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A Silicon Valley engineer is on a quest to green the world by making buildings smarter

Tue, 17 Jan 2017 14:31:13 -0500

Seven years ago, Mark Chung took a three-week vacation. When he came home, his electricity bill looked more than a little off. “Normally my energy bill is about $100 to $130,” says Chung. “This one was like $560.” So he called his local utility and said there’s something wrong with my meter. “And they’re like, ‘Oh, no, we’ve had these smart meters rolled out for a few years now. Everything is fine.’” His response: “Well, can you tell where I spent the electricity?’” The utility’s response: “On your house.” Not the most helpful answer. But Chung was trained as an electrical engineer at Stanford University. So what does he do? He goes to Home Depot. “I bought these kilowatt meters that they had on the shelves, they’re like $10. We hacked them to be Wifi enabled, then I plugged them throughout my house. And I couldn’t find anything that was an anomaly,” says Chung.   So, Chung took things to the next level and built an electrical map to monitor every appliance, every piece of machinery, every light in his house. And he found the problem: the pool pump had some broken rotor bars.  “Even though it was running at the same schedule that it was before, it was just consuming a lot more energy to do the same amount of work.” Problem solved. And business idea hatched. If Chung could map his house, why couldn’t he scale things up and map a factory, a hospital, or a hotel that uses A LOT of energy. So, Chung left his day job and launched a company he named Verdigris. NASA was one of his early backers. Verdigris founder and CEO Mark Chung shows off the latest version of his energy-sensing system. It’s called “Einstein.”  Credit: Verdigris  Chung had high aspirations in creating Verdigris: combatting climate change. To head off the worst impacts of climate change, to keep the temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels, scientists warn that we need to cut global carbon emissions by 40 to 70 percent by mid-century. There are two basic ways to get there: Replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. And/or, we can use a lot less energy. Verdigris focuses on that second solution by making buildings smarter. Which leads us back to that pool pump: How did Chung isolate that as the electricity sucking source? How does Verdigris map every electron that a building uses? In Scotland, about 15 miles west of Edinburgh in the city of Livingston, the company Jabil is using the Verdigris system in its 125,000-square-foot factory. Jabil is a worldwide company that builds electronics parts, the stuff that goes inside your brand-name radios, TV and computers. (Jabil is also an investor in Verdigris.)  The factory’s facilities supervisor, Robbie Graham, opens an electrical panel box with dozens of wires. Each wire has a small clamp around it that can measure the flow of current around 8,000 times a second. Sensors can measure the electrical output of machinery at the Jabil factory in Scotland.  Credit: Aaron Lubarsky Graham knows which wire goes to which piece of machinery. For example, pointing at one he says, “These wires go to my air handling units on the roof.” On the roof, Neil O’Loughlin, Jabil’s facilities lead in Scotland, picks up the tour. The roof is littered with massive fans. The clamps around the wires downstairs collect information about these fans — how much electricity each of these units use — then sends that data to the cloud. O’Loughlin says before Verdigris was installed, “We would have no idea, whereas now, you’re able to actually see which one is maybe being driven harder than the rest, and why. So we start to ask questions. Verdigris is never going to hand you the answer. It’s part of a detective story, to some degree, where you got to go and take the clues that’s it gives you, and you have to go and find out what that is.” In this case, the system quickly identified an industrial-sized air conditioner that was using too much pow[...]

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Trump removes 'climate change' from the White House website. History tells us regulatory change will take longer.

