Activists fear a new threat to biodiversity—renewable energy

A small Nevada wildflower named Tiehm’s buckwheat might still be living in obscurity if it had not happened to grow in soil full of lithium. As it is, that could prove its downfall.

Lithium is needed to make the high-powered batteries that are helping the world transition to electric vehicles. Demand is soaring, and mining companies are eager to take it out of the ground at several new sites in Nevada, already home to the only existing lithium mine in the U.S.

But Tiehm’s buckwheat is rarer than lithium. It grows only on approximately 10 acres of land at Rhyolite Ridge in southwestern Nevada—right where one of the new lithium mines is planned.

“One guy on a bulldozer could drive it extinct in one afternoon,” says Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin Director for the Center for Biological Diversity and one of the flower’s biggest advocates. 

He and some other conservationists see the flower and the mine as emblematic of a broad and disturbing trend: There is a growing conflict, they say, between efforts to address two environmental crises—a rapidly warming climate on the one hand, and a staggering rise in extinction on the other. 

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A District Energy System Design Could Cut More Emissions for Proposed Davis Innovation Sustainability Campus

Homes and businesses use over 25 percent of California’s energy. With a number of different space heating and cooling technologies available to developers, it is important to understand and quantify potential greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts.

A study, completed by the UC Davis Western Cooling Efficiency Center (WCEC), analyzed the GHG emissions for two different heating and cooling options for a proposed development in Davis – the Davis Innovation Sustainability Campus (DiSC). Researchers analyzed GHG emissions for: 1) the proposed all-electric, high-efficiency design, which would use packaged heat pump equipment for heating and cooling the buildings and 2) a potential upgrade to an all-electric, very high efficiency design, which would use a district energy system. A district energy system uses a central plant heat pump and chiller to heat and cool water that is piped to buildings for heating and cooling. 

“Based on predicted energy consumption data provided by Trane, we found that a district energy system could further improve energy efficiency by 26%, reduce total energy consumption by 14%, and reduce GHG emissions by 16% over the already highly efficient proposed design,” said lead researcher David Vernon, Co-Director of Engineering for the UC Davis Western Cooling Efficiency Center.

DiSC energy system options

DiSC is a proposed development that would build new residential, office, laboratory, and manufacturing buildings on the eastern edge of Davis. The developer team is required by the Davis City Council to build an all-electric design with an energy efficiency level 30% more efficient than required by Title 24 building codes.

“The developer funded us to look at a district energy system design with large thermal energy storage because it has the potential to greatly reduce GHG emissions,” Vernon said. “It can help stabilize the grid by using energy when renewable generation is high and reducing energy consumption when renewable generation is low.”

To meet California’s climate goals requires large increases in renewable energy generation, energy storage, and load shifting technologies. District energy systems with large thermal energy storage have the potential to be an effective energy storage and load shifting strategy. The WCEC mission is to advance design, monitoring, and objective reporting of the performance of these types of technologies to inform policy and economic decisionmakers.

Energy modeling and analysis

The heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) manufacturer Trane completed energy models of the proposed baseline and district energy system designs and provided the hourly energy consumption results. The WCEC researchers then used these hourly energy consumption results to calculate Time Dependent Valuation—a metric that incorporates the social and environmental impacts of energy used to evaluate energy efficiency, total energy consumption, and GHG emissions of the designs.   

“Our analysis shows that district energy systems offer significant opportunities to reduce energy consumption and GHG emissions compared to more common HVAC designs,” said Vernon. “It is important to note that our results are on the conservative side, and implementation of this design could result in even larger GHG savings.”

This study was funded by Ramco Enterprises, Inc. and the Buzz Oates Group of Companies.

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How Eco-Friendly are Electric Vehicles? It All Depends on the Battery

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) — By 2035, every passenger vehicle sold in California must be a zero-emission vehicle.

That means it must run on electricity, hydrogen or another alternative fuel that does not generate air pollution to operate.

The mandate is expected to reduce greenhouse gases in the state by about 35%.

But, while zero-emission vehicles are being touted as one solution to our climate crisis, their batteries could also represent an environmental hazard.

Currently, batteries from first-generation hybrid vehicles are starting to make their way to junkyards.

We visited several auto recyclers in the San Francisco area and found hybrid batteries tossed among other car parts or piled up in a corner. One was dangling from the engine compartment of an old Prius that no longer had a hood and had many parts already pulled out.

Operators did not know what to do with them.

“There are risks associated with these aged batteries or damaged batteries. Lithium-ion batteries that we use in electric vehicles are a fire hazard. It’s important to make sure that these batteries are managed correctly at the end of life,” said Alissa Kendal, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Davis.

Kendall said the metals in the batteries are hazardous and could leach into the environment if they are not properly handled.

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female scientist examining water

Leaks an Untapped Opportunity for Water Savings

Before a drop of treated water in California ever reaches a consumer’s faucet, about 8% of it has already been wasted due to leaks in the delivery system. Nationally, the waste is even higher, at 17%. This represents an untapped opportunity for water savings, according to a study from the University of California, Davis. 

The study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, is the first large-scale assessment of utility-level water loss in the United States. It found that leak reduction by utilities can be the most cost-effective tool in an urban water manager’s toolkit, provided utility-specific approaches are used. 

“When I first heard about ‘leaks’ I thought it sounded boring, but leaks are a huge component of our water systems and have a larger opportunity than many other water-saving methods to make an impact,” said lead author Amanda Rupiper, a postdoctoral scholar with the UC Davis Center for Water-Energy Efficiency. “As the first state to regulate its water losses, a lot of eyes are watching California, and this is an opportunity to impact policy here and elsewhere.”

