Research competition invites students to solve real-world energy problems

Reviewing residential electricity data in Pecan Street’s Pike Powers Lab.

By Maddie Venn, clean energy communications intern

Recently, it seems like everyone is competing to become the next big thing in the energy sector. Whether it’s electric vehicles, smart grid technology, or energy storage, innovation continues to pop up left and right as we work to build a smarter, cleaner electric grid.

If innovation and technology spark your competitive drive, here’s your opportunity to dive in and join a community of engaged researchers working to solve some of our most pressing energy concerns. Pecan Street is hosting its second student research competition, inviting the best and the brightest to use the organization’s extensive collection of energy-use data to help solve real-world problems.

Open to all full-time graduate and undergraduate students and with prizes totaling $10,000, the competition aims to connect Pecan Street’s well-established dataset with the innovation of young minds. As the grid gets smarter, data can help people play a more active role in how their electricity is made, moved, and used. Competitions like Pecan Street’s will get us there faster.

What is Pecan Street?

Founded in Austin, Texas with the goal of better understanding the behavior of energy users, Pecan Street’s research network provides the most granular understanding of electricity and water use on the planet. The organization is collecting massive amounts of anonymized data in real time from thousands of houses across the nation, providing a near-constant stream of data on water and energy use.

Research competition invites students to solve real-world energy problems
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The data collected at these different sites is compiled and made available to university researchers around the world interested in finding out more about the way people interact with the grid. With this information, the possibilities for discovery and innovation are seemingly endless, presenting both a challenge and an opportunity to all interested researchers.

The competition

To help spark some of these new and innovative ideas, competition organizers have provided a list of potential research topics that may be of interest to students, including:

  • understanding the breakdown of energy use within the home,
  • characterizing what impact young children have on grid flexibility, and
  • understanding how charging electric vehicles at different times impacts the grid.

Each suggested topic can serve as a jumping off point for research that can have significant real world implications. While it is recommended that researchers utilize these suggested topics, it is not required.

In a previous competition, the student who won first prize used Pecan Street’s dataset to ease the pressure that residential air conditioning puts on the grid. Using a centralized control, the winner created a system to adjust thermostats and distribute use throughout the day. This cuts pollution by reducing the need for costly, dirty “peaker” plants, which operate only a few hours each year when demand is high (like on a hot summer afternoon when many people simultaneously crank up the AC).

In a previous competition, the student who won first prize used Pecan Street’s dataset to ease the pressure that residential air conditioning puts on the grid. 

The opportunity for discovery with this next round of competition grows even larger as Pecan Street expands its testbed and data collection.


Visit Pecan Street’s website for more information and suggested research topics. All proposals must be submitted to by January 30, 2018 to be considered. Four finalists will be selected and flown to Austin to present their research at Pecan Street’s annual research conference, with the chance to win big and get involved with this up-and-coming research community.

Smart grid technology is already transforming our energy system, and there has never been a better time to get involved in this fast-growing industry. The future of the national grid may be impacted by the work that comes out of this competition, and you could be influential in the next wave of energy innovation.

This post originally appeared on Energy Exchange blog.

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The energy sector needs to adapt to millennials—not vice versa

By EDF Blogs

By Elizabeth Villedrouin, Communications Intern, Clean Energy and Kristen Moore, Research Intern, Clean Energy

As interns at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), we’ve been tapped as resident experts on surviving on college budgets, social media, and all things Millennial.  Research tells us Millennials are the largest living generation. So, as Clean Energy interns this summer, we’ve learned that gives us much power to change the game for the energy sector. But in unexpected ways.

As young people, we’re working at EDF because we want to promote systemic, market-based solutions and new energy technologies that shift our country toward a clean energy future and away from our fossil fuel past (did someone say solar paint?).

We have high standards for our energy future, and our priorities differ from our parents’ (for example, millennials tend to value careers [PDF] over religious life). And although we’re the thriftiest generation, 64 percent of us are actually willing to pay more on our electric bill if it’s generated by clean energy.

Shifting the economy

Although a generation that has been slow to invest, millennials are now buying stocks in companies that further the clean energy economy. Among millennials’ favorite stocks are companies like Apple and Facebook who declared their commitment to rely on 100 percent renewable energy through RE100. Others include Amazon, which launched four wind and solar farms in 2016 and publicly supported the Clean Power Plan; Tesla, which started selling solar panels this year; and Nvidia, which plans to reduce emissions by 15 percent per employee by 2020 and only operates in buildings that comply with LEED standards.