Fri, 20 Jan 2017 12:53:22 -0500

Shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States, all mentions of the phrase “climate change” disappeared from the official White House website,  The site now outlines Trump’s “America First Energy Plan,” which promises to roll back clean water rules and efforts to fight climate change. The plan echoes pledges Trump made during his campaign and after his election. In the proposal, Trump commits to eliminating the Climate Action Plan, a sweeping set of policies aimed at cutting carbon pollution, inlcuding a number of President Barack Obama's executive actions. Trump also promises to eliminate the Waters of the United States rule, a technical document that defines which waterways come under the jurisdiction of federal regulators under the Clean Water Act. The 2015 rule is intended to protect smaller streams, tributaries and wetlands from development and has drawn sharp criticism from Republican lawmakers and from farm and manufacturing interests. During his campaign, Trump also promised to lift moratoriums on coal leasing on federal lands and said he would “cancel” the 2015 UN climate change agreement. Other rules thought to be at risk at the beginning of Trump’s tenure include the Bureau of Land Management Methane Rule and the Streams Protection Act. Those recent acts could be quickly overturned using the Congressional Review Act, which allows lawmakers to rescind a regulation within 60 legislative days of publication. Many other rules, however, could take years to reverse. “The announcements may come fast and furious, but actually rolling back regulations takes some time,” says Jody Freeman, head of the environmental law program at Harvard Law School and a former Obama energy and climate change advisor. For example, Trump could announce that he would withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on Day One, but executing that withdrawal requires a legal process that takes four years. Likewise, rescinding the Clean Power Plan that limits CO2 emissions could also require a lengthy legal process. (The legality of the rule is currently being challenged in court.)   History as a guide If history is a guide, sweeping environmental reforms could be blocked if they overreach the public’s appetite for deregulation. President Ronald Reagan campaigned on a famously anti-regulatory platform. Once he took office he sought to severely cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget. He appointed Anne Gorsuch as the agency’s administrator. Gorsuch was opposed to the agency’s mission from the beginning, Freeman says, and hired like-minded staffers. Gorsuch eventually was held in contempt of Congress. “[Gorsuch] wound up creating such a backlash that Reagan was forced to ask her to resign,” Freeman says. “So I think this is some indication of how an administration can really go too far and overreach, and if they do, that there can be a real public outcry.” One check on Reagan's power was a Democratic Congress, which held hearings to publicize the administration’s rollback of environmental protections.   “I think the brakes in the system aren’t quite there this time, and so I think people are a little more concerned as a result,” Freeman says. George W. Bush also came into office on a somewhat anti-regulatory platform, and attempted to block an arsenic standard for drinking water that had been approved in the final days of the Clinton administration. “That resulted in such an outcry that in the end, they wound up adopting the very same standard that Clinton had put in place,” Freeman says. Many Republican presidents have been good for the environment. Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency. George H.W. Bush, Freeman says “wound up being one of our greatest environmental presidents.” He pushed for a stronger Clean Air Act to control acid rain and negotiated a key UN framework for international action on climate change. “We have seen Republicans take the lead on e[...]

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Donald Trump sees the future in coal. China sees the future in renewables. Who’s making the safer bet?

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 16:43:34 -0500

In Donald Trump's vision of America, some parts of the country's future look a lot like its past. Exhibit A: his promise to revive the flagging coal industry. Meanwhile the world's other economic giant, China, which now uses more coal than any other country on Earth, is moving sharply in the opposite direction. China recently announced another huge new investment in renewable energy — $360 billion by 2020, which the Chinese government says will also create 13 million new jobs. So which is the better bet on where the jobs and the energy of the future will come from? We put the question to Mary Kay Magistad, The World's longtime China correspondent and now the host of its podcast "Whose Century Is It?" “If you look at what people are saying across the energy industry, the future is in renewables, and natural gas and so forth,” Magistad says. “The cost of renewables has come down so far so fast that in some places it's actually competitive with coal, and even beats coal. And the cost will probably continue to drop.” Magistad says some of that cost reduction has actually come as a result of subsidies the Chinese government has been giving its solar companies to help figure out how to produce solar cells more cheaply. So the big new push announced this month is hardly a brand new effort. There’s “been a push to increase renewable energy in China, I would say for the past decade,” Magistad says. And it’s brought big results. “In the first half of [2016], the solar industry increased production by 300 percent. It was actually more than all countries in the world except for the US, Germany and Japan. Ever. Solar and wind are increasing much faster in China in terms of capacity compared to coal use, and in fact by some estimates coal use in China peaked a couple of years ago and is starting to go down.” Related: As Trump takes office, India remains a question mark in international climate action As an exclamation point on that trend, China also announced this week that it has canceled 104 planned new coal-fired power plants. And the trend is playing out more broadly. Coal use is in sharp decline in the US, mostly due not to government regulations but the glut in cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. And while coal use is still rising globally, the US Energy Information Agency says the industrial-age fuel is now the world’s slowest-growing energy source. So with much of the world rethinking its commitment to coal, and China, the world’s biggest country and its second-largest economy, going ever bigger into renewables, is coal even a good bet for Trump and the US when it comes to putting people back to work? “In the United States there aren’t even a million jobs in renewable energy” right now, Magistad says. “In China there about double that number already, and the Chinese government is saying it thinks it can get 13 million jobs in this sector by 2020. “You could say, ‘Oh but the Chinese population is much bigger, China's energy needs are much greater.’ But generally, the United States could be assuming a leadership position in this industry and exporting” to fill the booming global demand. Instead, Magistad says, China is using green energy, and Trump’s rhetoric extolling the virtues of fossil fuels and dismissing the reality and risks climate change, as another stepping stone in its push for global leadership. “China very much sees its place in the century as being a prominent leader, if not the prominent leader, in the world. [Now,] with some of the policies that Donald Trump seems to be embracing, it gives China a chance to shine." “If I were [Chinese President] Xi Jinping, I would look at Donald Trump up to this point as the gift that keeps on giving. ... Xi Jinping has taken a lot of flack for trying to strong-arm China's way into being a predominant player in the region, [but] over the last few weeks he's been able to come off looking very statesman-like — in terms of free trade, when he was at [...]