Amid a multiyear drought, the passage of Senate Bill 555 in 2015 made California the first in the nation and among the first in the world to require water utilities to regulate their water losses.

Be Specific

Using data from more than 800 utilities across California, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas, the authors characterized water losses across the country. They developed a model to assess the economically efficient level of losses, and used that model to compare various water loss regulations and modeling approaches.

The study found that one-size-fits-all approaches to leak management are not effective, economical or equitable for utilities, which vary in size and resources. Uniform approaches could lead to the mismanagement of urban water losses. However, applying utility-specific performance standards can deliver a similar amount of water savings at a profit for both utilities and society.

“Regulations that impose a uniform standard across all utilities will result in water reductions that are too stringent in some cases, too relaxed in others, and too costly overall,” the paper concludes.

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Egret standing on solar panels

Floating Solar Panels Could Be the Next Big Thing in Clean Energy

Solar panels can be placed on your roof, on a plot of land, or basically anywhere else where they  are anchored to something solid. That said, there are only so many solid spaces available to install them. To beat climate change, our electricity mix is going to need a lot more renewable energy systems to take over fossil fuels.  Many in the solar industry are looking for a new home for solar panels—possibly even floating on water.

Floating solar farms have been around for over a decade, but water-bound panels became much more prominent in the last few years. The basic idea is to attach solar panels to plastic floats which then drift on a body of water. These floating solar arrays are typically placed on man-made bodies of water—a town’s water reservoir, an irrigation reservoir, a water treatment facility—as to avoid interfering with plant and animal species that live in natural bodies of water. For instance, the United States’ largest floating solar farm sits on a wastewater pond in California and has a nearly five megawatt capacity.

The floating solar industry is expected to grow dramatically over the next decade, but only about two percent of this year’s new solar installations are water-bound.  

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Large-Scale Solar can Cool Nearby Areas

Scientists from the University of California-Davis, Lancaster University, and Ludong University in China published research showing that utility-scale solar facilities can have a cooling effect not only on the land covered by the array, but also in the surrounding area.

Solar facilities were found to produce “cool islands” that extend up to 700 meters from the boundaries of the arrays. Land surface temperature was reduced by up to 2.3 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) at 100 meters away; the cooling effects tapered off exponentially to 700 meters.

Studies of two solar parks–the 300 MW Stateline project in California and the 850 MW Longyangxia project in China–were conducted using Landsat satellite images, an approach the researchers said had not previously been applied to solar. The study team compared land surface temperatures around solar facilities before and after they were built. The Stateline solar park measurements were supplemented with ground-collected data.

The researchers hypothesized that the cooling was caused by a combination of shading and insulating the land surface, and by the direct conversion of energy into electricity by the solar panels.

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UC Davis CWEE Accelerates Water Conservation Research with Secure, Compliant Data Storage on AWS

To solve some of the most pressing water and energy challenges, scientists and engineers need access to robust, reliable data that is often sensitive and protected. Data providers, researchers, and host institutions need to adhere to strict requirements for protecting and securing this data. The Center for Water-Energy Efficiency (CWEE) at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) used Amazon Web Services (AWS) to create a centralized, secure data repository that streamlines data sharing.

Researchers at CWEE quantify how much energy is used in various elements of the water sector, including potable water, irrigation, and wastewater. This research helps water utilities, energy utilities, and policy makers decide how to invest in and promote water use efficiency, energy efficiency, and electric load shifting in the water sector. This research is critical particularly in California, where drought and other climate change outcomes, like heat waves and forest fires, have been an issue for decades and are growing more severe.

CWEE’s research heavily depends on large amounts of data that must be used in compliance with data privacy requirements. To date, data acquisition has been a largely manual process with strict security agreements and standards that can make it challenging to obtain.

To overcome these challenges, Dr. Frank Loge, director of CWEE and a professor in the UC Davis Civil and Environmental Engineering department, worked with UC Davis’s information technology departments to develop a new secure, shared system using a range of AWS services. The new system protects sensitive research data, makes clear who is responsible for protecting it, and verifies compliance. The system has garnered new interest and funding opportunities and has the potential to help spur new innovations in the water sector, driven by broad access to data.

 

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How Water Conservation can Help Save Energy, Too

Watering the lawn less, taking shorter showers, and switching to a low-flow toilet all conserve water. And they also reduce carbon pollution. “About 20% of the state of California’s energy use is associated with the water system,” says Frank Loge of the University of California, Davis.

He explains that every step of a water system uses energy: pumping water from lakes and reservoirs, treating it to make it safe to drink, and pumping it into homes and businesses. Then, if it’s sent down a sink or toilet, it’s usually processed at a wastewater treatment plant, which Loge says takes a tremendous amount of energy.

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The Pandemic Has Suddenly Shined Light On Long-Neglected Indoor Air Concerns

For more than 25 years, Tom Smith has run 3Flow, a company whose sole mission is to make sure people don’t get sick from airborne hazards in their workplaces.

He suddenly has the attention of a lot of employers who never really gave thought to it before the pandemic.

Typically, Smith’s team focuses on how the air moves through places like labs or factories, but since the pandemic started, his business has been getting calls about open layout offices, conference rooms and auditoriums.

“A lot of people have found out that their systems are dysfunctional,” Smith said.

Office spaces are often a lot harder to work with than labs, Smith said, because they weren’t designed with floating pathogens in mind, and the systems have not been well maintained. He says there’s a simple reason for that: it wasn’t required.

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