How Hackers & Makers Could Help Fight Climate Change

3D printed objects on display in the Autodesk Gallery in San Francisco.

In the East Market neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky, a handful of chic bars and boutiques are filling into the historic brick buildings on Broadway St, hinting at the neighborhood’s future. A few blocks away, inside a 6,000-square-foot warehouse, a half-dozen men and women were hunched over sewing machines in the warehouse, stitching seams and swapping advice. The room was crowded with project tables, couches, and the remains of various arts, crafts, and electronics projects. One participant triumphantly waved a finished garment in the air as I entered: “I made a shirt!” he exclaimed to the others.

Welcome to LVL1. It’s a makerspace, and places like it — also called hackerspaces, FabLabs, hacklabs, community workshops, and dozens of other local variants — have popped up in cities from Berlin and Boston to Baghdad, Beirut, and Beijing. No matter what they’re called, they’re open workshops where sharing—of expertise, tools, and space—is highly encouraged. Today, there are more than 1,400 such spaces around the world, and they’re spreading fast.

Brad Luyster, president of the organization, showed me around. Multiple 3-D printers and a vinyl cutter occupied counter space in the main room, while downstairs a cement-floored basement held woodworking tools, drill presses, computer-controlled (or CNC) mills, lathes, pipe-bending tools, and other heavy equipment. A storage room was crowded with scavenged electronics, wood, metal, and other odds and ends, sorted neatly on shelves and in piles.

The organization’s members — of which there were about 80, back in January — pay $50 per month to use this assortment of equipment and supplies to create any kind of project they can dream up. LVL1’s collection included a large rocket, a fire-breathing animatronic toy horse, and a device that would sometimes set off applause when the bathroom door opened.

This playful, anything-goes environment is a hallmark of makerspaces around the world, but behind the goofy gadgets and gizmos is serious purpose. Hacking and making, in the eyes of many of the community’s evangelists, are an opportunity to engage the broader community in driving technology innovation forward and to focus the efforts of the technology community on serious issues like climate change.

Continue reading on Beacon

Summer Salon at The Exploratorium, July 31! Be There.

We’re thrilled to announce that our second quarterly reader salon will take place at The Exploratorium! This San Francisco institution is ground zero for all things science, art and human perception. Its mission is to “ignite curiosity, encourage exploration, and lead to profound learning.” Hey, that’s our mission, too.

In our stories this month, we’re looking at environment issues through the lens of competition, games, and play. At the salon, we’ll dive into a new approach to river restoration that focuses on both preserving aquatic ecology and riding the rapids. We’ll also ponder the power of hard-core environmentalists to change the course of consumerism. Plus, we’ve got some surprises — including a chance to win a kayak trip! Extra bonus: alcohol!

Starting at 6:30pm, it all takes place in a fabulous room for exploring the Bay and City: The Bay Observatory Gallery.  The program will run until 8:00pm and the museum is open until 10:00pm on Thursday nights, so there will be plenty of time to explore. Current subscribers get $5 off the entrance fee and we’re offering a great ticket + subscription package for those new to Climate Confidential. Click here for ticket and program details!

Photo by Andrew Ballantyne/Flickr

Child’s Play

A woman peers through goggles embedded in a large black helmet. Forest sounds emanate from various corners of the room: a bird chirping here, a breeze whispering there. She moves slowly around the room. On the wall, a flat digital forest is projected so observers can get a rough idea of her surroundings, but in her mind’s eye, this undergrad is no longer pacing a small, cramped room in a university lab. Thanks to that black helmet, she’s walking through the woods.

In a minute, she’s handed a joystick that looks and vibrates like a chainsaw, and she’s asked to cut down a tree. As she completes the task, she feels the same sort of resistance she might feel if she were cutting down a real tree. When she leaves this forest, and re-enters the “real” world, her paper consumption will drop by 20 percent and she will show a measurable preference for recycled paper products. Those effects will continue into the next few weeks and researchers hypothesize it will be a fairly permanent shift. By comparison, students who watch a video about deforestation or read an article on the subject will show heightened awareness of paper waste through that day — but they will return to their baseline behavior by the end of the week. Continue reading

A New Playbook for Urban Rivers

As climate change makes traditional water resources less reliable, a growing number of communities are seeking to restore urban rivers after centuries of pollution and abuse. The first story in our Play series examines how riverside towns are recalibrating the balance of human and wildlife needs in their waterways. Increasingly, they’re using technology to build recreation into restored rivers — because when local residents use their river, they tend to care about its health.

Dam spillway in Bend

More than 150 years ago, the Deschutes River in central Oregon teemed with trout and provided a pristine aquatic highway for humans. Then the Deschutes began to decline. Dams built to divert water for farming and growing towns sapped its energy and changed its looks. When a long-defunct dam in Bend began to cause injuries and even deaths to boaters, the local residents took on an ambitious, $7.3 million effort to create a safe passage for humans and fish.

Urban river restoration has become increasingly popular during the last two decades, said Pierre Julien, a professor of hydraulic engineering and stream restoration at Colorado State University. Instead of taming rivers for flood control and industrial uses — two tactics that have led to serious habitat destruction and water pollution — the emphasis these days is more about healthy living, environmental protection, and waterfront redevelopment.

Reviving these waterways, whether by removing old dams, cultivating wetlands, or engineering rapids, requires careful navigation of what it means to co-exist in harmony with wildlife in places that will never return to their “natural” state. Planners must balance the need for public support — which recreational rapids can help win — with an evolving understanding of long-term environmental impacts.