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We like to put our money where our values are. Our generation is the most likely to pay more for responsibly made products and roughly 80 percent of us want to work for companies that care about their impacts. Nearly 400,000 millennials are currently working in green jobs.

Energy-efficient lifestyles

For a variety of economic and social factors, our lifestyles tend to be more energy efficient. Many of us are choosing buses and bikes over cars. And we’re more likely to purchase new, energy-saving products and services like Nest learning thermostats than people over 55, according to research by Accenture.

“Energy providers must take these and other insights about these groups to heart, to unlock value, because consumers’ preferences and behaviors are rapidly changing the market landscape,” said Tony Masella, managing director of Accenture Energy Consumer Services.

Appeal to our drive for progress and prosperity based on clean, equitable energy solutions.

Push-back against fossil fuels

Students from hundreds of colleges and universities have led successful movements urging their administrative leaders to divest from fossil fuels. Educational institutions make up 14 percent of the approximate $5.42 trillion value of institutions around the world that have divested from the fossil fuel industry. 600 colleges and universities are already members of the Climate Leadership Network, a network of institutions committed to action plans to achieve carbon-neutrality in the coming future. But, for some students, these commitments mean nothing if their schools are still buying stock in fossil fuels, even if the financial impact to the industry is slim.

Our advice: Don’t sleep on us

In order to thrive, today’s energy sector should engage its youngest customers – which happen to be America’s most tech-savvy, environmentally conscious generation. Attempts to garner support for fossil fuel would be like Sony trying to sell us Walkmans –futile. Appeal to our drive for progress and prosperity based on clean, equitable energy solutions.  More and more, we are the ones making important energy decisions –as building managers, homeowners, engineers, utility regulators, and, one day, the next head of the Department of Energy.


Photo source: wundervisuals

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Toxicologists endorsing Dourson’s nomination are birds of a feather

By Richard Denison

Richard Denison, a Lead Senior Scientist.

[My colleagues Dr. Jennifer McPartland, Lindsay McCormick, Ryan O’Connell, and Dr. Maricel Maffini assisted in the research described in this post.]

[Use this link to see all of our posts on Dourson.]

When the Trump Administration announced its intention to nominate Michael Dourson to head the office at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) charged with implementing the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), EPA issued a news release titled “Widespread Praise for Dr. Michael Dourson.”  The release cited four toxicologists:  Samuel M. Cohen, Jay I. Goodman, Gio Batta Gori and Kendall B. Wallace.

Far from representing a “widespread” set of endorsers, it turns out these four and Dourson constitute an exceedingly close-knit group.  

My last post focused on Dourson’s incredibly high rate of publishing his papers in the journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology that is known for its close ties to the tobacco and chemical industries.  It so happens that this journal is also a key thread connecting Dourson to at least three of his endorsers:

  • Dourson and Cohen both serve on the journal’s editorial board;
  • Goodman is an associate editor of the journal; and
  • Gori is its editor-in-chief.

What else can be said about these toxicologists who are endorsing Dourson?

Dr. Gori has a decades-long history of paid work for the tobacco industry.  For details, see these sources:

Drs. Cohen, Goodman and Wallace, like Dourson, have for many years been paid consultants to a large range of companies and trade associations.  For example:

  • Based on a PubMed search, Cohen has co-authored papers published over just the past six years that were funded by the Arsenic Science Task Force and the Organic Arsenic Products Task Force, the American Chemistry Council, Sumitomo Chemical Company, a Permethrin Data Group operating under the auspices of the Consumer Specialty Products Association, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, the International Organization of Flavor Industries, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson, and Boehringer Ingelheim.
  • Goodman has received grant money over many years from RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, and has also done paid work for the American Chemistry Council and Pharmacia. A PubMed search found recent papers he co-authored funded by Syngenta Crop Protection, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, The Dow Chemical Company, and the American Chemistry Council.
  • Wallace has done extensive work on diacetyl (the artificial popcorn butter flavoring linked to severe lung damage in workers) paid for by ConAgra. This included a paper, “Safe exposure level for diacetyl” (later retracted).  Based on a PubMed search, he has done work on perfluorinated substances over a number of years for 3M Company.

