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Archive for the ‘water tech’ Category

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Environmental enforcement? Yes, there’s an app for that too.

As California’s permanent budget crisis results in continuing cutbacks to environmental agencies, IBM has rolled out Creek Watch, an iPhone app that lets the State Water Resources Control Board crowdsource the condition of the Golden State’s waterways.

Here’s how it works: You’re out for a jog, or a hike, or just walking the dog. When you cross a creek, stream, or other body of water, you pull out your iPhone and fire up the Creek Watch app.

The app asks you to take a picture of the creek and then click on tabs that note the water level (dry, some, full), flow rate (still, slow, fast), and the amount of trash (none, some, a lot). Other screens define those terms and show photos as examples. For instance, “a lot” of trash is 10 or more pieces of debris. There’s also a place for citizen scientists to jot down additional observations.

The app uses the iPhone’s GPS chip to pinpoint the creek’s location, and the photos and information are uploaded to the Creek Watch database, which can be tapped by state water officials.

“Creek Watch lets the average citizen contribute to the health of their water supply — without PhDs, chemistry kits, and a lot of time,” Christine Robson of IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose said in a statement.

“With more than 700 miles of creeks in Santa Clara County alone, we need innovative technologies like this one to empower the community to help us continuously improve our water quality and the ecosystem,” noted Carol Boland, a watershed biologist for the city of San Jose.

So far, the reviews of the app by citizen water monitors have been positive.

“I’ll be able to report trash in the creek behind my house, with location and photos automatically,” wrote one person on the Creek Watch app review page. “I hope the water district is watching.”

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In The New York Times on Tuesday, I write about an IBM pilot project in Dubuque, Iowa, to install smart water meters in 311 homes to give residents’ real-time information on their water consumption:

While some California cities move to ban smart electricity meters over fears about their impact on human health, residents of Dubuque, Iowa, are embracing smart water meters.

Like smart electricity meters, smart water meters measure consumption and wirelessly transmit the data to utilities. In Dubuque, 311 households have volunteered to have smart water meters installed as part of a pilot project between the city and I.B.M. to see if giving residents information on their water use in real time will prompt them to conserve. The project is also designed to help city officials spot and repair leaks in the water system as they happen.

“The more frequently water use is monitored, the more quickly things like leaks can be detected and addressed,” Milind Naphade, program director for I.B.M.’s smarter city services, said in an e-mail. “Also, we’ll be able to better identify trends and patterns over time more quickly with this frequency.”

Many water bills are issued quarterly, so residents may not notice a spike in consumption as a result of leaks or other problems for months. The smart meters in Dubuque, on the other hand, will transmit data on a home’s water use to I.B.M. computers every 15 minutes.

Residents can go to a Web site to monitor their water use.

“Water isn’t generally seen as something of value — even though water managers in 36 states expect to face water shortages in the next few years,” Mr. Naphade wrote. “By providing this level of detailed information to program participants, we can help them really understand where their water is going, and where they can make changes in terms of how and when they use water to reduce the overall amount they’re using on a daily basis.”

Cutting water use also saves the city energy costs as less electricity is needed for pumping, city officials noted.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Want to help solve the global water crisis? Step away from your laptop and let it join millions of other computers being used by scientists who will tap idle processing power to develop water filtering technology, clean up polluted waterways, and find treatments for water-related diseases.

Those were among the projects announced Tuesday by IBM, which sponsors a global network of linked personal computers called the Worldwide Community Grid.

The idea of aggregating thousands of individual computers to create a virtual supercomputer is nothing new — searchers of extraterrestrial life and scientists seeking medical cures have been doing that for years. But this is apparently the first time the approach has been used to tackle one of the planet’s bigger environmental problems.

In China, Tsinghua University researchers, with the help of Australian and Swiss scientists, will use 1.5 million computers on the Worldwide Community Grid to develop nanotechnology to create drinkable water from polluted sources, as well as from saltwater.

To do that, the scientists need to run millions of computer simulations as part of their “Computing for Clean Water” project.

“They believe they can collapse tens or even hundreds of years of trial and error into mere months,” Ari Fishkind, an IBM spokesperson, told me.

Big Blue is providing computer hardware, software, and technical help to the Worldwide Community Grid. But Fishkind says the company doesn’t anticipate the effort will have a commercial payoff for its own water filtering membrane efforts.

