AI for Good: Energy, Water, Food

A series looking at how the energy, food and water sectors are using AI and machine learning to try to reduce consumption, cut costs and make the use of resources more efficient. It’s not kindness, it’s economics.

Medium ($)

How Artificial Intelligence Is Making Energy Smarter and Cleaner

Artificial intelligence is powering more and more of the things we interact with every day, from our gadgets to our cars. But it’s also playing a growing role in how society’s undergirding resources — energy, food, and water — are sourced, secured, and delivered. (Read the full story here.)

How AI Could Smarten Up Our Water System

It’s easy to take water for granted. Turn on the tap, and you’ll receive clean, life-giving water (with some very notable exceptions). But for a myriad of reasons, ranging from our changing climate to aging infrastructure to growing demands for water, all aspects of the water cycle — how it is collected, cleaned, distributed (and repeat) — are overdue for a technological makeover. (Read the full story here.)

Why Farmers Are Turning to AI to Boost Yields

Environmental author Wendell Berry might shudder at this comparison, but farmers are like data scientists. To make decisions, they ferret out meaning from a sea of data.

That data just happens to be related to environmental conditions like temperature, rainfall, salinity, nitrogen, pests, commodity prices, and other variables. (Read the full story here.)

Sea-level rise, but no mention of ‘climate change’

A film maker documents sea-level rise risks facing Virginia’s Hampton Roads region, and avoids the baggage of the terms ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming.’

Yale Climate Connections

In Hampton Roads, a moniker for both a massive natural harbor in southeast Virginia and a metropolitan region comprising 17 small cities and municipalities, tidal flooding is as common as Chesapeake Bay blue crabs.

Oh yes. Lest one forget, Hampton Roads is also home to the world’s largest Naval base.

Low-lying roads flood so often that drivers use depth markers positioned on highway shoulders to gauge whether they’ll be able to pass through.

Why is this happening? Sea level rise. And why are the seas rising? Well, let’s not talk about that.

Shortsighted!, you might say. Or worse. But to film director Roger Sorkin, talking about sea-level rise – and more importantly, how to adapt to it and build more resilient, forward-thinking communities – without talking about climate change is a well-considered strategy.

Read the full story here.

Guardian: Peter Metcalf, Patagonia take on Utah officials over public land rights

stroypicUtah, a state rich in epic landscapes and national parks, is becoming ground zero for a fight between the $646bn outdoor industry and state lawmakers over public land management.

At a trade show for outdoor clothing and gear makers in Salt Lake City this week, two prominent figures from the industry called on their peers to move the semi-annual event out of the state unless Utah leaders stop supporting efforts by Republicans in Congress to transfer or sell federal land to states. Utah governor Gary Herbert was also called out for challenging a federal law that allowed President Obama to create the new, 1.4m-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah last month.

“Utah’s political leadership has unleashed an all-out assault against Utah’s protected public lands and Utah’s newest monument,” wrote Peter Metcalf, a long time Utah resident who founded climbing and ski gear maker Black Diamond, in an opinion piece published in the Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday to coincide with the start of the trade show. He noted that the trade show brings more than $40m to the city in direct spending each year, while the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) estimates the figure can reach $80m annually.

The next day, Yvon Chouinard, founder of clothier Patagonia, said in an open letter to Herbert that…

Read full story here.

Outside: Why Is It So Hard to Get Answers About Deepwater Horizon?

A new book and movie explore the causes, legacy, and drama of the oil spill. But neither probe deeply enough.

Outside

deepwater-horizon-movie_hIt seemed inevitable that the deadly 2010 explosion of the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform, which caused millions of gallons of oil to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, would eventually get the Hollywood treatment. It’s also unsurprising that a former Department of Justice lawyer would pen an account of the spill that is cast in nearly as dramatic fashion—“the story that neither BP nor the federal government wants heard,” according to its publisher, the Brookings Institute Press. Both were released this fall, within weeks of each other.

Unfortunately, neither the movie, Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, nor the book, Daniel Jacobs’ BP Blowout: Inside the Gulf Oil Disaster, do justice to one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. Where a dramatized account could at least convey the human side of the disaster to a wider audience, Deepwater Horizon feels more like an action movie with a side helping of workplace and familial drama. And where a nonfiction account could bring fresh facts and clarity, BP Blowout fails to deliver many new insights. That well from hell, as those who labored on the rig called it, still elicits more questions than answers.

Read the full story here.

