seas would rise  three meters, or about 9 feet every century, rising to 50 meters or 164 feet within the next 10,000 years.

For perspective on 10,000 years of our civilization…

Ain Ghazal oldest sculpture

Image credit: Jordan Archeological Museum via Wikipedia

It was about 10,000 years ago that someone in ancient Mesopotamia made this statue that is believed to be the oldest statue in the world, when human civilization was in its earliest beginnings with the invention of agriculture.

Of course, 164 foot seas would put an end to any hope of any kind of seawall holding back an ever rising ocean from New York, Hong Kong, London, Hamburg, Shanghai and hundreds of other current centers of civilization. Many of the world’s great cities go back half a thousand years or more.

Caldeira has also studied geo-engineering but sees no solution there: “Ice sheets, once they go, are hard to get back.”


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Now California Pension Funds Must Divest from Coal Tue, 22 Sep 2015 13:38:59 +0000 California climate change drought

Drought-ravaged California is actively addressing climate change in two pieces of landmark climate legislation.

The 7th largest economy in the world is leading the way to a clean energy future.

California has just passed legislation forbidding its two state pension funds from investing in coal. CalPers and CalSTRS must now divest of all investments in coal companies, selling current investments, in a major move that sets a precedent for addressing climate change.

The bill easily passed the Assembly on Wednesday with a 43 to 27 vote and requires CalPers and CalSTRS – public employee pension funds that are responsible for $476 billion in assets – to liquidate all holdings in companies that earn at least half their income from coal mining by mid 2017.

So how much is involved? CalPers currently has investments in between 20 and 30 coal companies valued at up to $200 million, a spokesmn told Reuters. These include Peabody Energy and Arch Coal. CalSTRS’ investments are less, about $40 million.

New York and Massachusetts are now also considering similar legislation said Will Lana, a partner at Trillium Asset Management, which focuses on sustainable investment and manages a $2.2 billion investment portfolio.

“This is a landmark bill because it represents the first time state pension funds have divested on the grounds of climate change,” he said.

With this game changing move by California, the international coal divestment movement has gained speed. The Norwegian parliament also voted recently to greatly limit coal investments held in its $880 billion sovereign wealth fund.

Stanford University and the University of Maine are among US university campuses considering similar coal divestment strategies.

With the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan now shuttering a record number of coal power plants in order to slow future climate change, the decision is actually financially sound. Many coal companies are going bankrupt.

CPP states retiring coal

Image credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

“Coal is losing value quickly and investing in coal is a losing proposition for our retirees,” said Kevin de León, who authored the legislation. “It’s a nuisance to public health and it’s inconsistent with our values as a state on the forefront of efforts to address global climate change.”

Image credit: Chris Austin

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California Goes for 50% Renewables by 2030 Fri, 18 Sep 2015 14:58:05 +0000 Tenaska-South

In a historic vote, California legislators have ensured that the eighth largest economy in the world is running on 50% renewable energy within just 15 years.

California’s Democratic-majority legislature just acted decisively to further reduce the use of fossil energy in the state.

The oil and gas interests in the state lobbied hard to prevent the legislation’s passage, but were only able to prevent additional legislation mandating a 50% reduction in gas use in vehicles.

California’s previous electricity mandates have been extremely effective, with the state currently getting the 25% renewable energy it must get by 2015. Utilities in the state have contracts for and are on track to get the 33% renewable electricity from sun and wind by 2020 that it must get to meet its Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS).

Already, less than 1% of California’s electricity comes from coal, but natural gas-fired power provides the most electricity in the state. It is this that will be most reduced by the legislation, as renewables ramp up even further.

According to the Project Finance Newswire;

California’s renewable portfolio standard of 33% renewable power by 2020 has led to a decade-long boom in renewable energy project development. However, the state’s largest utilities have over-procured renewable power and utilities are exceeding annual renewable energy targets and are banking or selling off their surpluses to draw upon in later years.

PG&E anticipates that it will not need to draw on its banked RPS credits until 2019 and will have enough banked credits to meet a 33% RPS requirement through late 2023. Southern California Edison’s surplus is not as large as PG&E’s or SDG&E’s.

SCE anticipates tapping into its banked reserves by 2017, exhausting its balance in 2020, and needing an additional 7,300 GWh of renewable energy in 2020 to meet the 33% RPS requirement for that year. SCE forecasts an increasing procurement deficit post-2020, with a need, on average, for an additional 13,000 GWh of renewable procurement per year to meet a 33% RPS requirement.

Both solar and wind have boomed in the state, with more jobs created in renewables than in any other sector since 2010. It is clear that Californians understand the link between California’s drought and climate change.

Part of the reason that California has been able to move ahead comes from the support it gets from Californian citizens, who can see for themselves that climate legislation incentivizing more renewable energy has only helped the state.

Califonia’s AB32 is already benefiting the state, for example by funding free solar out of its Cap and Trade funds.

Rise of renewable energy

Although the percentages are higher in California and a handful of other states, nationwide; renewable energy now supplies nearly 6% from wind and about 1% from solar, 1.5% from biomass and nearly a half percent from geothermal.

Coal has seen a precipitous decline from over 45% just a few years ago. Coal now supplies only 26.83% of US electricity as of mid 2015, according to figures from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in its recent Energy Infrastructure Update.

This contrast is much starker within California. Coal supplies less than 1% and as of the end of 2014, solar supplied 7.4% of the state’s electricity. Solar is growing so rapidly that it could be that by the end of 2015 that the percentage could rise past 8% – in a state with a population of 39 million.

