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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: Better Place

In The New York Times on Monday, I wrote about the challenges of developing electric car batteries that will match the range of gasoline-powered vehicles:

Silicon Valley may be an epicenter of the nascent electric car industry, but don’t expect the battery revolution to mimic the computer revolution, one of I.B.M.’s top energy storage scientists advises.

“Forget Moore’s Law — it’s nothing like that,” said Winfried Wilcke, senior manager for I.B.M.’s Battery 500 project, referring to the maxim put forward by Gordon Moore, an Intel founder, that computer processing power doubles roughly every two years.

“Lithium ion, which clearly is the best battery technology today, is flat, completely flat since 2003,” Mr. Wilcke said last week at a gathering in San Francisco attended by executives from I.B.M. and Better Place, a Silicon Valley electric car infrastructure company.

Mr. Wilcke’s team at the Almaden Research Center of I.B.M. in San Jose, Calif., is trying to develop a new battery technology called lithium air that could allow a car to go 500 miles on a single charge. Most electric cars coming onto the market this year have a range of around 100 miles.

Such batteries theoretically could pack 10 times the energy density of the lithium ion batteries now used in electric cars because they use air drawn in from outside the battery as a reactant. That means lithium-air storage devices weigh less than lithium-ion batteries, a factor that also improves the performance of electric cars.

“I always compare it to climbing Mount Everest,” Mr. Wilcke said. “In the last two months, we just left base camp — meaning that we actually made some pretty significant breakthroughs.”

He declined to give details but said that his team had shown that lithium-air batteries could be recharged, something that had not been done before.

“It will take many years, if ever, before it can be useful,” he said. “It’s a high-high-risk project.”

He illustrated the challenge of building a battery with the energy density of gasoline by recounting that it took 47 seconds to put 13.6 gallons of gas in his car when he stopped to fill up on the way to San Francisco. That’s the equivalent of 36,000 kilowatts of electricity. An electric car would need to pump 6,000 kilowatts to charge its battery.

“The dream that we have today to have exactly the same car charge up in minutes and drive off hundreds of miles cannot happen,” Mr. Wilcke said. “Or at least not for 50 years.”

Mr. Wilcke and Lawrence Seeff, head of global alliances for Better Place, dismissed the idea that the fast-charging stations being tested in California and elsewhere were a solution to the battery conundrum.

Depending on the battery, high-voltage stations can recharge a battery to 80 percent capacity in 20 to 30 minutes rather than in the 8 to 10 hours it takes with a more conventional charging station.

Allan Schurr, I.B.M.’s vice president for strategy, energy and utilities, noted that the cost to drivers of plugging in to a rapid charging station might be prohibitive, given the demands that the devices place on the electric grid.

“It’s physically possible to have a fast-charge mechanism and a fast-charge outlet, but can the grid support it?” Mr. Seeff said. “And what do we define by fast-charging? Is it 20 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes? Because if you have two people waiting to fast-charge, you could be waiting an hour.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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Photo: IBM

In a story in The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about IBM’s new initiative to green up its $40 billion global supply chain:

I.B.M. said on Wednesday that it will require its 28,000 suppliers in more than 90 countries to install management systems to gather data on their energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and waste and recycling.

Those companies in turn must ask their subcontractors to do the same if their products or services end up as a significant part of I.BM.’s $40 billion global supply chain. The suppliers must also set environmental goals and make public their progress in meeting those objectives.

“We will be amongst the first, if not the first, with these broad-based markers on our supply base and we’re going to have to spend an appropriate amount of time and money to help our suppliers do what we’re asking them to do,” John Patterson, vice president of I.B.M. global supply and chief procurement officer, said in a telephone interview from Hong Kong.

“It’s clear that there’s real financial benefits to be had for procurers across the world to get innovative with their suppliers,” Mr.  Patterson added. “In the long term, as the Earth’s resources get consumed, prices are going to go up. We’ve already seen large price increases and problems with water.”

The initiative follows Wal-Mart’s announcement in February that it would require its suppliers to eliminate 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from the lifecycle of the products it sells.

I.B.M., one of the world’s largest technology companies, is not setting numerical targets for its suppliers to achieve. Rather, the goal is to institutionalize data-gathering systems that will collect information on a variety of measures of environmental performance, according to Wayne Balta, the company’s vice president of corporate environmental affairs and product safety.

“Our overall interest is to systemize environmental management and sustainability across our global supply chain so it helps our suppliers build their own capacity in a way that’s not only good for the environment but their business,” said Mr. Balta.  “It’s about creating a system that works regardless of who is in leadership and what’s in green vogue.”

You an read the rest of the story here.

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photo: IBM

In The New York Times on Tuesday, I wrote about how scientists at IBM and Stanford University have developed a new process for making plastic that could have major environmental implications:

Researchers at I.B.M. and Stanford University said Tuesday that they have discovered a new way to make plastics that can be continuously recycled or developed for novel uses in health care and microelectronics.

In a paper published in Macromolecules, a journal of the American Chemical Society, the California researchers describe how they substituted organic catalysts for the metal oxide or metal hydroxide catalysts most often used to make the polymers that form plastics.

Chandrasekhar Narayan, who leads I.B.M.’s science and technology team at its Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., said the presence of metal catalysts in plastics means that they often can only be recycled once before ending up in a landfill.

“When you try to take a product and recycle it, the metal in the polymer continues to degrade the polymer so it gets increasingly less strong,” said Mr. Narayan. “If you use organic reactants, you can make certain types of new polymers that are quite different and have other properties plastics don’t have.”

That could give new life to the 13 billion plastic bottles that are thrown away each year in the United States.

“Plastic bottles can be converted to higher value plastics like body panels for cars,” said Mr. Narayan.

Organic catalysts could create a new class of biodegradable plastics to replace those that are difficult to recycle, such as polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, used in a variety of consumer products, including plastic beverage bottles.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In The New York Times on Monday, I write about IBM’s new smart grid lab in Beijing that will develop technology for the global market:

In another sign of China’s emergence as an epicenter of green technology, I.B.M. has opened a lab in Beijing to develop smart grid software for the global market.

“We’re developing solutions for around the world but we’re looking to China to see how the pieces integrate across the value chain,” said Brad Gammons, I.B.M.’s vice president for sales and distribution for the company’s Energy and Utilities division.

Mr. Gammons himself has relocated to Beijing, where he will continue to oversee worldwide sales for the unit.

“The company made a decision that China is a very, very important growth market and to put some executives here,” he said in a telephone interview from Beijing. He said I.B.M. expects the new Energy & Utilities Solutions Lab to drive $400 million in revenue over the next four years.

It is operating out of I.B.M.’s 5,000-person China Development Laboratory. The new lab is working with the State Grid Corporation of China on pilot projects to integrate wind and solar power with the grid, manage grid operations and increase the efficiency of nuclear power plants.

The Chinese government has budgeted $7.3 billion for smart grid-related energy projects this year, according to ZPryme Research & Consulting, a firm based in Austin, Tex.

Mr. Gammons said electric cars will be one focus of I.B.M.’s new lab.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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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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