All four of the toxicologists endorsing Dourson have also worked together.  They are co-authors on two highly controversial 2016 papers that attack the role of science linking chemical exposures and human health effects in risk assessment and regulation, and the identification and regulation of endocrine-disrupting chemicals.  See here and here.  The latter paper is published in … you guessed it, the industry’s go-to journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology.

Like I said, it’s a very close-knit group of heavily conflicted scientists that are providing that “widespread praise” for Dourson’s nomination.

As I noted earlier about Dourson, these industry consultants have every right to make their living however they choose.  And the tobacco and chemical industries have every right to hire whomever they want.  But Dourson’s nomination is for a position that is supposed to serve the public’s interest, not those of the chemical industry.  It simply must be asked:  Who really stands to benefit if he’s confirmed?  The endorsements of Dourson by this group of wholly like-minded individuals who have the same deep conflicts as Dourson himself shouldn’t count for much.


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El Paso Electric should protect the city’s water and let solar power shine

By Kate Zerrenner

Resiliency is a hot button word right now. Ten years ago, advocates focused on “adaptation,” or the idea of adapting to the coming effects of climate change. Now the focus is on “resiliency,” the ability to bounce forward – not backward – when something disastrous happens.

For El Paso, a city on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, resilience is critical. A huge city in the middle of the desert with an average rainfall around 8 inches per year, El Paso needs to be hardy, especially when it comes to water.

El Paso Water Utility (EPWU) is on top of the problem, enacting programs and initiatives to ensure El Paso’s water resiliency. Unfortunately, El Paso Electric – the city’s electric utility – is not doing everything it can to use less water.

To protect the city’s water, the utility should fully embrace no-water solar PV energy and not discourage customers from using solar power at their homes and businesses.

History of conservation

El Paso has been a leader in water conservation for decades. For example, the city cut water demand by more than 40 percent – from a high of 225 gallons per person per day (gcpd) in the 1970s to 132 gcpd in 2013, seven years ahead of its target.

How did El Paso do it? It changed the way city residents make decisions about and pay for water. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the city unveiled a 50-year water resource plan, changed prices to conserve water, and started aggressive water conservation programs.

Further, El Paso reuses about 15 percent of its water, much higher than the statewide average of 1 percent (although some cities, like San Antonio, are higher).

After recently coming out of a severe, multi-year drought (along with the rest of the state), El Paso understands that if it doesn’t effectively manage its water, it won’t have a city to run at all.

Solar’s role

But there’s something missing in El Paso’s water equation: the connection between making electricity and water. While El Paso’s water utility is protecting this precious resource, the electric utility isn’t.

El Paso is a very sunny city, averaging about 302 days of sunshine per year, which means a lot of solar energy potential. And solar PV uses no water to create electricity, as opposed to very thirsty traditional power resources like coal and natural gas.

Moreover, findings from an Environmental Defense Fund project with the Texas National Guard found that National Guard installations in El Paso are at the top for both water stress and solar potential. Clearly, there is significant opportunity to ease water stress by increasing solar power in the area.

One El Paso

Despite the opportunity to help save El Paso’s water by using solar power, El Paso Electric is blocking the growth of customer-owned solar power. The utility’s new proposal hits homes and small businesses that use solar panels with a higher monthly charge.

As is the case with most cities and utilities, energy and water in El Paso tend to be viewed separately. Electric utilities are inclined to plan as though they will always have enough water and water utilities do the same with electricity. But if careful planning for water and energy is not undertaken, there won’t be enough of either to go around.

El Paso should be taking every step needed to strengthen its water resilience, including making wise energy decisions. A resilient city facilitates coordination of resources and plans strategically for wise use throughout the entire system.

This post originally appeared on our Energy Exchange blog.

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Four opportunities to strengthen Canada’s draft methane regulations

By Drew Nelson

Canada’s move to reduce methane emissions from its oil and gas sector passed another milestone this week, as the deadline passed for stakeholders to submit comments about the proposed regulations to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC). EDF issued extensive comments commending ECCC for moving forward, but urging decision makers to address some critical weaknesses of the draft rules.

