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Local Climate Change

From our local paper in Roanoke:

It’s good to see some climate coverage in our small paper, even if it is in satirical cartoon form.  This cartoon (from earlier in November) is more of a reference to Virginia’s shifting political landscape than actual climate change, but new reports on our underestimation of sea level rise give it a slightly new meaning.


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Fixing the thermostat people problem

This weekend, I bought a new thermostat.  Not very exciting news, I know, but this wasn’t a regular old thermostat. I bought a nest thermostat, which is to say, I bought one of the most advanced (and most expensive) thermostats out there.  I’m a gadget person and an energy nerd, so this was a win-win for me.  nest was designed and built by folks in Silicon Valley, and its user interface is far better than your average stat.  Besides being pretty and expensive, nest can also essentially program itself, which is potentially the biggest development in thermostats in decades (exciting!).

To understand why a product like this is important, you have to consider the lowly thermostat’s history.  Programmable thermostats aren’t new; Honeywell managed to link a thermostat to an analog clock more than 100 years ago.  Digital thermostats, which are easier to use and more reliable, have been around for more than 20 years as well.  The problem with thermostats wasn’t technological. It was a user problem.  Even though programmable thermostats have been around for years, and even though they have been proven to save money, most people don’t use them as intended.  One study found that 45% of thermostats were set to “hold” a constant temperature (essentially turning them into a standard stat) and only 30% were actually programmed properly.

This is a common problem in the design world.  Brilliant products are developed by talented designers and engineers and released upon the real world, only to fall flat.  If you’re interested in learning a bit more about this, I recommend this Ted Talk by Timothy Prestero.  The title of his talk says it all: Design for people, not awards.  And to design for people, you have to consider the product in the context of their everyday lives. This includes behavioral tendencies and cultural influences.

The energy arena is no different than others in terms of design; what often looks like a people problem is usually a situation problem.  People bought or already had the right kind of thermostat, but the right thing to do (program it properly) wasn’t the easy thing to do.  So nest designed their thermostat to learn your preferences and program itself over time.  The people are the same, but the situation has changed and as a result nest claims 99% of their thermostats are programmed (obviously there’s some bias in those numbers, but it’s still impressive).

When you consider that heating and cooling accounts for about half the energy consumption in houses, and that a thermostat can save 20-30%, the implications for this are pretty big.  I predict that in a few years we’ll see most thermostats having Wi-fi and learning capabilities.  Until then, nest (and another brand called ecobee) are the only options in this space.

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Climate and energy news roundup

Here are some of the energy-related stories in the news that I’ve been following this past week:

The NY Times has a two-part series about data centers and energy.  The first part focuses on dispelling the myth that data centers are energy efficient, despite what you often hear from the companies that operate them.  The second part is a story about Microsoft building a data center in rural, central Washington.  Tech companies have been building data centers in areas where electricity and land are cheap, and localities are struggling to deal with the infrastructure challenges as well as the companies themselves.

Last week, PBS aired a segment in their Newshour that many are accusing of containing false balance. The segment in question had a lengthy interview with Anthony Watts, a well-known climate change skeptic, in which the interviewer made no attempts to press Watts on the scientific foundations of his arguments nor did he point out the scientific consensus on climate change.  PBS has since apologized for the segment.  Ironically, arctic sea ice hit a new record low just 24 hours before the PBS story aired.  While we’re talking about the arctic, it’s worth mentioning that Shell has abandoned its plans to drill up there for the year.  They’ll most likely try again next year, as they’ve already spent $4.5 billion on drilling since 2005.

Also in climate news, a court has denied the FOIA request by the American Tradition Institute seeking the release of emails from climate scientist Michael Mann.  Earlier in the year, Virginia’s attorney general tried to get access to some of Mann’s documents under the Fraud Against Taxpayers Act and was denied by the VA Supreme Court.  Although it’s likely that there will be appeals and further lawsuits, hopefully this will calm the waters for some climate scientists.

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Climate change, meet auto-tune

Proof that auto-tune can be used for good.

On a related note, if you’d like to see how your legislator has been voting on climate issues, click here.

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In the (word) clouds

I’m always on the lookout for better ways to visualize data and information.  My hard drive has an endless supply of Excel spreadsheets, replete with myriad charts, graphs, and projections.  But unless you’re a data-driven person (read:nerd) like me, the previous sentence is enough to put you to sleep.  So this morning I thought to myself, “I wonder what other things I can try to make visually appealing.”

So, that led me to…word clouds! A word cloud is essentially a word count of a document, where the relative size of the words indicate how often they are repeated.  The larger the word, the more times it was repeated in the document.  Below are word clouds from various climate action plans (in order, Hollins, E&H, Lynchburg College, Washington & Lee University, and University of Richmond).

There’s nothing too unexpected here.  The first two clouds show a focus on carbon, emissions, and campus.  As you get further down in the list, words like sustainability and environmental start to get larger.  This could reflect different organizational priorities, or it could simply be a result of differing writing styles.  Nonetheless, it’s a fun and easy way to quickly compare a few schools’ climate change aspirations.

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Solar fun

Jack and Dianne Mason of Meadowview, VA came by E&H on Friday to give a solar demonstration to an environmental studies course.  Jack is a former geology professor turned solar evangelist.  His focus is on Africa (Kenya in particular) and those shiny boxes you see in the picture are actually solar ovens.  Basically, they are cardboard boxes with reflective collectors and black interiors that capture sunlight and absorb as much as possible.  The result is pretty impressive.  After less than an hour, both ovens were well above 200 degrees.  They are designed to be used like a slow cooker; you just put your food in there in the morning, point it south, and you have a hot meal when you come home.  Brilliant!

The Masons also brought some other nifty solar gadgets.  There was a solar powered fan, a bank of solar powered LED lights hooked up to a car battery for storage, and a homemade solar thermal system.  Keeping things simple again, Jack just made a plywood box and stuck a used glass patio door on top of it.  Inside it’s much like the oven, except it has copper tubing to circulate the water.  It feeds the cold water from the bottom of the tank, meaning no pumps are needed because as the water heats up it rises to the top of the panels and back into the tank.  He also had a solar powered pump on display.

I loved the simplicity of it all.  Renewable energy has a reputation for being expensive and complicated, but this demonstration was proof that all you need is some spare materials and a little know-how to get the ball rolling.  Solar PV systems aren’t yet feasible or cost-effective for everyone, but this demonstration showed that there are plenty of renewable energy solutions for all types of applications.

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Shifting the curve

If you haven’t already had enough of the climate change coverage this summer, here is another terrifying clip from NASA highlighting the fact that this isn’t your grandparents’ climate:

Shifting Distribution of Northern Hemisphere Summer Temperature Anomalies, 1951-2011

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