Thursday, November 21, 2013

Red and Gold and Green All Over

The Fall issue of Berkeley Engineer is out, and that means so is my story on the construction of the new 49ers stadium in Santa Clara, otherwise known as Levi's Stadium, which I had a lot of fun touring for a few hours earlier this year. Beyond being the largest and most expensive stadium in the Bay Area, it's also a technological and structural marvel -- and the host of Super Bowl L in 2016.

Most important to yours truly, however, it's also a green stadium. It includes the NFL's first green roof, multiple solar arrays, low-flow water fixtures, a geothermal heat pump, and much more: features that should help it become the NFL's first stadium to be rated LEED Gold, and the first to achieve a LEED certification of any sort upon construction.

My story addresses all this and more, plus the starring role that Berkeley Engineering alums have played in design and construction to date. The project is slated for completion by next August, in time for the 2014-15 season. Football fans, Silicon Valley techies, and armchair architects have much to look forward to.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Profile of CPUC Commissioner Carla Peterman

Finally the first of my latest batch of stories makes it out into the world: a profile of CPUC Commissioner Carla Peterman. I spoke with her way back when I was working on my last cover story for the Express, a feature on the role of energy storage in bolstering our grid and supporting the continued integration of solar and wind. Peterman played a starring role in helping California adopt the nation's first energy-storage mandate, which was formally adopted last month. In this profile for Breakthroughs, the alumni magazine of UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources, I explain what she did to make it happen and take a stab at uncovering her motivation -- in other words, what inspires her passion for responsible energy policy. This includes her support of not just storage and renewables but also public subsidy. In addition to her high-profile CPUC post, the 35-year-old has an impressive resume and a bright future.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Deal

Been pretty quiet over here the past month or so. What's the deal? Well, this: I'm on part-time paternity leave, working on some long-term projects, and doing some real estate writing for the San Francisco Examiner (which is fun and interesting but doesn't belong on this site).

Plus in September I spent a fascinating week brushing up on the latest in ocean science -- and laying the foundation for plenty of future stories -- at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Ocean Science Journalism Fellowship in Woods Hole, MA (on Cape Cod). What an honor to be selected, and a wonderful experience to boot.

For what it's worth, I also have a few science/enviro stories and features that have been in the works for a couple months but that are due out shortly -- one on cooking and indoor air quality, one on the human health effects of environmental noise exposure, one on the engineering behind the new 49ers stadium in Santa Clara. Links will be posted here as soon as they're available. So, you know, stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The sexy universe of energy storage ... and what it means for you

My latest feature for the East Bay Express explores the importance of energy storage to meeting California's long-term renewable-energy goals, and how the state is beginning to pursue admittedly nascent technologies now -- in part through a first-in-the-nation storage mandate now making its way through the CPUC.

Like our famous RPS goal of 33% renewables by 2020, a storage mandate would direct the state's big utilities to purchase a set amount of energy storage capacity by predetermined deadlines. Storage will in turn improve the reliability of our state's grid as well enable us to shift toward a carbon-free energy grid by the middle of the century. And if we want to meet our greenhouse gas reduction goals, that's exactly how to do it. Storage is integral to it all. Many of the technologies are still in development and remain quite costly, but getting out ahead of the game will allow us to be ready when we truly need them.

In my story I speak with some of the state's heavy hitters in the renewable energy and storage world, including Nancy Skinner, Carla Peterman, and Dan Kammen, as well as the head guy in the DOE's storage group, Imre Gyuk. They all have the same message. The story ends with a nice quote from Gyuk about the importance of the United States' leadership in this field. Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Guardian UK reprint

Just discovered that my recent piece on incineration and recycling for Yale 360 was reprinted by The Guardian the very next day. This is my first appearance in The Guardian, although, oddly enough, another was just set in the works for Guardian Sustainable Business. Feeling (right) British this month.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Zero Waste vs. Waste-to-Energy: European debate heats up

I've written many times in the past about recycling and also waste incineration, but never together. The two are a natural fit, but the topic gets mighty complex mighty fast when you get down to the nitty gritty of making sense of it all, particularly as far as separating hype from fact when it comes to evaluating incineration's impact on recycling, and vice versa. Throw in a discussion of the zero waste movement and its unflattering take on waste incineration -- based both on principle and on logic -- and the issue gets thornier. Mix in a fair consideration of incineration's benefits -- and they certainly exist -- plus a brief discussion of the history of waste-to-energy and a broad overview of solid waste management throughout Europe today, and you get a downright unwieldy story. BUT, thanks for the help of my editor Fen Montaigne at Yale Environment 360, we wielded the unwieldy and wrangled the unwrangle-able (quite the wordsmith, eth?). What we ended up with was, I think, a compelling, clear, balanced, explanatory tale of waste, energy, and sustainability. Read it here.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Good Soil Test Is Hard to Find