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As Trump takes office, India remains a question mark in international climate action

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 15:33:24 -0500

Following Donald Trump’s election to the White House, world leaders rushed to rally around the Paris climate change agreement, indicating they would stick to their pledges to cut carbon even if the US withdrew from the international framework. China quickly began to position itself as the new world leader in global climate policy.   "Proactively taking action against climate change will improve China's international image and allow it to occupy the moral high ground," Zou Ji, deputy director of the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and a senior Chinese negotiator, told Reuters during the United Nations climate summit in Marrakesh last fall.   Related: Donald Trump sees the future in coal. China sees the future in renewables. Who’s making the safer bet? The European Union also voiced its commitment to the hard-fought agreement. Absent from the public chorus of support was India, a silence that worried experts. “India came to the Paris process later, their commitment seems to be weaker ... so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if India, looking at the United States, itself also backed off,” says David Victor, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who has been watching international climate negotiations for decades. India is the world’s fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter and is rapidly developing: The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pursued a massive effort to bring reliable electricity to the roughly 300 million Indians who don’t have it, and a growing middle class will boost energy demand even further in upcoming decades. Right now, India is pursuing a “more of everything” energy policy, building small-scale solar installations in rural villages but also looking to increase the amount of power derived from coal, which currently provides about half of the country’s electricity. Whether India leans more toward renewables or coal will have a huge impact on the country’s emissions, which in turn will contribute to global warming and sea-level rise. Most watchers are optimistic that India will meet its current commitments under the Paris agreement: to increase the share of non-fossil-fuel energy sources to 40 percent by 2030. “If you read India’s commitment document, it says it is doing things in its own interest and in the interest of its people,” says Lydia Powell, an energy analyst at New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation. “I have a feeling that it will not substantially change its position because most of the commitments are things that would probably happen anyway.” There’s evidence Powell’s optimism, buoyed by finances that make sense for renewable energy in India, is warranted. Last month, the Indian energy ministry projected the country will actually exceed its Paris commitment by meeting nearly 60 percent of its citizens’ energy needs with non-fossil-fuel sources by 2027. And it indicated the possibility that no new coal-fired power stations would be needed to meet energy needs until at least that year.   But that’s just the beginning. “None of the major emerging economies have made pledges that are much beyond, or at all beyond, what they were going to do anyway,” Victor says. The initial pledges made under the Paris agreement, if they are all met, would allow for more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit of global warming. The international community has agreed that it needs to keep warming “well below” 3.5 degrees to prevent the worst effects of climate change. “What matters in the Paris process is [that countries] make an initial pledge and then they do more and ratchet it down over time,” Victor says. “My concern is not that the current pledges are weak, it’s that if you don’t have countries like India seriously engaged, the process of deepening in confidence-building can’t really proceed as is required.” Deep cuts will require countries like India to invest heavily in new carbon-capture technologies for coal-fired [...]

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Barbie typewriter toys had a secret ability to encrypt messages — but they didn't think girls would care

