Almost three weeks after the notorious West Virginia chemical spill at the Freedom Industries storage facility contaminated the entire water supply over a nine-county area, you’d expect the crisis to be winding down, especially since authorities declared the water safe to drink days ago. However, it just keeps getting worse. In the latest developments, the amount spilled was revised upwards, water quality issues are still ongoing, and West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has written to the Federal Emergency Management Agency pleading for long-term help.
We noted before that the West Virginia chemical spill provides an unfortunate textbook case for what not to do in private sector hazard mitigation and disaster planning. The spill originated from private property, and it affected a privately-owned water supply system, the owner of which, West Virginia American Water, was also woefully unprepared for potential hazards to its Elk River intakes.
Combined with gaping holes in government oversight, the result was a perfect storm of corporate irresponsibility.
Back in 2012 we noted that Philadelphia was embarking on a landmark 25-year, $2 billion urban watershed project designed to transform its outdated stormwater management system into a national showcase for new green infrastructure. Now the city is ready for the next step, a newly announced $5 million urban watershed evaluation initiative that will use Philadelphia as the pilot area.
The whole project is fascinating for any number of reasons, but the overarching narrative is the transformation of urban areas from generators of waste and pollution into dynamic systems that return resources with little or no waste.
The West Virginia chemical spill has already faded out of the national spotlight but local communities are still feeling the aftereffects. The spill contaminated the water supply of a private water company serving a nine-county area starting on January 9, making the water unfit for any purpose but flushing toilets. Three hundred thousand people have been affected along with businesses, hospitals, schools, and other institutions.
State and water company officials began declaring the water safe to use and drink in some areas last week, but shortly afterward they had to issue an advisory for pregnant women. Since then, the “safe” designation has expanded to cover all of the affected areas, but the West Virginia Gazette reports that hospital admissions for chemical-related symptoms have skyrocketed, indicating that the declaration was premature.
That’s just one of the latest developments as West Virginia continues to deal with the aftermath of a major public health crisis, including a new report that the initial chemical identified in the spill may not have been the only one.
A textbook example of what not to do
GreenBiz has just come out with its seventh annual State of Green Business Report, which pulls no punches in terms of bad news. The raw numbers are nothing to shout about, some important metrics are flat or even declining. However, GreenBiz sees plenty of cause for optimism in several significant areas that are not quantified.
In particular, with the recent West Virginia chemical spill still fresh in our minds, we’d like to take a closer look at over-arching trend expressed by GreenBiz:
…a growing recognition among the public that “sustainability” isn’t just about preserving icebergs, rainforests and charismatic megafauna. It is also about public health, community well-being, food security, affordable housing and alleviating poverty.
A major CBS 60 Minutes story on the clean tech sector has been picked apart mercilessly for playing fast and loose with the facts about public and private investment in new energy technology since it first aired on January 5. If you’ve been following along you may already be very familiar with most of the rebuttals, but it’s still well worth reading an open letter to CBS written by venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, which he posted on the Khosla Ventures website on January 14.
Aside from rebutting the distortions, misrepresentations and errors in the 60 Minutes story point by point, Khosla’s letter provides a concise rundown of the the state of clean tech investment today, and you’ll be hearing a lot more about clean tech investment in the coming months.
The iconic U.S. firm Deere & Company (more familiarly known as John Deere) has been emerging as a player in the U.S. agriculture industry’s transition to clean technology, and it looks like the company is going to be venturing way off the farm on its next endeavor. John Deere has just been named as one of 18 private sector partners in the new public-private Manufacturing Innovation Institute, launched just yesterday as part of President Obama’s initiatives to boost the U.S. manufacturing sector into next-generation technologies.
The companies will partner with an academic team spearheaded by North Carolina State University in a $70 million effort that also draws in five federal agencies as part of a larger, $200 million initiative establishing a total of three such innovation hubs, announced earlier this year. Along with NASA and the National Science Foundation, the partnership includes the departments of Commerce, Defense and Energy.
At stake is a competitive chunk at the huge potential global market for next-generation electronic chips and related devices that achieve significant gains in both power and energy efficiency.
A chemical spill in West Virginia last week cut off access to safe tap water across nine counties, and although it involved a chemical used by the coal industry, state officials have been pushing back strongly against suggestions by reporters that the disaster had anything to do with the state’s dominant industry — coal.
However, the fact is that the chemical industry is also very important to the West Virginia economy, and it is heavily entwined with the coal industry, which requires a substantial quantity of chemicals at various stages before it gets from the mine to its point of use.
Clearly, the spill — which affected 300,000 people and shut down restaurants, schools, hospitals and hundreds of other businesses and institutions — is closely related to the state’s dependency on the coal industry, despite protestations to the contrary.
That, in turn, undermines the coal industry’s insistent positioning of coal as a “clean” fuel. While new technology has reduced pollutants from burning coal, everything around the burn point is still status quo, from destructive mining to fly ash disposal.
With that scenario in mind, let’s take a look at how the disaster is playing out in the local paper, the Charleston Gazette (highly recommended: follow reporter Ken Ward, Jr. on Twitter, @Kenwardjr).