My first piece for Modern Farmer, a new magazine (as of this spring) devoted to the new food movement, is on soil testing, a topic I first explored in an award-winning East Bay Express feature on urban farming and soil contaminants. What I wrote about for Modern Farmer, in short: public soil testing is in decline, and even though the answers it offers are imperfect, it can be an important tool for urban farmers and backyard gardeners hoping to better understand their soil and their crops. Read it here! (It runs online only, not in print.) Hopefully there will be more pieces to come for this interesting new publication.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Nanosilver: Unique powers, unique risks

Maybe you've never heard of nanosilver before. I wouldn't blame you. Maybe you've heard of it but have no idea what it is. Wouldn't blame you. But it's neat stuff. I won't get into all the details here -- I refer you to my new feature in Environmental Health Perspectives for that -- but basically it's a tiny silver compound (1-100 nanometers across) with incredibly powerful antimicrobial qualities. It can kill almost anything, including lethal hospital superbugs that have developed resistance to lesser antimicrobials.
In recent years we've developed technologies to impregnate nanosilver in all sorts of materials, including fabrics, plastics, and various coatings -- which has led to nanosilver being incorporated into everything from dryers to baby bottles to workout clothing to wheelchairs.
But alas. Every upside has a downside: potential health risks, environmental risks, and perhaps most serious of all, the risk that bugs will develop resistance to nanosilver, too, our most powerful weapon against them.
And that's what my story in EHP is about. Read it here.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Green Building in Marin and the Quest for Zero

Kentfield resident Kiki Goshay wanted to build a green home. But not just any green home. She wanted it to sustain itself, or to come as close as possible, by taking advantage of all that the site had to offer: sun, shade, rain, natural beauty. The home turned out beautifully (see the accompanying photos), but its energy use wasn't net-zero and its water use, at least initially, was pretty massive. So Goshay set about tweaking the home to reduce its energy and water use, increase efficiency, and move ever closer to net-zero. After two years she realized it wasn't going to happen, but by then her second home, situated right next door, was already underway. Learning from her mistakes the first time around, she's likely to achieve it on the second project, and will certainly have plenty to teach others hoping to build huge, high-end homes with small-time footprints. Read more about her "quest for zero" at Marin Magazine. (Note: The bit about the second home was struck from the final copy, unfortunately. The story covers just the first one.)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Green Building Takes Root in Indian Country

Five months ago, I wrote a piece for Environmental Health Perspectives on the implications of green-building on tribal lands for indoor air quality and human health. Indoor air quality is a huge issue across many reservations due to the quality and condition of a significant portion of the housing stock (and, for that matter, a major housing shortage that results in many homes being over capacity). Other complicating factors are extreme climates; remote, rural locations; and low per-capita incomes at many reservations. Green, clean, climate-appropriate housing can go a long way toward improving indoor air quality and public health in Indian country, as I explain in the EHP piece.

However, that's just one part of the green-building story on many reservations. Healthy and efficient homes designed for the tribe and its climate can also pay dividends culturally and economically, as I address in this story for Indian Country Today, published today. The story explains how green-building projects can actually meet a wide range of needs, and how many tribes are charging forward with highly innovative and culturally relevant projects.

Here's an excerpt: "Contemporary green-building gets to the heart of Native culture writ large ... as tribes transition toward permanent housing, return their attention to the Earth, reconnect with the past, insist upon defining themselves and their future, and improve their economic situation through affordable homeownership and reduced energy costs. In this sense, green-building is not an end in itself, but rather a means to revitalization."

Read the full story here. I'm hoping to do more on this topic in the future, so stay tuned.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Understanding toxic exposures in childcare centers, and why it's so hard to mitigate them

My second feature for Environmental Health Perspectives (here was the first) addresses the persistent issue of environmental exposures in the child care setting, including important recent efforts to define and mitigate indoor air pollution. You may be surprised at the range and extent of toxins we've discovered in this sensitive setting, potentially contributing to asthma, developmental issues, and other problems in our youngest and most vulnerable citizens -- I know I was, especially with a new baby of my own. While many of these exposures are also common in schools and homes, the difference -- and the most surprising part of the story, in my view -- is the particular challenge of mitigating them in childcare centers. Due to a variety of factors including a complex regulatory picture, environmental health protection in child cares tends to lag behind that of schools, where kids are older, larger, and less sensitive to toxic exposures. The good news is that awareness of this issue is escalating, and a sea change in the industry may be taking place over the next five to ten years in regards to environmental health protection. Read the story here.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