Fri, 13 Jan 2017 09:09:20 -0500

In 1998, Slovenian toy company Mehano designed a line of children’s electronic typewriter toys with the ability to write secret messages. Eventually, the company licensed the typewriter to another company that had something altogether different in mind for the toys. Slathered in pink, it was soon headed to market to appeal "to girls." Can you guess what brand was behind the refresh? (Credit: Sophie Chou / PRI) That’s right — none other than Barbie herself. But there’s a catch — the secret messaging feature was completely pinkwashed — never revealed as a capability of the new Barbie typewriter. Because girls would never be interested in writing secret messages — right? The four encryption modes — each featuring a simple alphabet substitution cipher (or 1-to-1 encoding) — were left out of Mattel's instruction manuals and advertisements. Mattel is Barbie’s parent company. Even the latest model, produced in 2015, omitted this novel feature. You can try out the original typewriter’s encoding scheme in our app below. It’s an all-too-common marketing assumption that continues to plague the “pink aisle” of girls’ toys. They often fail to encourage little girls to grow up to be engineers and scientists. A December report by the Institution of Engineering and Technology showed that boys were almost three times more likely to receive a STEM-themed toy for Christmas. “STEM toys are by default for boys,” says Meryl Alper, professor of communication studies at Northeastern University. “We have to add ‘for girls.’” With over a decade of experience working in children’s media at Northeastern, Sesame Workshop and Nick Jr., Alper emphasizes the importance of representation and diversity in characters and storylines. Playtime matters. “Children use the objects in their world to think through ideas,” she says. “If you have objects that signal to a kid that it’s not for them, either explicit or implicit, you reduce that opportunity to learn through manipulation.” Yet the line between what is deemed appropriate for girls and what is deemed appropriate for boys remains a blurry one. Locked diaries and sewing kits may stock the shelves of the pink aisle, but cryptography and soldering are deemed less marketable. frameborder="0" height="460" scrolling="no" src="" width="100%"> In recent years, Mattel and other toy companies have made efforts to keep up with changing conceptions of gender and identity. Still, the path is not always straightforward. A 2010 children’s book, titled “Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer” resulted in public outcry when it featured a storyline where, ultimately, boys step in to get the job done. Self-described feminist and geek Casey Fiesler countered by “remixing” her own version. A copyright law researcher and information science professor at the University of Colorado, she wanted to give Barbie a more empowering storyline. Her version went viral, along with other complaints, and eventually Mattel issued a public apology and pulled it from bookstores and online. Still, Fiesler wonders about the role of Barbie and other brands’ attempts to appeal to girls. “Does it always have to be the case that we make science girly to make girls like it?” she asks. [...]

Barbie dolls are seen in a window of a toy store.

Gleb Garanich / Reuters

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Think antibiotic-resistant 'super-bugs' are only a distant threat? Think again.

Tue, 17 Jan 2017 16:03:12 -0500

If it sometimes seems like the idea of antibiotic resistance, though unsettling, is more theoretical than real, please read on. Public health officials from Nevada are reporting on a case of a woman who died in Reno in September from an incurable infection. Testing showed the superbug that had spread throughout her system could fend off 26 different antibiotics. “It was tested against everything that’s available in the United States … and was not effective,” said Dr. Alexander Kallen, a medical officer in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s division of health care quality promotion. Although this isn’t the first time someone in the US has been infected with pan-resistant bacteria, at this point, it is not common. It is, however, alarming. “I think this is the harbinger of future badness to come,” said Dr. James Johnson, a professor of infectious diseases medicine at the University of Minnesota and a specialist at the Minnesota VA Medical Center. Other scientists are saying this case is yet another sign that researchers and governments need to take antibiotic resistance seriously. It was reported Thursday in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a journal published by the CDC. The authors of the report note this case underscores the need for hospitals to ask incoming patients about foreign travel and also about whether they had recently been hospitalized elsewhere. Credit: Reuters  The case involved a woman who had spent considerable time in India, where multi-drug-resistant bacteria are more common than they are in the US. She had broken her right femur — the big bone in the thigh — while in India a couple of years back. She later developed a bone infection in her femur and her hip and was hospitalized a number of times in India in the two years that followed. Her last admission to a hospital in India was in June of last year. The unnamed woman — described as a resident of Washoe County who was in her 70s — went into hospital in Reno for care in mid-August, where it was discovered she was infected with what is called a CRE — carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae. That’s a general name to describe bacteria that commonly live in the gut that have developed resistance to the class of antibiotics called carbapenems — an important last-line of defense used when other antibiotics fail. CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden has called CREs “nightmare bacteria” because of the danger they pose for spreading antibiotic resistance. In the woman’s case, the specific bacteria attacking her was called Klebsiella pneumoniae, a bug that often causes of urinary tract infections. Testing at the hospital showed resistance to 14 drugs — all the drug options the hospital had, said Lei Chen, a senior epidemiologist with Washoe County Health District and an author of the report. “It was my first time to see a [resistance] pattern in our area,” she said. A sample was sent to the CDC in Atlanta for further testing, which revealed that nothing available to US doctors would have cured this infection. Kallen admitted people in this field experience a sinking feeling when they’re faced with a superbug like this one. “I think it’s concerning. We have relied for so long on just newer and newer antibiotics. But obviously the bugs can often [develop resistance] faster than we can make new ones,” he said. Credit: Reuters Doctors and scientists who track the spread of antibiotic resistance — the rapidly proliferating swarm superbugs — see this case as a big red flag. “If we’re waiting for some sort of major signal that we need to attack this internationally, we need an aggressive program, both domestically and internationally to attack this problem, here’s one more signal that we need to do that,” said Lance Price, who heads the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University. Th[...]