EDF is not alone in this thinking. A group of investors from Canada, US, and Europe, which together represent $89 billion CAD in investments, released a synopsis of their comments. Many leading Canadian NGOs, including the David Suzuki Foundation, the Pembina Institute, Environmental Defence (no relation to this EDF), Equiterre, and the Blue Green Alliance, also issued a press release urging ECCC to improve and strengthen the draft regulations.

As Canada’s effort to regulate this potent greenhouse pollutant continues, EDF is focused on ensuring Canada takes advantage of low-cost reduction opportunities, which have the added benefit of improving air quality, eliminating waste, stimulating innovation, and creating jobs. For that to happen, the country’s draft methane regulations need to be strengthened.

Here are four ways that can happen:

  1. Fix the Timeline

In the days before the draft regulations were released in May, the oil and gas industry successfully lobbied government officials to delay implementation of the regulations by as much as three years. This would result in the release of an estimated 55 million additional tons of methane compared to the original timelines. Delaying key provisions for five years is excessive and inconsistent with how – for example – US jurisdictions have regulated methane. We urged ECCC to reset the timetable so the regulations begin in 2019 (not 2020) and full implementation occurs by 2022 (not 2023).

  1. Require Quarterly Leak Inspections

Because methane is invisible and odorless, and many leaks are intermittent, it’s nearly impossible to find methane leaks unless you’re looking for them. Canada’s proposal calls for leak inspections only three times a year; we urged EEEC to implement inspections four times a year instead. This may seem like a minor detail, but the effectiveness of any detection requirement is better with greater frequency. In fact, the International Energy Agency has said “tracking and fixing these [methane] leaks – which can be short-lived and intermittent – requires a systematic effort of measurement, reporting and monitoring, backed up by effective regulation. More regular inspections mean better odds of catching serious but intermittent problems. Across the United States, regulatory best practice is four times a year. Canada’s rules should follow this industry best practice.

  1. Reduce Venting

Unlike leaks, venting is the intentional release of methane, and ECCC has proposed regulations that will significantly reduce venting across Canada. That’s great, but the proposed rules include exceptions and loopholes, and still allow for venting. In recognition of the availability of technologies that eliminate venting, leading U.S. jurisdictions increasingly prohibit venting. Strengthening the venting provisions will ensure that Canada is in line with regulatory best practices on venting.

  1. Ensure “equivalent” really means equivalent

Canadian law allows provinces to develop their own regulations and have those regulations take place instead of federal regulations if there are “provisions that are equivalent to a regulation.”  We urged ECCC to ensure that any equivalency agreement show that equal or greater reductions are achieved. If a province’s rules don’t achieve the reductions the federal rules would, they shouldn’t be considered “equivalent.”

These are simple, commonsense steps that are squarely consistent with the goals and intent of the policy, which can make implementation faster, cheap and more effective. We hope the Canadian government will consider these opportunities as they review public comments. Final regulations are expected late this year or early next.

Image source: Flickr user davebloggs007

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The Trump Administration outlines its plans for EPA – and it’s bad news for our health

By Martha Roberts

Across Republican and Democratic administrations alike, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has regularly identified and shared with the public a detailed list of the agency’s upcoming priority policy actions – safeguards that will help protect the air we breathe and the water we drink, assure the safety of chemicals in everyday products, and provide for proper handling of hazardous wastes.

But the Trump Administration unveiled its first such blueprint last week – and it takes dead aim at fundamental public health and environmental safeguards that are essential to protecting our communities and families. It’s an agenda that would lead to more pollution, fewer common sense safeguards, and more asthma attacks and premature deaths in communities across the country.

Here are a few key targets in the Trump Administration’s plan to dismantle vital public health and environmental safeguards:

Imperiled: the Clean Power Plan. The blueprint reiterates the Trump Administration’s intention to withdraw the Clean Power Plan. The agenda indicates no intent to provide a replacement program to limit dangerous climate pollution from existing power plants – one of America’s largest sources of this harmful pollution – despite the growing urgency of climate disruption, and despite three separate Supreme Court decisions underscoring EPA’s duty to protect Americans from this harmful pollution. The agenda’s justification for rolling back the Clean Power Plan rests on faulty legal reasoning that has been forcefully rejected by legal experts and is at odds with EPA’s past practices.

