UNDARK: Do High-rises Built from Wood Guarantee Climate Benefits?

Dual debuts in this critical investigation of cross-laminated timber — multi-ton panels built from lumber that are the hottest material in “sustainable” building. It’s my debut work for Seattle-based nonprofit reporting outfit InvestigateWest as well as my first article in MIT-based science magazine Undark, which co-published the finished product

Spoiler alert: CLT producers promote their building material as a climate solution because their giant wood panels can replace energy-intensive concrete and steel construction. My investigation reveals that the carbon accounting behind their claim is oversimplified, and too many journalists give short shrift to concerns from sustainable materials experts.

Take one study of CLT’s carbon footprint that VOX’s high-profile sustainability writer David Roberts called a “soup-to-nuts lifecycle analysis.” My look under the hood revealed a huge pile of nuts that’s left out: nearly all of the carbon flows into and out of forests harvested to supply CLT manufacturing plants with lumber. One of my expert sources calls that a “gaping hole” in the industry’s standard carbon-counting methodology. 

It’s a particularly egregious gap for CLT assembled from lumber from British Columbia, where timber firms remove far more carbon every year than BC’s fire and infestation-ravaged forests can regrow. 

Read it via InvestigateWest or Undark
Article republished by Grist and by NW nonprofit news outlet Crosscut

In Outbreaks Some Health Workers Bolt

My research-based contribution to the COVID-19 story and first byline with The Tyee, Vancouver’s award-winning digital news outlet…

The B.C. and Canadian governments’ pandemic response plans, last updated in 2018, anticipated that many health-care workers would be unavailable when most needed during the peak of a global pandemic. And not just because some would fall ill. As nurses and doctors in hard-hit hospitals in New York, Italy and Spain have attested in recent weeks, the pandemic fight is akin to war. Canada’s response plan writers knew from survey research and previous pandemics that many health-care workers — including nurses, doctors, cleaning staff and care-home workers — would quit the battlefield rather than risk their own lives or their families’ lives.

The risk they face is real. During the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto, 44 per cent of all infections were in health-care providers, three of whom died. The idea that many might march off the field during the COVID-19 pandemic was horrifyingly affirmed last month in Spain, when soldiers mobilized to support care homes found some were completely abandoned. Closer to home, a California nursing home was evacuated after its staff didn’t show up.

Read on at The Tyee

Scientific American: Solar And Wind Power Could Ignite A Hydrogen Energy Comeback

Hydrogen is flowing in pipes under the streets in Cappelle-la-Grande, helping to energize 100 homes in this northern France village. On a short side road adjacent to the town center, a new electrolyzer machine inside a small metal shed zaps water with electricity from wind and solar farms to create “renewable” hydrogen that is fed into the natural gas stream already flowing in the pipes. By displacing some of that fossil fuel, the hydrogen trims carbon emissions from the community’s furnaces, hot-water heaters and stove tops by up to 7 percent.

So begins my February 2020 feature article for Scientific American which explains why hydrogen energy — presumed dead after a round of hype and disillusion two decades ago — is roaring back. Renewable hydrogen is central to the European Commission’s vision for achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, for example, and a growing focus for the continent’s industrial giants. As of next year, all new turbines for power plants made in the European Union are supposed to ship ready to burn a hydrogen–natural gas blend, and the E.U.’s manufacturers claim the turbines will be certified for 100 percent hydrogen by 2030.

This time around it is the push to decarbonize the electric grid and heavy industry—rather than hope for fuel cell vehicles—that is driving interest in hydrogen. “Everyone in the energy-modeling community is thinking very seriously about deep decarbonization,” says Tom Brown, who leads an energy-system modeling group at Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Cities, states and nations are charting paths to reach nearly net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner, in large part by adopting low-carbon wind and solar electricity. Integrated energy models show that they’ll have a hard time keeping the lights on during periods of low wind and sunlight without hydrogen, and that hydrogen will pay for itself long before it solves that problem.

China’s Grid Architect Proposes a “Made in China” Upgrade to North America’s Power System

Transmission lines in the United States and Canada require approval from every state and province traversed, and that political fragmentation hinders deployment of long power links of the type connecting vast swaths of territory in regions such as China, India, and Brazil. As a result, few studies detail how technologies that efficiently move power over thousands of kilometers, such as ultrahigh-voltage direct current (UHV DC) systems, might perform in North America. Earlier this week, the Beijing-based Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization (GEIDCO) stepped in to fill that gap, outlining an ambitious upgrade for North America’s grids.