Click here to read more about how local communities blend economic interest with fish protection in engineering their local rivers to serve both humans and wildlife.

Editor’s Note: The Play Issue

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but a sense of play often provides a creative spark. And there’s nothing like a high-stakes game to inspire dogged determination and heroic performance (just ask Tim Howard), which may be just the spirit we need to tackle climate change. For our July issue, the Climate Confidential team will explore environmental challenges and promising solutions through the lens of competition, games, and play.


United States goalkeeper Tim Howard won the admiration of many Americans this week with his record-setting 16 saves in a World Cup match. He blocked and and dove and punched and blocked again. Soccer, football, whatever you want to call it, it’s just a game, sure. But there was something inspiring about the doggedness of Howard’s performance against the Red Devils of Belgium.

If this is play, imagine what such determination to do the impossible can accomplish off the field. It’s the spirit we just might need to beat climate change and reverse the trends of human industry and behavior that are driving it. Continue reading

Rising Stakes in the Quest to Harness Ocean Power

Demands on the world’s oceans are growing: carry more ships, produce more food, absorb more carbon and more heat. Now population, energy, and climate trends are converging to raise the stakes for finally harvesting energy from the ocean at large scale. The final story in our Energy Shift series charts the choppy course ahead for sustainable marine power.


Years from now, a wave will throttle across the Pacific and hurl itself over a submerged rubbery sheet less than 100 feet from shore. The wave’s energy will force the sheet to rise and fall in the turbulent water, and these undulations will drive a crop of cylindrical pumps and generators arranged between the sheet and the sea floor. The result? Electrical power.

If all goes according to plan, this wave carpet, inspired by muddy seabeds, will be among an array of devices deployed in the coming decades to power growing coastal communities with ocean energy. Some will capture tides, others currents. Some, as Jules Verne imagined, will make use of temperature differences between sun-warmed surface waters and chilly depths. Waves, being widely distributed and predictable, hold particular promise. Continue reading

What Will It Take To Make Nuclear Energy Work?

It was the winter of “Snowmaggedon” in Boston, and MIT grad students Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie had just passed their qualifying exams in nuclear engineering. Suddenly, after months of nonstop test-prep work, they had the luxury of time. “We said, we’re no longer studying 16 hours a day,” Dewan recalled, “Let’s do something new and exciting!”

As February rolled by, the two began looking at ways to bring to market different types of nuclear reactors that could solve some of the problems—especially safety and waste issues — that have dogged the traditional light-water reactors that produce nearly all of the world’s nuclear power today. “We both considered ourselves to be environmentalists, and we felt that nuclear power is the best way to shift away from fossil fuels—and from coal in particular,” Dewan said.

Nuclear Wetlands The Enrico Fermi Nuclear Power plant on Lake Erie is one of 100 nuclear power plants currently operating in 31 U.S. states. Source: James Marvin Phelps

It’s an increasingly common perspective. “Nuclear is a non-carbon-emitting resource and it has a contribution to play in greenhouse gas emissions avoidance,” said Dan Lipman, executive director of policy development and supplier programs for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobbyist group. He echoes the sentiments of many across the nuclear industry who are hoping that a growing sense of urgency on climate issues could reinvigorate the market for their technology.

Some climate scientists and high-profile nonprofits are beginning to agree. Renewable energy is gaining ground, but it still makes up just over 13 percent of the total U.S. electric power mix. Concerns about resource intermittency, immature storage technologies, grid reliability, and land use haunt faster growth scenarios. As a result, achieving even the moderate carbon emissions reductions—pegged to a 30 percent reduction over 2005 levels by 2030—outlined by the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan [pdf] is expected to require both the development of new nuclear plants and extended lifespans for those that were built as far back as the 1970s.

Critics are quick to refute these claims, citing cost, safety, waste management, and time-to-market as major barriers to the large-scale adoption of nuclear energy for baseload grid power. But are these truly insurmountable challenges? If nuclear is to play a significant role in a low-carbon energy future what will it take to make that happen? Continue reading

Sugar in the Gas Tank

We love to talk about bright shiny objects like electric vehicles, but the internal combustion engine will remain in the mix for a long time to come. The transportation sector is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, so as we report this month on the shift to new energy sources, we also take stock of the country’s effort to replace gasoline with biofuel.

Inside corn stover, a building block for biofuel.

Inside corn stover, a building block for biofuel.

As we were developing this story, we could not help but notice some parallels between algae-based biofuel, which a few of us have written quite a bit about in the past, and the development of cellulosic biofuels. Back around 2008 the buzz around algae fuels was intense and so, perhaps, was the hype.

“Every entrepreneur with a pond in their backyard said they could make biofuel from algae,” Lux Research’s Soare told me during our interview for this story. “But to go from a pond to a gallon of fuel is very expensive.”

In terms of energy density and cost, petroleum is simply very hard to beat. But that does not mean forward-looking companies, whether they’re into algae or have hung their hopes on cellulose, are giving up. Instead, they’re looking for ways to build a foundation in biofuels that might surprise you. (Hint: It has a lot to do with beauty products.)

To get the full scoop, check out the full story here.

Feeling a little rusty on the science behind biofuels? Here’s a list of terms you’ll want to know: Continue reading

Batteries Included

California’s recent passage of the world’s first energy storage mandate could be the tipping point for this versatile smart grid tool. Expanding storage will also help grow the percentage of energy we get from wind and solar energy. Entrepreneurs and governments are teaming up to conduct field tests, bring down costs, improve efficiency, ensure safety, and facilitate access to the grid and market. Read more here, and check out the infographic below for a snapshot of what’s happening in the U.S. storage market.