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Victims of online romance scams, there's a place you can go for help

Wed, 11 Jan 2017 16:20:16 -0500

This is a detective story that started off as a love story. And it involves a nearly trillion-dollar-a-year industry — romance scams. According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, online romance scams account for higher financial losses than any other internet-based crime. It’s not uncommon for victims to lose tens of thousands of dollars. Five years ago, an Austrian woman decided to give online dating a try. (She asked that I only use her internet handle, Firefly, for reasons that will soon become clear.) It had been about a year since Firefly got divorced. “My friends advised me to go online and try to find someone to share my life with,” she says via Skype. Firefly spent a lot of time on her profile, thinking she needed to be entirely honest and open if she hoped to really connect with someone. Within 10 minutes of posting, she had a handful of virtual suitors — and one stood out. He suggested they ditch the dating site and switch to email. Her new boyfriend had a complicated backstory: He was an American soldier serving in Iraq, and he had a son living in Ghana. But she had revealed to her new online beau how much she wanted children, and soon his 14-year-old son was emailing her. (I know; red flag.) “He even called me, calling me ‘Mom’ a few times,” she says. Then, after about a week of heavy correspondence, Firefly’s boyfriend announced his son’s birthday was coming up, and suggested she send him a gift. So she wired a few hundred euros to Ghana. It was pretty gratifying, she says; the son was ecstatic. But soon after, she learned that the son had had an accident at school and needed help paying hospital bills — urgently. “Of course I was sending money again to Western Union,” Firefly says. Scarcely had the boy recovered when he was struck by cholera, which required another expensive course of treatment. Within the space of about three months, Firefly wired the equivalent of about $1,000 to Ghana. She decided to do a little research online and discovered that, yes, cholera is a problem in Ghana, and yes, treating it can be expensive — except that Ghana actually has a free cholera treatment program. “In that moment, something was not sounding right to me,” Firefly says. She finally realized she’d been scammed. But she also realized something else: There were probably a lot of people, just like her, being victimized on dating sites, and Firefly was determined to do something about it. One day, scrolling through an online forum, she met Wayne Mays (not his real name) from the UK. Mays is a romance scam-baiter, which means he hangs out on dating sites, posing as a naive love-seeker, with the goal of unmasking — and exhausting — confidence men and women. “You pretend to be a victim and string them along, try to get them to waste as much of their time, money, and resources as you can,” he says.   Mays would post any identifying details that scammers used online — from the email addresses they created to the back stories they recycled — to make them searchable. It’s a form of low-grade, guerrilla cyberwarfare. But for Mays, who co-hosts a scam-baiting podcast, “it’s also like improve comedy.” Most people aren’t turning to him for comic relief, though. Five years ago, he and a small team of international volunteers, including Firefly, created Scam Survivors, a hotline and information resource center for victims of online scams — mostly, as it turns out, romance scams. The site tends to be a last resort for victims who are afraid to go to the police, or to tell anyone in their life what’s happened, because they’re ashamed. “These people are not stupid at all. They're just trusting,” Mays says. “With the romance scam, it could be someone who's been married for a number of years. Their partner has either died or they've divorced and they've just started looking at online dating. So t[...]

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Tillerson hedges on climate science, but supports Paris agreement

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 15:30:24 -0500

Rex Tillerson told the Senate panel considering his nomination for secretary of state that he supported the United States remaining in the Paris climate agreement and that he has made his views known to Donald Trump.

The position, repeated several times during a day-long hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, puts him at odds with the president-elect's campaign vow to "cancel" the landmark global accord.

But Tillerson acknowledged that this advice would have to be squared with Trump's own promises to put "America first" in the new administration's energy policy, which heavily favors the unrestricted use of fossil fuels.

"We're better served by being at that table than leaving the table," Tillerson said in response to a question from Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, noting that more than 190 countries had come together to tackle climate change. 

Tillerson, chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil until two weeks ago, did not mention the accord or climate change in his nine-page prepared introductory remarks. But again and again in his wide-ranging testimony, he was pressed by Democrats to articulate his views on the climate crisis, because as secretary of state he would have to lead the country's climate diplomacy.

Though Tillerson cautiously backed the Paris agreement, mainly to ensure other countries are doing their fair share of climate action, on other climate change issues he was more doubtful. He pushed back against the growing scientific evidence that links global warming to severe weather events, habitat loss and spread of certain diseases. He also declined to answer questions about Exxon's ambitious in-house climate research in the 1970s and why it pivoted to funding climate denial campaigns afterward, telling senators to ask the company.

By Neela Banerjee, John H. Cushman Jr. and Marianne Lavelle for Inside Climate News. To read the rest of their article, click here

Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive officer of ExxonMobil, testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be U.S. secretary of state in Washington, U.S. January 11, 2017. 

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters 

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