GEIDCO’s plan promises to greatly shrink North America’s carbon footprint, but its boldest prescriptions represent technical and economic optimizations that run counter to political interests and recent trends. “Thinking out of the box is how you solve complicated, difficult problems,” said former Southern California Edison CEO Ted Craver in response to the plan. But GEIDCO’s approach, he said, raises concerns about energy sovereignty that could prove difficult to settle. As Craver put it: “There’s theory and then there’s practice.”

The proposed North American transmission scheme was unveiled on Tuesday at an international transmission forum in Vancouver, Canada, by Liu Zhenya, the former State Grid Corp. of China chairman who launched GEIDCO in 2016. While at State Grid, Liu championed the development of the world’s first 800- and 1,100-kilovolt UHV DC lines and the first 1,000-kV, UHV AC transmission. State Grid has deployed them to create a brawny hybrid AC-DC electricity system that taps far-flung energy resources to power China’s densely-populated and industrialized seaboard.

Through GEIDCO, Liu is proselytizing for UHV deployment worldwide. At the Vancouver meeting, Liu warned of “unimaginable damage to mankind” if greenhouse gas emissions continued at their current pace. He argued that beefy grids moving power across and between continents are a prerequisite for accessing and sharing the world’s best wind, solar, and hydropower resources, and thus dialing-down fossil fuel consumption. Continue reading “China’s Grid Architect Proposes a “Made in China” Upgrade to North America’s Power System”

Teaching Wind Turbines Altruism to Rev-up Wind Farms

“Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” So declares Spock, Star Trek’s Vulcan hero, as he sacrifices himself to save the Starship Enterprise and its crew in the 1982 film Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Today Stanford University researchers presented the clearest proof to date that self-sacrifice can also benefit wind farms. In their demonstration at an Alberta wind farm, one turbine sacrifices a fifth of its generating potential to enable better performance by neighboring turbines, boosting the group’s collective output.

And while Spock’s heroics necessitated a major plot twist to revive his character for the next Star Trek sequel, teaching turbines to behave altruistically requires just a small (but intelligent) tweak to their control systems. What they learn is how to share the wind. Continue reading “Teaching Wind Turbines Altruism to Rev-up Wind Farms”

The Hot Mess of Hawaii’s Renewable Power Push

My first contribution to award-winning Hakai Magazine, which covers coastal science, ecology and communities

Moloka‘i is a bastion of sanity and understatement at the center of the Hawaiian archipelago. Just 40 kilometers of open water away from O‘ahu, the island is a far cry from Honolulu’s hectic tiki bars and tourists, universities, cargo yards, and warships. On Moloka‘i, agriculture and subsistence hunting and fishing still sustain many of the 7,500 or so residents, and visitors are few. Those tourists who do make the hop over rank mailing a coconut home as their top experience.

On the surface, nothing about this bucolic place suggests it as the central hub around which a cleaner, high-tech electrical future might be built. Yet the island could serve as a model for Hawai‘i as the state navigates transitioning its entire power supply to renewable sources.

Honolulu-based Hawaiian Electric, the investor-owned utility that controls Moloka‘i’s grid, must meet a mandate from the state legislature to convert the five island grids it operates to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. No utility on Earth knows for sure how to accomplish that yet. Pushing Moloka‘i there first and fast, Hawaiian Electric decided, would provide insight and inspiration.

Hawaiian Electric’s idea was to get Moloka’i off diesel generation by 2020. Alas, it is little closer to shutting down the diesels three years later. Can a small Hawaiian island and its utility get along well enough to teach the rest of the world how to get off fossil-fueled electricity?

Read the story or listen to the audio version at HakaiMagazine.com

Caffeine Cranks Up Solar Cells

Coffee is best served at 85°C — the same temperature used to accelerate endurance tests for electronics. Mere coincidence? Not if you’re a UCLA scientist developing solar cells using a promising new material. (Or a science journalist dishing up the latest dispatch from a world-leading electronic materials lab.) Taste for yourself at Spectrum