Stuff that matters

Salty talk

Making seawater drinkable has never looked so sexy.

Most desalination plants — factories that take the salt out of ocean water — look like this:


But the Land Art Generator Initiative, a competition to design new energy infrastructure that can do double duty as public art, says a desalination plant can look like this instead:

Land Art Generator Initiative

But the shiny surface on this hypothetical 2,000-foot-long pipe is actually solar panels, which would power the seawater-to-freshwater process.

Land Art Generator Initiative

The interior of the pipe would be an enormous public pool that would help disperse the extra-salty brine left over from the desalination process back into the ocean.

Khalili Engineers, the team that created the design, told Fast Co.Exist that the pipe would be able to supply a billion gallons a year — about half of Santa Monica’s freshwater needs. They’re building a prototype to prove it — which is good, because that number sounds ambitious.

In the meantime, this conceptual work is a perfect hybrid of current trends in art, technology, climate preparedness, and public spaces for our hotter, more crowded cities. Expect to see more blinged-out designs like this in the future.

You've got emails

Here are some of the most unnerving things we’ve read so far in those Pruitt emails.

Scott Pruitt, new EPA administrator, had cozy ties with energy companies while serving as Oklahoma’s attorney general, as the New York Times reported in 2014. The Center for Media and Democracy just got ahold of thousands of emails from Pruitt’s time as AG. A few choice tidbits:

Pruitt’s office asked a VP at Devon Energy, a big oil and gas company, how it should comment on an EPA report on methane emissions:

“I thought we should insert a sentence or two regarding the recent EPA report … Any suggestions?” wrote Clayton Eubanks from the AG’s office.

Pruitt’s chief of staff asked for a personal favor from another Devon VP:

“My boys are out of school and my father is in town from NC so we are playing tourist in OKC today. One of the things the boys wanted to do was to go to the top of the Devon tower. I know it’s shocking—but I’ve actually never been in the tower … ;)” wrote Melissa McLawhorn Houston.

And that same Devon VP invited Pruitt’s chief of staff out for lunch at a swanky restaurant:

“Reservations are set for 11:45 at Cheevers,” Devon’s Allen Wright wrote to Houston.

If you’re looking forward to another email saga that just won’t end, you’re in luck. The Center for Media and Democracy expects to make another dump on Feb. 27.

Sound & Fury

Congressional climate deniers are getting called on their BS at town halls this week.

It turns out plenty of their constituents DO care about climate change, clean water, and environmental regulation, and they’re using the Congressional recess to make their voices heard.

Take, for example, Virginia Rep. Dave Brat, who probably expected a friendly reception from a Trump-supporting town in his district. Instead, reports the Washington Post, more than 150 people crowded into the small room to grill Brat on everything from the EPA to the Flint water crisis.

When asked if he denies climate change, Brat tried to joke “No, the climate changes all the time.” The angry crowd yelled back: “Answer the question!” And then there was this:

Want to make sure your representative gets the same message while on break from Washington? You can find a list of town hall meetings here — assuming they haven’t been cancelled by politicians afraid of straight talk from their constituents.

The Atlantis Seaboard

Maybe this is the century that America erects giant Atlantic seawalls.

And Boston could get the building started, as city officials are considering a massive barrier across Boston Harbor to prevent flooding from a swelling Atlantic Ocean. For now, however, it’s just an idea. JakartaVenice, and New Orleans are already building giant walls in the hope of holding back rising seas.

Boston has plenty at stake. Future floods could cost the city $80 billion worth of real estate and put the lives of 90,000 people at risk, according to forecasts. Which is why planners say the gigantic new piece of infrastructure is necessary — and of course it won’t come cheap.

Estimates say a simple barrier could run anywhere from a few billion dollars to tens of billions of dollars. Yet if it’s anything like Boston’s previous projects — and the Boston Globe says it “could rival the Big Dig in complexity and cost” — it will be at least five times more expensive and prove a political headache.

Either way, it would be cheaper than doing nothing.

solar dreams

A California legislator is pushing the state to get all of its electricity from renewables.

California is already shooting to get half its power from wind, solar, and hydro by 2030. But this new amendment, just drafted by state Senate leader Kevin de León (a Democrat from Los Angeles), would bump that deadline to 2025 and set a new deadline to go all-renewable by 2045. Great news, right?

Among the many obstacles in the way of that target, two stand out. First, the state will need to build a whole lot of solar panels and wind turbines. One group estimated that, to go 100-percent renewable, California would have to fill an area about the size of Connecticut with power plants. And of course we’ve seen in the past that many locals oppose big energy projects in their backyards, even when they are renewable.

The second big challenge is getting the electricity produced during daylight hours to the people who need it when the sun drops over the horizon and they turn on their lights. California will need to invest a lot of money in energy storage and develop new batteries to do that.

But maybe the simplest way to start tackling these obstacles is to add a few words to existing law, as de León is trying to do, that tells the Golden State to get ’er done.

The calm before the storm

Scott Pruitt is making nice with EPA employees, but big changes are to come.

On Tuesday, he stood in front of a room full of those employees and made his first address as administrator of the agency. Pruitt accepted welcome gifts (an EPA lapel pin and baseball hat), expressed appreciation for the staff, and insisted he would have his ears open to them. “You can’t lead unless you listen,” he said.

In his brief address, he made no mention of the toxic pollution threatening Americans’ health, but did decry the “toxic environment” polluting modern politics. He talked of working across the aisle and called for civility and “being problem solvers.”

Pruitt also lobbed subtle barbs at the agency’s past leadership, saying EPA needs to avoid abuses. “Regulations ought to make things regular. Regulators exist to give certainty to those we regulate,” he said. (Last week, he was even more critical of the Obama-era EPA, telling the Wall Street Journal that it had “disregarded the law.”)

But Pruitt made no mention of what’s likely to be big news this week: Trump is planning to sign executive orders that would start the process of rolling back two major EPA regulations: the Clean Power Plan, one of Obama’s signature climate programs, and the Waters of the U.S. rule, which regulates pollution in smaller bodies of water.

reading the signs

On Sunday, hundreds of scientists took a break from doing science to rally in support of it.

The protesters gathered in Boston’s Copley Square with some impressively nerdy signs, including “Scientists are wicked smaht” and “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.”

The rally coincided with the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held a few blocks away, but was not sponsored by the scientific organization. In fact, scientists have often been wary of participating in political demonstrations, citing the need for science to be objective and nonpartisan.

“We’re not protesting a party,” one scientist told the Boston Globe. “As scientists, we want to support truth.”

Truth, however, has increasingly become a political issue, with an administration that has denied climate change, attacked the value of the EPA, and put forward a non-evidence-based travel ban that would adversely affect many scientists and researchers in the United States. As one sign at the rally put it, “Alternative facts are the square root of negative one.” That is, imaginary.

Sunday’s rally was a warm-up act for the March for Science, which is expected to bring many thousands of scientists to Washington, D.C., on April 22, Earth Day.