“We will be watching Tsinghua University’s progress closely, but the two projects are not directly related,” he said in an email message. “While IBM’s research focuses on a broad application of filtering technology/technique, including industrial applications, Tsignhua’s focus is drinking water.”

Brazilian scientists, meanwhile, will plug into the grid to screen 13 million chemical compounds in their search for a cure for schistosomiasis, a water-borne tropical disease that kills between 11,000 and 200,000 people annually.

In the United States, the Worldwide Community Grid will be used to run complex simulations that assess how actions by farmers, power plant operators, real estate developers, and others affect the health of Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary.

“Responsible and effective stewardship of complex watersheds is a huge undertaking that must balance the needs of each unique environment with the needs of the communities that depend on them for survival,” said Philippe Cousteau, co-founder of Azure Worldwide, a firm that is participating in the project.

To join the Worldwide Community Grid, you just need to download a piece of software from the group’s site.

Oh, and stay off Facebook and Twitter for a bit.

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Photo: Flickr via Pink Sherbet Photography

In my latest Green State column in Grist, I write about the need to roll out a smart water grid as drought and water shortages take their toll:

The other day I came home to find a colorful flyer on my front door proclaiming, “Your meter just got smarter.”

While I was out and about in Berkeley, a worker from my utility, PG&E, slipped in the side gate and gave my old gas and electric meter a digital upgrade. So-called smart meters allow the two-way transmission of electricity data and will eventually let me monitor and alter my energy consumption in near real-time. I’ll be able to fire up an app on my iPhone and see, for instance, a spike in watts because my son has left the lights on in his room and a laptop plugged in.

Now I only learn of my electricity use when I get my monthly utility bill, long after all that carbon has escaped into the atmosphere. The situation is even worse when it comes to water consumption; my bill and details of my water use arrive every other month.

“When you tell people what total bucket of water they used in the past 60 days, the barn door is open and the animals are long gone,” says Richard Harris, water conservation manager for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, my local water agency.

EBMUD is currently testing smart water meters in 30 households and plans to expand the pilot program to 4,000 homes and businesses later this year.

“It’ll give us better knowledge of where our water is going,” says Harris. “We also thought if we’re going to ask people to use water more efficiently, especially when we’re coming out of a drought and have imposed water restrictions, customers need to have an idea of what their current use is.”

EBMUD’s smart meters take readings every hour and participants in the pilot program will be able to go online to check their consumption and set up an email alert if their water use rises above a certain level. The agency also plans to offer a social networking feature to allow people to compare their water consumption with other households in the area. Nothing like a little peer pressure to get you to turn off the tap.

Given that many states expect to face water shortages in the coming years, one would think we’d be seeing a roll out of smart water meters akin to the national effort being made to smarten up the power grid.

The payoff could be enormous. Water agencies and consumers would be able to detect leaking pipes and toilets in real-time and fix the problem before the water literally goes down the drain.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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ibm-smarter-planet

While the U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday issued nearly $8 billion in loans to Ford (F), Nissan and Tesla Motors to manufacture electric cars and batteries, IBM unveiled an initiative to develop a next-generation battery technology that would allow those vehicles to travel 400 miles or more on a charge.

Big Blue will investigate the potential of lithium air technology to replace current state-of-the-art lithium ion batteries. Lithium air potentially could pack 10 times the energy density of lithium ion storage devices by drawing oxygen into the batteries to use as a reactant. As a result lithium air batteries would weigh less than lithium ion batteries, C. Spike Narayan, manager of science and technology at IBM’s Almaden Research Center, told Green Wombat.

So besides powering cars, lithium air batteries could store electricity generated from solar power plants and wind farms, turning them into 24/7 energy sources.

But don’t expect to see the super-charged batteries anytime soon.”This is a five-to-10-year project,” says Narayan. “The first phase is to go after the big science problems. Then we’re ready to engage with automotive companies and battery manufacturers.”

The technological hurdles are high and even IBM (IBM), with its expertise in nanotechnology, green chemistry and supercomputing, won’t try to go it alone. It’s seeking partners at research universities and government laboratories to crack the tech challenges, which include developing a membrane that will strip water out of the air before it enters the battery and the development of nano materials to prevent layers of lithium oxide from interfering with chemical reactions.

IBM intends to limit its role in the battery business to R&D. “We have no desire to make batteries,” says Rich Lechner, IBM’s vice president for energy and the environment. “We will license the IP.”