S.F. to Humboldt Travel Piece: Oysters, hot tubs, martinis

Did this short but sweet travel piece on a road trip from SF to Humboldt (and a bit beyond) for San Francisco magazine's May special issue, which also includes great trips to Santa Cruz, Borrego Springs, Truckee, Venice Beach, Mendocino, and Bear Valley. Based it on my own travels up there and some new research, and it certainly made me want to head up north again -- so I guess it worked. Hope it has the same effect on readers. Enjoy.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

"The New Grid" Wins CASE Silver Award

Quick post: My feature story for Breakthroughs magazine on California's evolving electrical grid and renewables integration, "The New Grid," took a silver award for "Best Articles of the Year" among university publications in the West at the 2013 CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) awards. And Breakthroughs, published by UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources, and to which I've contributed a number of stories over the years, took a gold for best publication in its circulation range. Thanks and congrats to the editor, Ann Guy.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Anthropecene and Six Beneficiaries of Man

My story in Earth Island Journal's fascinating new package about the Anthropocene, the age of man, covers six species whose range and population have been most heavily impacted by human activity: carp, cows, and rats, oh my! The title is "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Planet Earth" (the hitchhikers are the critters) and it may make your skin crawl. Or it may just lead you to be impressed by the adaptability and ingenuity of the natural world -- humans included.

The issue also features work by fellow SEJers Jane Braxton Little and Winifred Bird, who report from the forests near Fukushima and Chernobyl, and Elizabeth Grossman, who explains how synthetic chemicals have altered the chemistry of the environment. And it includes essays by local journalist and author Nathanael Johnson, Mark Hertsgaard, Raj Patel, Alan Weisman, and others. Find the whole package here, for the time being.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

That Tree on the Corner May Be Worth More Than Your House

I like trees. I have one tattooed on my left forearm. I've planted three in our small Oakland lot. I love to hike and run among them. I love to gaze up at them and rest beneath them. I even write about them. Here's another entry in the tree file, this time for Next City, a blog and publication devoted to "connecting cities and informing the people working to improve them." It's about a free online program called i-Tree, developed by the US Forest Service in partnership with Davey Tree Company, which allows cities to calculate the environmental -- and financial -- benefits provided by street trees and their urban forest at large. The program has been a big hit in cities from Pittsburgh to New York, as well as outside the US, as I outline in this story, my first for Next City.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Burning issue: 'Waste-to-energy' plants take off in bid to cut garbage, fuel use

My first piece for The Daily Climate/Environmental Health News was published last week while I was in the hospital awaiting the birth of my son Leo, so it's taken me a week to post it here. Some things are worth waiting for. I've received a good response to the story so far, and since, to my knowledge, no one else has written a comprehensive piece on this massive new wave of incinerator proposals, I'd like to spread this far and wide. It's a complicated issue, and it takes a primer like this to begin to wrap your mind around the issue (and the technologies) and the implications for zero waste, waste management, recycling, human health, public subsidy of renewable energy, and more. So dive in.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Santana, Lesh, Johnston, Schon, Grisman, & Wasserman: Sons and Daughters of Marin's Rock Elite Carve Their Own Path

Time to talk music, as I am wont to do on a daily basis. I don't write about it nearly as often as I once did (which is to say always), but I still like to keep it in the rotation. For this feature in February's Marin magazine, I had a great time chatting with some of the sons and daughters of Marin's "rock elite" who are pursuing (or who are already enjoying) a music career of their own. The main takeaway for me was that no matter how many advantages they may or may not have received, they're far from set. The music industry has changed so much since the '60s and '70s that those old-school connections and skillsets may not be worth much. Meanwhile, being the child of a famous musician and trying to chart your own path in the industry presents certain challenges and expectations that your typical up-and-comer doesn't have to handle. A number of them even told me that they tried to avoid the music biz altogether, or that their parents advised against it -- but somehow they found themselves sucked into it. I guess what I'm trying to say is this isn't an open-and-shut case; there's a huge grey area between doomed and made, and these six musicians seem to know it well. Read more here; I hope you enjoy it.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Bay Area Begins to Brace for Effects of Climate Change

There's a big difference between climate change mitigation -- reducing greenhouse gas emissions so that climate change doesn't get any worse -- and adaptation -- adapting to the changes already set in motion in order to reduce our risk and exposure to the harmful effects of climate change.
California is a national and international leader on the mitigation front, with numerous progressive and aggressive policies designed to curb emissions of carbon and other GHGs. However, when it comes to adaptation we're lagging behind, a particularly serious issue in the Bay Area, where so much valuable infrastructure is exposed to rising sea levels, flooding, and storm surges.
A number of efforts are currently underway to address this on a regional basis, including two launched in the second half of 2012. This article for Estuary News provides a brief overview.