Energy independence is a tricky concept, but New York Governor Andrew Cuomo shed some light on the subject in his State of the State address on January 8. He made it clear that the next few years are going to be boom times for the New York solar industry. You won’t find it in the speech as delivered live, but turn to page 70 of the printed text and you will see the outlines of a big, fat, juicy package of initiatives to stimulate the community solar market.
Together, the programs are called Community Solar NY. That’s an important step forward in New York State’s progress toward a more diversified fuel mix, especially in its vast upstate region where the development of more local, distributed solar generating capacity would help to relieve the expense of building new transmission lines.
Speaking of transmission, though Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the downstate New York City area is well documented, the Governor also noted the increased frequency of intense storms battering the upstate region. The development of more distributed solar generating capacity would help to harden the upstate grid against weather related distruptions.
The Associated Press is out with a major report on recent pollution complaints related to gas and oil fracking in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Texas. The figures on Pennsylvania fracking are particularly interesting in light of last week’s decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The court held that the state’s new uniform zoning plan for fracking violated a part of the state constitution because it nullified any attempts by local authorities to establish more stringent requirements.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has appealed the ruling, but its case could be seriously undermined by a renewed focus on evidence that fracking imposes risks and hazards on local communities.
Environmental groups and local communities in Pennsylvania scored a huge victory on December 20, when the state’s Supreme Court ruled against the establishment of a statewide zoning plan for oil and gas fracking. The anti-fracking ruling affirmed an earlier decision by a lower court to strike down the parts of Act 13, a state law passed just last year, in February 2012.
The state’s Department of Environmental Protection had characterized Act 13 as a positive development that imposed “stronger environmental standards” on fracking, an unconventional drilling method that involves pumping a chemical brine deep underground. However, Act 13 also imposed uniform statewide standards for Pennsylvania fracking that overrode any attempt by local communities to regulate the practice more strictly.
In striking down those parts of Act 13 creating a statewide zoning plan, the Supreme Court also adopted an unexpected argument that could have an enormous impact on future energy development in Pennsylvania.
Consumer surveys are beginning to show that products manufactured with wind power get high marks, and potentially more customers. That’s good news for startup brands, but you don’t have to be new on the market to reap good value out of wind power. Case in point is SC Johnson, which has been around since 1886 while growing iconic household brands including Windex, Glade, Pledge, Scrubbing Bubbles, Off!, and Raid — all now manufactured with wind power thanks to two 415-foot turbines at the company’s Waxdale plant.
SC Johnson has been putting a lot of eggs in the wind power basket. The company greets visitors to its home page with a top-of-the-page “NOW MADE WITH WIND!” proclamation, and it has just come out with a splashy announcement of the one-year anniversary of the operation of its two massive wind turbines.
All of this makes us wonder, why are legislators in SC Johnson’s home state of Wisconsin still trying to obstruct future wind development in the state?
Energy and feed costs have been identified as two of the key issues facing the future growth of aquaculture – a technology which must grow if the world’s human population is going to increase without exhausting natural fisheries. That’s where companies like OriginOil come in. We’ve been following OriginOil’s energy-wise progress in the algae biofuel arena, and given the connection between algae and fish feed, it was only a matter of time before the company applied its technology to sustainable fish farming.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at OriginOil’s new showcase for aquaculture at the Salton Sea in California, which is due for a public launch on Wednesday, December 18.
The electric vehicle-to-grid (V2G) movement is picking up steam. The latest example comes from Honda, which announced that it is participating in a major V2G demonstration project spearheaded by the University of Delaware. If the project bears fruit, which it is likely to do, it will provide yet another reason for commercial fleets to transition out of petroleum products and into electric vehicles: it will give them an opportunity to make money.
We’ve already noted a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study showing that conversion from diesel to electric trucks could save fleet owners a substantial amount of money, once the potential for V2G earnings is factored in. Now let’s see what UDel and Honda are up to.
LEGO Group is gazing into a future of strong sales growth worldwide, especially in Asia, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a consequent growth in its greenhouse gas emissions. The iconic toy company has just announced a new partnership with the World Wildlife Foundation Climate Savers initiative for businesses. The new agreement goes beyond LEGO’s in-house operations to embrace a comprehensive partnership all along its supply chain.
That’s an important development because according to LEGO, only about 10 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions are related directly to manufacturing products within the factory walls. The other 90 percent comes from the supply and distribution chains, as well as end-of-life impacts. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the main goals of the plan.
One clear advantage of electric vehicles over conventional cars is the simplicity and longevity of the electric drive system. That’s a big plus for fleet managers in terms of maintenance, repair and replacement costs, and now a research team from Stanford University and the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory has extended the savings by engineering a self-healing element into the EV battery itself.
Inspired by biomimicry, the team has come up with a new polymer (a form of plastic) that can be coated onto the electrode in a lithium ion battery. As with natural systems like the human body, which rely on self healing to survive, the flexible coating is designed to act autonomously and heal the cracks that develop on electrodes during the battery lifecycle.
A biomimicry tweak for EV batteries
In one of those happy accidents of science, the immediate motivator for the team’s self-healing battery project was the need to develop a long-lasting, flexible “electronic skin” for robots and prosthetic devices.
As it turned out, the polymer coating also tackles a huge problem in lithium ion (Li-ion) energy storage, which is the loss of capacity over time as the battery runs through charging and discharging cycles.