TIME Food

This New Method of Farming Could Change Where Our Food Comes From

"It could be that the best strawberries in the world come from Detroit"

Caleb Harper, founder of the CITYFarm Research Project, and his team at MIT’s Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass. appear to have found a way to grow food four times faster than it does in nature, using a new farming method called “Aeroponics.”

Unlike regular hydroponics, a growing method that uses water instead of soil, the plants at CITYFarm do not sit in still water, but rather have their roots suspended in a “fog chamber” which sprays a nutrient-rich mist.

The CITYFarmers take great care to monitor each aspect of the plants’ growth, to see which conditions work the best, including a technique of limiting light to red and blue.

“This is the spectrum of light that the plants need to grow extra plant material,” Harper explains–and the rest of the spectrum besides red and blue only serves to provide heat.

Harper believes that Aeoroponics not only grows fuller, more developed plants, but could be a solution to local farmers looking to provide sustenance to booming city populations.

“We all know the phrase, ‘the best X comes from X'”, he explains, instead proposing that “the best X comes from the environment that created it.”

“There is a new way to think of using fabrication space, especially if you look at a city like Detroit.”

By building a similar set up, which requires no soil or great tracts of land, “it could be that the best strawberries in the world come from Detroit.”

TIME 2014 Election

Midterm Elections See a Surge in Ads About Energy and Environment

Projected to hit highest level ever

Political ads about energy and the environment will likely reach their highest number ever this election cycle, according to the Cook Political Report.

While these issues usually don’t rule the national polls of top midterm election priorities, there are several competitive races this cycle with energy at the forefront, especially in the Senate. There is also new outside money being spent on environmental issues, particularly from billionaire Tom Steyer, who has spent a reported $26.6 million of his own money this cycle to raise the profile of climate change through his super-PAC NextGen Climate Action.

“We’ve already seen more spots in U.S. Senate general elections alone (87,000 as of September 12) than we saw by this point in both Senate and House races in 2008 (56,000),” writes Elizabeth Wilner, a Senior Vice President of Kantar Media Ad Intelligence and contributing editor of the Cook Political Report. “If you add in 2014 House spots, we’ve nearly doubled the 2008 number (102,000). And with overall trends in advertising being what they are, with spot counts increasing over time, logic points to 2014 being the biggest cycle for energy/environment-related advertising, ever.”

Many of the “toss-up” Senate races this year have candidates bashing each other over energy industries that are economically or culturally important to the state. The prospect of the Keystone XL pipeline has ignited races from Michigan down to Louisiana, where Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is trying to prove how her chairmanship on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee will help the state increase its offshore oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has campaigned on his commitment to fight the “War on Coal” while his Democratic rival, Kentucky Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes, hit the airwaves to put distance between herself and President Barack Obama on the issue. In Colorado, the support for the green energy industry has thrust Republican Rep. Cory Gardner’s and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall’s campaigns to cut ads with their candidates in front of wind turbines. And in Alaska, Democratic Sen. Mark Beigch has aired an ad of him driving a snowmobile over the ice of the Arctic Ocean to tout his efforts to expand drilling there. In a response ad for Republican opponent Dan Sullivan—a former commissioner of the Alaska’s Department of Natural Resourcesan X Games medalist criticized Begich’s “lame tricks,” driving skills and voting record.

Some energy industries appear to have a have a greater hold than others on donors’ wallets. While Democrats and Republicans are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to figure out who is more pro-coal in Rep. Nick Rahall’s southern West Virginia district, NextGen Climate Action has yet to receive much support, receiving four donations of $250, $500, $300 and $2,500 in August, according to Bloomberg.

TIME energy

The Case for Staying Connected

We don't need to ditch the grid. We need to fix the power business

The solar-rooftop revolution has inspired a lot of talk about grid defection, about electricity independence, about firing your utility and freeing yourself from its wires. And this power-to-the-people rhetoric isn’t just coming from hippie-dippy environmentalists. The banking giant UBS recently predicted that as more homeowners produce and store their own electricity, big utilities and their centralized power plants will gradually become irrelevant. The energy company NRG is already shifting its focus from massive fossil-fuel plants to home-energy solutions. “The future of energy isn’t 120 million butt-ugly wooden poles,” says NRG Energy CEO David Crane. Even the Edison Electric Institute, which is run by utilities, has warned that the rise of rooftop solar could disrupt the utility business model.