 

Guardian: My (Imagined) Trip Off the Meatless Wagon

The Impossible Burger is making a big impression on foodies, chefs and vegetarians, but can it find its way onto the McDonald’s menu?

The Guardian

if-pattiesI hold the burger with both hands and bring it, somewhat trepidatiously, to my mouth. I commit myself to at least one bite. As I close my eyes and chew, some long dormant receptor in my mind comes alive and for a split second it’s 1986 again and I am eating a hamburger at a family cookout in Chicago.

This is the first time I’ve eaten meat in 30 years – except, this is not meat.

I open my eyes and remember that I am standing in a wine bar in San Francisco’s Soma neighborhood, surrounded by other reporters, all of us sampling our first Impossible Foods plant-based burger, which is making its West Coast debut. I’m far from the only person convinced that this mixture of potato and wheat, coconut fat, Japanese yam, vegetable broth, xanthan gum, sugars and amino acids and a key protein called leghemoglobin is a dead ringer for the dead animal version of a hamburger. Three renowned chefs – Chris Cosentino, Traci Des Jardins and Tal Ronnen – are also convinced, and are here to announce that they are bringing the Impossible Burger to some of their respective eateries in California. (Chef David Chang became the first in the country to serve it this summer at New York City’s Momofuku Nishi.)

Read the full story here.

Wall Street Journal: Bringing Smart Technology to Old Factories Can Be Industrial-Size Challenge

Installing networked sensors to monitor performance and prevent problems is costly, and every case is different.

Wall Street Journal

It’s a tantalizing vision: Bright and shiny factories where robotic arms and conveyors never break down and production goals are never missed—all thanks to internet-connected sensors that monitor machine health and respond to the slightest supply or logistics hiccup.FT-AA173_DIGITA_J_20160602102334

But for the vast majority of factories today, the reality could hardly be more different. They’re still running on decades-old machinery that isn’t outfitted with sensors.

Getting from where we are now to the factory of the future can be done—has been done—but it isn’t as easy as strapping the industrial equivalent of a Fitbit onto each piece of old equipment in a plant and calling it a day. It’s costly. There are no ready-made solutions—each case is different. And it requires a deep understanding of each machine’s functions and the metrics to be tracked; trial and error to determine the right sensor to use and the best place to put it; and a plan for collecting, filtering and making sense of the collected data.

“Many shop floors are covered in machines from 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago,” says Isaac Brown, an analyst at Lux Research. “Plugging them into the internet is totally not trivial—it’s not like plugging in a PC.”

Read the full story here.

Outside: Terry Tempest Williams’s Dark Love Letter to the National Parks

The acclaimed nature writer’s portraits of 12 parks go beyond perfect postcard tributes, and the resulting book couldn’t have come at a better time.

Outside

I had expected Terry Tempest Williams’ latest book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks (MacMillan), would be a string of tributes to the sacred spaces within our 100-year-old park system. And that’s what Williams says she expected to write. But by the time I’ve reached Big Bend—the midpoint in the dozen parks that comprise a dozen chapters—it’s clear that this book isn’t about our romanticized images of the parks.hour-of-land-big-bend_h

The Hour of Land is about National Parks as battlegrounds. What it means to hold land in trust, who defines its best uses, the tangibility of park boundaries, and whether and how we will reconcile our history with our present and future, are all tested on these lands.

Williams, 60, is an acclaimed nature writer recognized for her lyrical, conservation-minded prose. And there are plenty of passages in which Williams so deftly conveys the magic of a place that you will ache to be there and experience it directly. But she is also an increasingly outspoken activist, and spends most of her words exploring conflicts in and around our parks, as well as some of her internal battles. Even on the system’s 100th birthday, this approach feels more fitting than another book exalting their beauty.

Fossil fuel development undergirds Williams’ family, and it is a thread that emerges when she confronts the resources the landscape holds. In the book, Williams visits Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota with her father, who spent his career laying natural gas pipeline across the West. They tour the park with its then superintendent, Valerie Naylor (she retired in 2014), who describes her Sisyphean efforts to keep fracking pads and attendant gas flares from marring the park’s viewshed.

Williams’ dad is curious about, but then dismayed by, the Bakken shale oil development that envelops the park, which has been criticized for dangerous working conditions. “There’s no dignity here,” he laments, looking on as men sleep in truck cabs and storage units. His own son, Williams’ brother, had done so the previous winter. Williams herself recently purchased a 10-year lease on hundreds of acres of land owned by the Bureau of Land Management in her native Utah. While the parcels, bordering parkland, are earmarked for oil and gas development, she made the purchase with an eye toward protecting them from exploitation.