  • What’s at stake? The Clean Power Plan is one of the most significant actions America has ever taken to combat climate change. EPA estimates that when fully implemented, it would prevent up to 3,600 premature deaths and up to 90,000 asthma attacks per year.

Imperiled: limits on carbon pollution from new power plants. The Trump Administration also underscored its plans to end existing limits on carbon pollution from new power plants – an important complement to the Clean Power Plan. Yet again, this announcement includes no intention for a replacement safeguard.

  • What would be the result? New fossil fuel-fired power plants, which have lifespans in the decades, and emit staggering quantities of carbon pollution over their lifetimes, could be built with needlessly outdated, lower performing technologies.

Imperiled: pollution controls for oil and gas facilities. The Trump Administration’s plan also commits EPA to review pollution limits on new oil and gas facilities. These limits include measures for leak detection and repair – measures that save otherwise wasted natural gas, reduce pollution in surrounding communities, and create well-paying jobs. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has already taken steps to suspend these protections. His actions meant that more than 18,000 natural gas wells across America were no longer required to fix pollution leaks. While Administrator Pruitt’s suspension was recently found unlawful by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the threat remains that EPA may fully revoke these important safeguards.

Imperiled: protections for Americans from smog. The Trump Administration’s plan also highlights Administrator Pruitt’s decision to suspend his duty to identify the regions that are failing to meet national air quality standards for ground-level ozone, commonly known as smog. Smog is a dangerous air pollutant linked to premature deaths, asthma attacks, lower birth weight in infants, and serious heart and lung diseases. EPA analysis indicates that Administrator Pruitt’s announced one-year suspension alone will lead to as many as 230,000 more asthma attacks among children.

Imperiled: protections for downwind communities from interstate air pollution. EPA has a long-standing responsibility to ensure that upwind facilities are good neighbors and do not discharge pollution that imperils public health in downwind states. The Trump Administration’s blueprint recognizes that there are six separate petitions pending before EPA in which downwind states are seeking the agency’s assistance to protect themselves against pollution drifting into their communities from dozens of upwind power plants. It is crucial that EPA carry out this responsibility to ensure that all Americans can breathe easier – but the agency is currently failing to act, and its blueprint provides no commitment to act despite clear legal responsibility under our nation’s clean air laws.

Changes to underlying EPA transparency protections

At the same time that the Trump Administration’s blueprint outlines a host of rollbacks for important pollution controls, it also identifies that the administration will be moving ahead with changes to underlying, fundamental EPA procedures and operational practices.

Here’s just one example:

  • Under review: EPA’s open records requirements. Under the Freedom of Information Act, EPA is required to share public records with the public. The Trump Administration’s agenda notes that EPA will be updating its own policies for implementation of the agency’s requirements under this vital transparency law. During Administrator Pruitt’s tenure as Oklahoma Attorney General, he had an extensive, troubling record of stonewalling these types of open records requests.

These changes are just as important to watch carefully, to ensure essential transparency and rigor in the administration’s conduct. So far, Administrator Pruitt has given ample reason for concern: shutting the public out of key decisions; refusing to share how he spends his time and with whom he meets; and a long history of intertwined relationships with the industries he’s supposed to oversee.

Are more rollbacks possible? President Trump and Administrator Pruitt signal yes

The above summary is hardly complete. The Trump Administration’s blueprint also highlights a host of harmful potential rollbacks for important protections for water, hazardous waste, and beyond.

Moreover, this blueprint may not reflect the full scope of future attacks. In other contexts, President Trump and Administrator Pruitt have taken aim at even more EPA protections against air pollution. For instance, President Trump has signaled his willingness to reconsider standards for emissions from cars and trucks – despite their record of saving consumers money, driving auto innovation, and reducing pollution. And Administrator Pruitt’s EPA has moved to pause litigation over mercury protections while the agency evaluates its position. (In the past, Pruitt even expressed doubt about mercury pollution’s well-established harmful impacts on brain development in kids.)

These risks are critical. But together we can turn back these threats, ensure healthier lives for all Americans, address dangerous climate pollution, and grow our clean energy economy.

Here at EDF we will be working to stop these rollbacks. Please join us, and take action! Click here to let EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt know that you support America’s public health and environmental protections.

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