It’s an exciting concept, with the potential to empower homeowners and save them money while slashing carbon emissions. As solar costs have plummeted and the number of installations has exploded–over half a million Americans became at-home solar-electricity producers over the past five years–I’ve talked big too. I’ve compared the rise of do-it-yourself power generation to the shift from landlines to mobile phones.

Well, as the politicians say, I’d like to revise and extend my remarks. I still think rooftop solar is an incredibly disruptive technology and a serious threat to antiquated utilities. But the solar revolution is not the telecommunications revolution, and I doubt it will usher in a new era of grid defection and electricity independence. Nor should it. Why disconnect from the grid when you can get paid for providing it with stuff it needs? It might feel good to fire our utilities and escape their wires. But it’s in everyone’s interest for us to figure out a way to get along–and for the politicians to write rules making that possible.

After all, most of us will still need the grid in the solar age. Just about everyone has a cell phone, but some rooftops aren’t right for solar. And most homes and businesses that do go solar will still need extra power; energy analyst Hugh Wynne says factories, malls and apartment buildings generally produce less than 15% of their electricity on their rooftops, while single-family homes usually produce less than 75%. You can go off the grid without losing reliability if you get a backup form of home-electricity production, like the gas-fired generators NRG is pushing, or some form of storage for when the sun isn’t shining. But while batteries are getting cheaper–as are electric vehicles, which can function as car-shaped batteries when not in use–they’re still not as cheap as the grid.

The grid, after all, is an awesome form of power storage, constantly moving electrons to where they’re needed from where they’re not so that our refrigerators keep running. It provides an amazing service to all of us by balancing power supply and demand every second of every day; it ought to, given the trillions of dollars we’ve invested in it. Sure, you might be able to declare independence from the grid, just as you might be able to grow all your food in your backyard, but it’s hard to see how that would make economic sense. On the other hand, staying connected should improve the economics of going solar; in peak afternoon hours, when the grid needs more supply to power air conditioners, you should be able to sell excess electricity to your utility at an attractive price, so it doesn’t have to build and operate additional plants to keep the lights on. It should be good for you, the grid and other ratepayers.

The key word is should. Some utilities have declared war on rooftop solar, shrieking that it threatens their business model–and in many states, it does.

Utilities usually get paid for selling more power and building more power plants. When you produce your own power, you cut into their profit margins. That’s why so many utilities are fighting to limit net metering, which lets solar customers sell power back to the grid, while pushing to charge customers additional fees for using the grid. They argue that otherwise, nonsolar customers will have to pay more to make up for their shortfalls.

That’s not entirely wrong–anyone who uses the grid ought to pay for the privilege–but it also encourages solar customers to go off-grid. It would be better for everyone if they stay connected, so they can generate energy for the grid when it’s needed and, if they get electric vehicles, store energy for the grid when it’s not. But that’s going to require an entirely new way of regulating utilities so they get paid for the services they provide rather than the power they sell us.

We don’t need to fire our utilities. We need to fix the utility business.

FOR MORE ON NEW ENERGY, GO TO time.com/newenergy

TIME 2016 elections

Jindal Touts Himself As the Republican Ideas Candidate, Outlines Energy Plan

NRA Convenes For Annual Meeting In Indianapolis
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal speaks during the National Rifle Association Annual Meeting Leadership Forum on April 25, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. John Gress—Getty Images

"Simply exporting coal to other countries to burn doesn’t do anything"

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal makes no bones about setting his sights on the Oval Office, casting himself as the GOP’s ideas man in a field driven by personalities.

Outlining his second major policy proposal at a Tuesday breakfast for reporters hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, the former Rhodes scholar laid out his vision for the nation’s energy future. The emphasis, on increasing domestic production and lifting export restrictions and many other regulations, is hardly new, but represents the most comprehensive plans offered yet by any likely 2016 Republican presidential contender.

Jindal’s 180-word-per-minute speaking style and policy wonk status makes him an unlikely fit to be a major party presidential nominee, though his delivery has markedly improved at campaign-style rallies and fundraisers. But if nothing else, Jindal, himself and through his political organization American Next, is emerging as one of the party’s ideological leaders, subtly shaping the GOP’s agenda after two straight presidential losses.