Read the full story here.

Can you put a price on nature? A Californian nonprofit thinks it can

Chemical giant Dow is testing new software that crunches data to help assign monetary value to the natural world and calculate the environmental impact of its work

The Guardian

Everyone agrees that nature has value. It clothes, feeds and shelters us – and provides a spectacular playground. Yet we have never put a value on everything nature offers.5095

Now, environmental and sustainable business consultants want to change that by forcing corporate leaders to take stock of the economic impact of how they manage natural resources. By accounting for this so-called natural capital, the advocates hope to see more businesses adopting practices that are both good for the environment and long term profitability, especially as climate change will further deplete natural resources, causing their values to climb and increase the cost of running business. In a 1997 paper in Nature that first introduced the natural capital concept, the 13 researchers involved pegged the Earth’s worth at $33tn. A 2014 revision raised that figure to $134tn.

Assigning values to nature isn’t just good for business – the public and wildlife benefit too. Take the example of the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau, which is nearly wholly dependent on tourism. Revenue from scuba diving to view sharks alone accounts for 8% of the country’s gross domestic product. That means the small number of sharks in the prime dive areas are worth a great deal. In 2011, researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science calculated that a shark’s natural capital to the tourism industry is a remarkable $1.9m over its lifetime. The lifetime value of the sharks if they were part of a legal fishery would be less than 1% of that figure.

Read the full story here.

‘Tools for Grassroots Activism’ Is Patagonia’s Guide to Saving the World

Yvon Chouinard thinks environmental activists could learn a thing or two from businesspeople, even if—as he puts it—businesspeople are sleazeballs.

Outside

Outdoor recreation can be a gateway drug to environmental activism. It certainly was for Patagonia founder and co-owner Yvon Chouinard, as he writes in the introduction to Tools for Grassroots Activism, a book the adventure clothier published in February. In the early 1970s, a threat to Chouinard’s beloved Ventura County surf break mobilized him to join with others and take a stand against a development project. This, he writes, was when he “came to realize the power of an individual to effect major change.”patagonia-tools-for-grassroots-activists_h

Sure, Chouinard found success in Ventura—the development plan was defeated (the company he’d headquartered in Ventura not long before did pretty well for itself, too). But the reality is that for every victory, environmentalists lose big battles. This chagrins Chouinard, who believes many environmental organizations falter because they do not recognize what they are: a business selling a product. Just like he is. (Even though, he readily admits, many businesspeople are sleazeballs.) Instead of fleece jackets and aspirational lifestyles, environmental non-government organizations (NGOs) sell a vision of a wrong being righted, of clean air and water, of ecosystems in balance. Sure, they are profoundly different types of products, but selling them requires common tools: planning, strategy, marketing, organizing, technology, and money.

Framed that way, it doesn’t seem so outlandish that a massive clothing company would be qualified to write a guidebook for saving the environment. Still, I wanted to learn whether this how-to book could meet its lofty goal.

Read the full story here.

A Norwegian company’s plan to make ice cubes out of glaciers unsettles some

A tiny coastal town in Norway is about to become home to an ambitious enterprise that will turn a diminishing glacier into a high-end cocktail cooler. Is there cause for alarm?

The Guardian
April 4, 2015

Logo-GuardianGlomfjord, Norway, is a coastal town of 1,120 residents just north of the Arctic Circle. For decades, it was home to a chemical plant that produced ammonia. After it was shuttered in 1993, two Norwegian solar power entrepreneurs saw an opportunity, and Renewable Energy Corporation began making solar panels in the former ammonia plant in 1997. Sadly, lower manufacturing costs in Asia forced REC to move its domestic production overseas, and it closed its doors in Glomfjord three years ago.

Now, a startup company called Svaice is occupying that old factory, and aims to make a very low-tech product – ice cubes – from an abundant (yet diminishing) local resource: glaciers.

Svartisen glacier Photo: Julian G. Albert/Flickr
Svartisen glacier Photo: Julian G. Albert/Flickr

Specifically, the ice would come from nearby Vestre Svartisen, the second-largest glacier in Norway. Since Svaice, led by local businessman Geir Olsen, announced its business plan last year, it has attracted both interest among local government officials eager to support a new local employer, as well as incredulity among people who cannot fathom commoditizing chunks of a glacier that is already receding rapidly.

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