In another sign that climate change and the imminent imposition of carbon caps are creating opportunities for Big Business and rearranging the competitive landscape, IBM also announced “Green Sigma,” an alliance of erstwhile competitors that will offer solutions to companies seeking to shrink their carbon footprint.

Green Sigma includes business software giant SAP (SAP), Cisco (CSCO), Johnson Controls (JCI) and Honeywell (HON). Dave Lebowe, an IBM executive with the Green Sigma program, acknowledged the potential for conflicts of interests among these frenemies but said such problems were outweighed by the upside of bringing together a broad range of expertise to help customers cut their CO2 emissions and save money.

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NRDC water report

Water isn’t as sexy as solar, doesn’t carry the smart grid’s geek cred or inspire green technolust like the Fisker Karma or Tesla Roadster electric sports cars. But as a new Natural Resources Defense Council report drives home, it could be one of the biggest climate-change related business opportunities of the new century.

The NRDC study focuses on California, where drought, a growing population and the specter of global warming-triggered water shortages demand innovative water efficiency policies and technological solutions. Just like California has kept its per capita energy consumption flat over the past 30 years as its population doubled through energy efficiency standards, the reports’ authors say that the Golden State must take the same approach with water.

“Such measures can help stretch limited water supplies, save businesses, money, reduce energy consumption, improve water quality, and protect local, regional, and statewide ecosystems,” wrote authors Ronnie Cohen, Kristina Ortez and Crossley Pinkstaff.

They focus on the so-called commercial, industrial and institutional sector, or CII — i.e. Big Business and Big Government — and the takeaway headline is that if those water consumers cut their consumption by implementing existing conservation technology they would save enough H2O to supply the coastal metropolises of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.

As has been oft pointed out, a great deal of energy is expended to transport and manage water — 20% of California’s electricity production is water-related, according to the state’s energy commission — and cutting water use will also slash companies’ electricity bill and, not incidentally, greenhouse gas emissions.

The report says that CII accounts for one-third of California’s urban water use. Taking such prosaic measures as installing aerators on faucets, low-flow shower heads and energy efficient commercial dishwashers and washers can save millions of gallons of water. Take toilets, for example. Urinals alone — pay attention guys — consume 15% of the water used in commercial restrooms. Switching to waterless urinals would save 45,000 gallons a year per urinal, according to the report.

More high tech measures involve deploying smart irrigation systems that use sensor networks to determine when to turn on the sprinklers at all those golf courses built in the California desert and in suburban communities throughout the state.  Needless to say, much of the opportunity in Big Water be for consultants and policymakers.

The whale in the room, of course, is Big Agriculture. Ag was beyond the scope of the NRDC report but it is the biggest consumer of water in California and has often been the most resistance to change or paying the true cost of such things as growing rice and alfalfa in the desert.

But as far as the commercial and government sectors go, the report concludes with these policy recommendations:

  • “Establish efficiency standards for water-using products.
  • Set performance-based water savings targets that provide water agencies with flexibility.
  • Prioritize water conservation above increasing supply.
  • Adopt a Public Goods Charge on water sales to provide a dedicated funding source for water efficiency programs, including expanded technical and financial assistance.
  • Encourage partnerships with—and financial support from—energy utilities and wastewater agencies.
  • Streamline the process for recycled water use.
  • Encourage volumetric pricing for sewer services.
  • Decouple water agencies’ sales from revenue.
  • Improve water use data collection and management.”

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Infighting among U.S. federal agencies over regulation of wind and wave energy development on the outer continental shelf ended Tuesday with an accord that gives the Department of the Interior oversight of offshore wind farms while the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gets jurisdiction over wave and tidal projects.

While the deal brokered by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and acting FERC chairman Jon Wellinghoff will allow wind and wave projects to proceed, it’s still unclear what the impact will be on proposals to build combined offshore wind-and-wave farms.

As Green Wombat wrote earlier this month, a Seattle company called Grays Harbor Ocean Energy has filed applications with FERC to build such combo plants off several states. Among them, California, where the city of San Francisco is attempting to scuttle Grays’ proposed 100 megawatt project that would be located in a marine sanctuary in favor of its own 30 megawatt wave farm that would be built closer to shore.

Environmentalists, surfers and sailors also have objected to the Grays Harbor wave farm and the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service had challenged FERC’s right to approve combined wind-wave projects.

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