Image credit:SDG&E

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Poll: Republicans OK with Carbon Tax to Fund Renewables Thu, 17 Sep 2015 15:46:30 +0000 university of michigan

A new poll from the University of Michigan finds that voters are more likely to support a carbon tax if it’s proceeds are invested in clean energy.

Carbon tax invested in renewable energy

What Republicans like is of great interest to policymakers trying to find a way to pass climate legislation — because it is opposition in congress by Republicans that has been the obstacle.

For example, in one of the several attempts at passing climate bills back in 2010, Senator Cantwell of Idaho proposed one in which the proceeds from auctions (aka pollution fees) would be used to create a dividend returned to individual households.

The idea was that this would make it more attractive. But it turns out that even Republican voters prefer a ‘tax and invest’ strategy, where proceeds go to carbon free energy.

Problem with tax and dividend

Since the reason to have a carbon tax is to reduce carbon emissions — investing the proceeds in renewable energy is the only use of a carbon tax that makes any sense.

But the idea was that dividend would bring some voter buy-in to the idea, even a less effective carbon tax is better than none. Surprisingly, however, it turns out that voters don’t prefer this option, according to the new poll.

Key Findings

1. Most Americans oppose a carbon tax when the use of tax revenue is left unspecified. Overall support for such a tax is 34% in the latest NSEE survey. Attaching a specific cost to the carbon tax reduces overall support to 29%.

2. A revenue-neutral carbon tax, in which all tax revenue would be returned to the public as a rebate check, receives 56% support. The largest gains in support come from Republicans.

3. A carbon tax with revenues used to fund research and development for renewable energy programs receives 60% support, the highest among tax options that we presented. Majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents each express support for this tax.

4. Most respondents oppose a carbon tax with revenues used to reduce the federal budget deficit. Overall support for such a tax is 38% with a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents each expressing opposition to this tax.

5. When asked which use of revenue they prefer if a carbon tax were enacted, pluralities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents each prefer renewable energy over tax rebate checks or deficit reduction.

The carbon taxes Republicans don’t like

Republicans polled vociferously oppose the other options — by 81% if there is no specific revenue use — and by 87% if it means 10% higher energy costs. They are less opposed a rebate check (53% against). But surprisingly, spending proceeds on renewable energy is the only option that Republican voters support more than oppose.

However, in the past, what congressional Republicans have said – if they’ll even consider the idea – is that it be used to lower corporate tax rates.

A corporate tax cut does nothing to speed the switch away from carbon energy. It doesn’t address the whole reason for a carbon tax. Just like a rebate to consumers, it is just moving money around within an economy, not away from fossil energy to renewable energy.

One successful model for spending the proceeds on renewables would be the currently operational Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative involving nine Northeastern states, which uses auction revenues for carbon allowances under its cap-and-trade program to fund renewable energy and energy efficiency projects in those states.

It is very encouraging news that Republican voters prefer this obvious benefit of a carbon tax.

However, what prevents the US congress from passing carbon taxes is not the desires of Republican voters but the desires of those who fund the Republicans in congress.

Maybe the Koch brothers are the ones who should be polled!

Image credit: University of Michigan and FlickR

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Roadside Solar Farms Go Live in Massachusetts Wed, 16 Sep 2015 13:00:53 +0000 Solar Panel

Shiny rows of solar panels are now a common sight on the daily drive of many Boston-area commuters. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is installing them in a bid to go greener and to earn a discount on energy.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) is in the process of implementing a large roadside Solar Photovoltaic (PV) Energy Program. They are transforming unused sections of state-owned land next to the Massachusetts Turnpike and other major area highways into a collection of productive solar farms which will produce at least 6 megawatts of power for the state.

The roadside solar power initiative was launched in 2013, and the first phase of the project came online and began producing power in April of 2015. The first sites to go live are adjacent to stretches of the Massachusetts turnpike, or I-90, in Framingham and Natick. Those four sites are already producing over 2 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity, which is enough to power almost 500 homes. They’re also reducing the state’s annual carbon emissions by two million pounds.

The second phase of the MassDOT PV energy program is still under construction, but the next group of installations are scheduled to go online by the end of 2015 and double the amount of solar energy that the state is able to produce. Most of the new solar farms will line the far western end of I-90, but one of the largest of the projects is planned for an area off I-95 in Salisbury.

Public-Private Partnership

Solar farms usually require a large up-front capital investment, but in this case Massachusetts had zero up-front costs thanks to a public-private partnership deal. The MassDOT Office of Energy, Technology & Management and Highway Division established a partnership with Ameresco Inc., a publicly traded energy utility, in order to make the PV farms cost-effective. Under the terms of the deal, Ameresco is entirely responsible for the construction, operation, and maintenance of the installations. Having a private developer responsible for the project made it eligible to receive federal tax credits, bringing down the total project cost by fifty percent. Ameresco will likely recover their investment quickly via electricity sales and solar renewable energy credits.

MassDOT's PV installation at Northampton

MassDOT’s PV installation at Northampton

Massachusetts will be making money on the deal, too. The installations are all built on MassDOT-owned land. Ameresco is leasing that land from them, which will mean a considerable annual rent payment to the state. Second, Massachusetts agreed to purchase 100% of the electricity produced by these PV farms under a special 20-year negotiated rate, which is considerably lower than the usual energy rate. Finally, net metering policies in the state allow for MassDOT to export any excess solar energy back into the grid, earning them net metering credits. Over the next 20 years, these combined savings will add up to approximately $15 million.

While they may look a little out-of-place by the side of the road, those solar panels lining Massachusetts’ highways are definitely saving the state money and keeping its carbon footprint just a little bit smaller. And who knows, maybe they’re inspiring commuters to take a second look at solar for their own use at home.

Image via MassDOT

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