Unlike some in the Republican Party, Jindal acknowledges human involvement in climate change, and opened a potential middle-path for other Republicans seeking to navigate the thorny political issue. “I’m sure that human activity is having an impact on the climate,” Jindal said. He suggested that determination should be left up to scientists, even as the overwhelming body of scientific literature has found human involvement to be significant. “I’d leave it to the scientists to determine how much and what that means,” he adds. But Jindal argues that the U.S. shouldn’t unilaterally cut back on emissions, but rather work with international trade partners to cut back on the release of greenhouse gasses, arguing that tightening restrictions at home only makes the U.S. less competitive as less developed countries increase their harmful emissions. “Simply exporting coal to other countries to burn doesn’t do anything,” Jindal said.

“If we simply take unilateral actions, all we’re going to do is drive energy intensive manufacturing overseas,” Jindal said.

Calling the Obama administration “science deniers” for failing to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline despite multiple environmental reviews, Jindal argued “there is no scientific basis, no factual basis [for delay] other than pure politics.”

Jindal was the architect of the GOP’s latest effort to push back on Democratic “war on women” attacks with a proposal to make contraceptives available over-the-counter. Jindal defended the plan from Democratic critics who argued that it would raise costs for women, saying he believes insurers would cover over-the-counter purchases. “It would be cheaper for them to pay for this over the counter the drug than pay for the number of births it would otherwise prevent,” he said.

Sidestepping a question on evolution, Jindal, a Catholic, wouldn’t offer his own views on the subject, but said “I believe that local schools should make the decision about what they teach.” He added that “as a father, I want my kids to be taught about evolution in their schools.”

Despite his efforts to remake his party’s thinking, Jindal’s poll numbers have been moribund in early states. A CNN/ORC poll of voters in the early state of New Hampshire released Monday found Jindal the first pick of just 3% of Republicans and independents who plan to cast ballots in the 2016 GOP primary. “It suggests that ya’ll don’t have as many readers as I thought you did,” Jindal quipped to a room of print reporters, acknowledging his low name-recognition, “maybe I need to go straight to the bloggers.” He says he plans to make up his mind on 2016 after the November midterm elections, and would only run if he believed he had a “unique perspective” to offer voters.

TIME Innovation

Could This Be Solar Energy’s Big Moment?

Solar power has been on an upswing in the U.S., with usage now standing at six times’ its 2010 rate and the cost of solar installations since 2010 down 60 %. Analysts predict a 29% rise in solar installations in the U.S. by the end of 2014 alone.

This could be solar power’s moment. What’s uncertain is how much of that market growth the U.S. will be able to capitalize on. Currently, almost half of the world’s solar panel production takes place in China, while the U.S. only counts for only 5%.

Investors like Elon Musk, whose solar power company Solar City bought the panel maker Silevo to help drive down costs, hopes to change that imbalance by ramping up manufacturing in the U.S.

TIME energy

Why Hawaii Wants Liquefied Natural Gas From the Mainland

The Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA)
The Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) administers the Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology Park (HOST Park). John S Lander—Getty Images

The Aloha state needs to say goodbye to its reliance on petrol and coal, but isn't quite ready to say hello to renewables

The Hawaiian archipelago is among the most isolated places on earth—it’s farther away from a major landmass than any other island chain on the planet. Lacking substantial indigenous fossil fuel resources, any nuclear power sector, or a robust renewables sector, the state is forced to import almost all of the energy it consumes in the form of petroleum and coal, which are easier to transport than other fossil fuels.

As oil prices have climbed in recent years, electricity prices in Hawaii are now between three and fives times higher than average electricity prices on the mainland. Hawaiians hope to change that with liquefied natural gas.

“These islands may soon be able to diversify their energy sources to include natural gas, because relatively low natural gas prices and new shipping technology may allow these islands to import liquefied natural gas (LNG),” writes Energy Information Administration Analyst Allan McFarland. With the development of standardized refrigerated shipping containers, Hawaiian utilities hope to import more LNG to the islands and push the price of electricity down.

But with its sunshine, Pacific breezes, and copious geothermal activity, the Aloha State seems like the perfect place to develop renewable energy resources — especially as fossil fuel resources are so scarce. So why is Hawaii hoping to import more LNG from the mainland instead of developing renewables?

