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Featured Articles

Will Huge Batteries Save Us From Power Blackouts?

Publication: National Geographic   Date: April 29, 2015   View Article

Glacier, Washington, is the final stop for coffee and treats on the Mt. Baker Highway, which ends at a ski area holding the world record for most snowfall in a season. The small town in the woods might seem an unlikely spot for a $9.6 million warehouse to store excess energy, but it might prove the perfect testing ground.

The area’s winter storms routinely knock out power to Glacier, home to about 250 residents year-round and more than 1,000 on busy weekends. Come 2016, its outages should be less frequent thanks to a shipping container humming with lithium-ion batteries hooked up to a substation that will provide up to 18 hours of backup electricity.

The two-megawatt system will allow Puget Sound Energy to study broader applications for grid-scale energy storage such as using it to provide power during peak-hour demand and to maintain minute-by-minute grid balance.

Billions of Dollars of Real Estate at Risk to Wildfire, Experts Say

Publication: NBC News   Date: April 24, 2015   View Article

Seeking the beauty of nature, Americans just can’t stop building houses among trees that will, sooner or later, go up in flames.

“It is truly a when, not if,” Sean McVay, a homeowner in Evergreen, Colorado, said of the threat that a wildfire will tear through his wooded community in the Rocky Mountain foothills west of Denver. But that doesn’t mean he plans to move. McVay bought the house last year. Like most homeowners there, he’s an outdoor enthusiast.

“Being part of the wooded environment is a big draw,” he said.

McVay is not alone. More than 1.1 million properties in the western United States were identified as highly vulnerable to wildfire in a 2015 risk report from analytics firm CoreLogic. The cost to rebuild those homes would total $269 billion, according to the report, which was written to inform the insurance industry and, perhaps, sway policymakers to encourage fire-safe construction in areas susceptible to wildfires.

Many in U.S. Face Another Dry Year as World Water Day Arrives

Publication: NBC News   Date: March 22, 2015   View Article

It’s a thirsty nation.

From California to the Pacific Northwest to swaths of Texas and Oklahoma, farmers, ranchers and just about anybody with a lawn or a pool are bracing for what’s expected to be another dry year.

Historically low snowpack in the mountains along the West Coast has heightened concern about drought. Ski areas from California to Washington have cried uncle after months of trying to keep slopes open. And water resource managers are busy making plans to deal with low river flows. For many in the U.S., World Water Day on March 22 is that in name only.

Hungry Planet: Can Big Data Help Feed 9 Billion Humans?

Publication: NBC News   Date: November 17, 2014   View Article

With a population set to hit 9 billion human beings by 2050, the world needs to grow more food —without cutting down forests and jungles, which are the climate’s huge lungs.

The solution, according to one soil management scientist, is Big Data.

Kenneth Cassman, an agronomist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, recently unveiled a new interactive mapping tool that shows in fine-grain detail where higher crop yields are possible on current arable land.

“By some estimates, 20 to 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are associated with agriculture and of that a large portion is due to conversion of natural systems like rainforests or grassland savannahs to crop production, agriculture,” Cassman told NBC News at a conference in suburban Seattle.

Who’s Driving That Tanker? New Polar Code For Sailing Emerges

Publication: NBC News   Date: August 23, 2014   View Article

A quarter-century after a drunk captain and his fatigued crew ran the Exxon Valdez onto a reef where it spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, new rules are taking shape to prevent a similar disaster in the rapidly opening Arctic Ocean.

There, melting sea ice is opening a new frontier for cruise and cargo ships as well as prospectors for oil, gas, and hard rock minerals.

A key goal of the new rules is to ensure people skilled in navigating ice-strewn seas are aboard every vessel in Arctic and Antarctic waters, according to Lawson Brigham, a distinguished professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who has participated in the development of the so-called Polar Code for more than 20 years.

Collapse of Civilizations Seen Through Key Beer Ingredient: Study

Publication: NBC News   Date: August 11, 2014   View Article

Beer, scientists have long argued, helped give rise to civilization in an arc of land that sweeps from modern-day Egypt to the border between Iraq and Iran. Today, chemical analysis of barley grains, one of beer’s key ingredients, is bolstering research into climate change’s role in the collapse of ancient societies.

“There has been a longtime debate about the relationship between climate and its changes and the development and in some cases demise of cultures,” Frank Hole, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and a study co-author, explained to NBC News. “The research that we did is attempting to pinpoint this more directly.”

To do this, he and colleagues collected samples of modern and ancient barley grains throughout the Near East and analyzed them to tease out the impact on agriculture of so-called mega-droughts over the past 10,000 years. The existence of these droughts has been inferred from sources such as pollen and microscopic animals in cores of soil pulled from lake and ocean bottoms.

Home Solar Panels Make Gains in America, Even in Rainy Seattle

Publication: NBC News   Date: August 4, 2014   View Article

Going solar is expensive, but a confluence of plummeting equipment prices, rising utility bills, new financing schemes and a raft of federal, state, and local incentives are encouraging homeowners across America to take the plunge and put photovoltaic panels on their roofs, even in rainy Seattle.

In 2013, 792 megawatts of solar capacity was installed on homes. That figure is expected to increase 61 percent in 2014 and another 53 percent in 2015, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a Washington-based trade group. A megawatt of solar capacity is typically enough to power 200 average U.S. homes, though the number varies depending on factors such as available sunlight and panel orientation.

On a recent drizzly July morning here, homeowner Brian Palmer gestured out the window to the falling rain. There, workers in slickers from a local solar energy company prepared to put photovoltaic panels on his roof, one of the hundreds of such installations that occur daily across the country.

© 2008-2010 Collected Writings By John Roach