The truth is, Hawaii is investing heavily in renewables. In 2008, the state legislature mandated that 40% of the electricity generated in the archipelago come from renewable sources by 2030. As a result, substantial investments have been made in solar, wind and biomass energy technologies, and with energy efficiency measures added to the mix, the state hopes to meet 70% of its energy needs from clean sources by 2030.

But the geography of the archipelago makes harnessing that energy uniquely difficult. Because the islands run on small electrical grids, rather than the massive regional systems that connect disparate parts of the U.S., the intermittency of wind and solar power—that is, their tendency to vary dramatically from one day to the next—is especially problematic.

Power plants that ramp up production to pick up the slack during lulls, or so-called “load-following” natural gas plants, could help, but “It’s hard to say whether load-following plants would be sufficient,” McFarland tells TIME. Scientists and policymakers hope energy storage technologies that can store excess energy produced on a sunny day to be deployed on a cloudy one might make a contribution. “Improved battery technologies would certainly help,” he said.

But until battery technology catches up, policymakers must rely on LNG to take a bite out of Hawaiian electricity prices — and, in the process, help the islands transition away from expensive petroleum and coal imports.

TIME energy

Amid Federal Safety Push, North Dakota Considers New Energy Regulations

Rail Delays
An oil-tank train with crude oil from the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota travels near Staples, Minn., on April 15, 2014 Mike Cronin—AP

Can a state at the center of the oil boom regulate the industry that propelled it to prosperity?

After multiple derailments of tank cars carrying crude oil, the federal government is weighing new rules to bolster the safety of trains transporting flammable material. But the safety push could run into trouble in North Dakota, the state at the heart of the oil boom and the source of much of the crude sliding along the nation’s rails.

As the shale-oil boom accelerated in recent years, a series of derailments have raised questions about the safety of oil trains. In July 2013, a 74-car train carrying crude oil crashed in a small Quebec town, killing 47. Four months later, broken tracks led to a derailment in Alabama; a month after that, 20 cars of crude exploded after a collision outside Casselton, N.D., forcing residents to evacuate. In April, 17 tanks derailed near downtown Lynchburg, Va., sending a plume of fire spitting into the air outside a children’s museum.

Late last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation released a series of proposals to safeguard oil cars traveling from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota to refineries around the country, often more than a thousand miles away. Among the proposals were phasing out tank cars that have proven vulnerable to explosions, imposing speed restrictions, and requiring trains to notify local first responders as they pass through states.

“Safety is our top priority,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx of the department’s proposal, which he called the “most significant progress yet in developing and enforcing new rules to ensure that all flammable liquids, including Bakken crude and ethanol, are transported safely.”

But in North Dakota, such liquid has been the lifeblood of a surging economy. Since the advent of new technology that helped companies tap the Bakken formation, North Dakota has enjoyed a massive energy boom. The unemployment rate has dropped to 2.7%, the lowest in the nation. Incomes are rising. And a sparsely populated state sprawled across the harsh northern prairie is suddenly adding well-paying jobs faster than it can fill them. As the U.S. economy slumped into recession and struggled to fight through a sluggish recovery, North Dakota was a rare bright spot on a bleak economic horizon.

Which may be why Foxx’s comments didn’t go down so well in the state. Last week, when he and U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz attended an energy policy summit in the state capital of Bismarck, Governor Jack Dalrymple jumped on the perceived criticism, asking why Bakken crude has been singled out in federal studies.

“The risk level is higher than we’ve seen in other parts of the country,” Foxx said, according to local reports. “We’ve got to raise our game on safety.”

But it is a matter of dispute whether shale oil from the Bakken is more volatile than traditional oil, and thus prone to explosion. As Washington considers new regulations, the state is undertaking its own study of whether and how companies should treat oil at the wellheads before transporting it.

In the coming weeks, the North Dakota Industrial Commission will hold public hearings to solicit input about the possibility of new requirements, says Alison Ritter, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources. The session will be just the second public hearings on energy in the past three years.

It is unclear whether the state is prepared to effectively regulate the very industry that propelled it to prosperity.

The Industrial Commission is composed of three of the state’s top elected officials: Governor Jack Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring. All are Republicans.

Dalrymple has been a friend of oil and gas concerns. His 2012 election victory was aided by $287,965 from the oil and gas industry, a total that surpasses than any other industry, according to data compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The governor’s office did not directly return multiple requests for comment.

Lynn Helms, the state’s top oil and gas regulator, has industry ties of his own. The director of the Department of Mineral Resources, Helms spent years working for energy firms before taking a job with the Industrial Commission in 1998. This is not uncommon, but critics say it raises questions of whether the regulator should also hold responsibility for promoting oil production.

“How can you regulate an industry, and make sure they’re following all the rules and safeguards on Mondays,” says Kenton Onstad, a Democratic representative in the North Dakota legislature, “and then on Tuesday go out and promote it? It should be either one or the other.”

New requirements for treating crude at the well sites could be costly for the energy businesses that operate in the Bakken. Industry groups say the formation’s crude has no unique dangers and should not be subject to special regulations. The North Dakota Petroleum Council, an industry group, paid engineering and chemical analysis firms about $400,000 to produce a report on the characteristics of Bakken crude. The study determined it did not pose any greater risk for rail transport than other types of crude or transportation fuels. “All of this data does not support the speculation that Bakken crude is more volatile or flammable,” said NDPC vice president Kari Cutting.

Ritter said the Industrial Commission would be expected to issue a decision within 30 days of the public hearing. “The goal,” she says, “is to make crude as safe as possible for transport.”

TIME sustainability

Giant Floating Duck Proposed to Bring Green Energy to Copenhagen

Energy Duck: A submission to the 2014 Land Art Generator Initiative Copenhagen design competition by artists Hareth Pochee, Adam Khan, Louis Leger and Patrick Fryer. Courtesy Land Art Generator Initiative

The unique structure could theoretically provide the environmentally conscious city with solar energy and hydropower

Here’s an idea for energy sustainability that’s not mere quackery: A team of British designers and artists have proposed a floating tourist attraction that would gather solar energy in Copenhagen Harbor as the Danish city works to become carbon-neutral by the year 2025.

The 12-story-high structure just happens to also be in the shape of a giant sea duck.

Built from lightweight steel and covered in solar panels, the “energy duck” would by day collect the sun’s rays and by night bask the harbor in LED lights that change color in rhythm with the hydro turbines inside it, according to blog designboom.

Visitors wouldn’t just be able to admire the light show from a distance, they’d be able to board the energy duck and see the inner workings for themselves.

The supersized bird was developed by artists and designers Hareth Pochee, Adam Khan, Louis Leger, and Patrick Fryer as part of a competition run by the Land Art Generator Initiative, a project that aims to integrate art with sustainable design to come up with alternative energy solutions.

It’s just a concept, of course, but let’s hope this plan doesn’t go a-fowl.

 

TIME Germany

Germany Now Produces 28.5% of Energy from Renewables

Wind Turbines
Wind turbines stand on June 17, 2014 near Wernitz, Germany. Sean Gallup—Getty Images

The country’s Energiewende energy transition has crossed another milestone

Germany set a new record on green energy in the first half of 2014, by producing 28.5% of its energy entirely from renewable sources, according to a report released Tuesday by the energy trade association BDEW.

The industrial powerhouse of Europe, Germany is undergoing a massive shift in the way it produces energy as it attempts to become a country powered almost entirely by solar, wind, hydro and biomass energy sources. In the first half of 2014, wind generation in Germany increased 21.4% while solar grew by 27.3%.

The state-subsidized transition to renewables, known as Energiewende, has not been without high costs. Energy prices are among the highest in Europe and greenhouse gas emissions have actually increased in the near term as Germany’s post-Fukushima drawdown of nuclear power has led to an increase in the use of coal to make up for lost production.

TIME Environment

Only 1/3 of Americans ‘Willing’ to Change Behavior for Environment

As Michael Grunwald noted in his piece on TIME’s recent energy poll, Americans lag far behind other nations in their willingness to help the environment. Here, only 33% of Americans say they “strongly agree” they would modify their behavior to reduce their carbon footprint, compared to 43% of people from other countries.

Americans Take Less Responsibility For Clean Energy

 

For more stories on the New Energy Reality, click here.

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