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Good news for Seattle: These solar panels work best in overcast weather


Next time someone snarks, “Too bad solar panels don’t work in when it's overcast,” spike this fact-volleyball into their thoughtmaker: SOME solar panels actually work BETTER when it’s cloudy out. Bam!

British scientists at the National Physical Laboratory this week created organic photovoltaics, which not only sound delicious but perform better in diffuse light. According to PSFK, they’re 13 percent efficient when it’s overcast, compared to 10 percent when it’s sunny. As principal researcher Fernando Castro explained:

It’s not that they are going to produce more power, but they are more efficient at generating power from the light that is available. So they would work better than normal solar cells do in cloud.

Plus, organic solar cells can be 3D printed into various shapes and even dissolved into water. estimates organic PV will be widely available by 2019, noting that it’s super-quick to install:


Now you can get solar panels at Best Buy

Best Buy
Mike Mozart

There was an era when putting solar panels on your roof was a time- and money-sucking hassle on par with remodeling your kitchen. But the cost of going solar has been dropping fast. The latest signal of the industry's move into the mainstream came last week, when San Mateo, Calif.-based SolarCity* announced it would begin to sell solar systems out of Best Buy, alongside big-screen TVs and digital cameras.

"There are a lot of people out there with unshaded roofs, paying high electricity bills, who just don't know this is an option for them," said Jonathan Bass, SolarCity's vice president of communications. The move into Best Buy "gives us a chance to have that conversation with more people."

The company is the biggest installer in the country's biggest solar market, California, a state that earlier this month broke its all-time solar power production record twice on two consecutive days, churning out enough electricity from solar panels to power roughly 3 million homes. Just since last summer, California's solar production has doubled, according to the California Independent System Operator, which manages the state's electric grid. There's a lot more growth where that came from, Bass said.


Watch this dry riverbed fill up in seconds

Nature’s been watching Michael Bay movies again! A crowd near Israel’s dry, dusty Zin River recently got caught off guard by a flash flood and had to hightail it to avoid getting swept away:

The Negev desert is better known for its arid sun -- and plans to build a giant solar power station -- than abundant rainfall. The Zin River had been dried up for years, so you can’t really blame the onlookers (and eager dog). Heavy rain in nearby mountains was SUPPOSEDLY the culprit, although the Plain of Sodom is nearby, so God might’ve been trying to scare all those teens using the back door.

Read more: Living


Billions of pounds of sea life die every year to feed our seafood appetite

Entangled ring seal.
A ring seal entangled in fishing equipment -- aka bycatch.

For every pound of sashimi, barbecued shrimp, or grilled sea bass that you stuff into your mouth, you're basically spitting four ounces of marine life onto the floor.

The nonprofit Oceana published a detailed report on Thursday cataloguing the egregious problem of bycatch in U.S. fisheries. Bycatch is a word that refers to the sharks, turtles, whales, non-edible fish, and other critters that are inadvertently hauled into fishing boats or caught up in the gear of fishing fleets that are pursuing more palatable and lucrative species.

Read more: Food


This smart air conditioner could make summer less expensive

Despite 30 Rock’s jokes about GE, the appliance company isn’t completely ass-backwards. Case in point: GE just created an air conditioner that’s pretty, almost affordable ($300), and not a huge energy hog. Oh yeah, and you can control it with your smartphone!


The smart A/C unit, Aros, is a partnership with Quirky, the site that helps make your harebrained invention ideas come to life. (In this case, former DOE employee Garthen Leslie suggested it.) A quick six months later, Aros is practically ready (it starts shipping in May). Gizmodo has some tech specs:

GE and Quirky have built a conventional in-window a/c that can cool up to 350 square feet with 8,000 BTU. They've added some nice detailing, too, like upward airflow, three cooling and fan modes, insulating fabric panels, and a sleek front-facing paneling.


This island nation just banned all commercial fishing


The Micronesian country of Palau, which encompasses 250 islands in an area the size of France, just became a marine sanctuary.

At a recent U.N. oceans conference, President Tommy Remengesau, Jr. declared commercial fishing illegal in an attempt to protect the vibrant sea life that makes Palau a magnet for Asian vacationers. “I always say the economy is our environment and the environment is our economy,” he said. (Wise dude.)

To make up for the lost revenue, Palau will tout its appeal for ecotourism, snorkelers, and scuba divers.

Read more: Living


Trash from the K-Cups sold last year would circle the Earth almost 11 times

Patrick Gensel

K-Cups seem like the complicated Starbucks order of today: an expensive, caffeinated way to express your oh-so-unique taste and personality. Who needs to run out for a tall caramel macchiato when you can make a single serving of Wolfgang Puck’s Jamaica Me Crazy medium roast in the comfort of your kitchen?

Except all those little plastic cups add up to some massive trash. Ten and a half loops around the equator, in fact, according to Mother Jones. Kind of ridic for a company owned by a fair-trade, organic coffee brand, no?

Plus, the #7 plastic blend is BPA-free, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. Even if all that plastic magically disappeared into the ether on disposal, its manufacture could still be making workers sick, writes MoJo:


Ask Umbra: What’s the greenest way to re-side my house?

Bob Jagendorf

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Do you know anything about polypropylene house siding? We have to get our whole house re-sided and (obviously) wanted to avoid using vinyl, but it's so much cheaper than all the other options. And then I saw that Consumer Reports seems to differentiate between vinyl siding and "other plastic/polymer siding" in their rankings and I did some research. It looks like PP siding is an entirely different product.

Jeff K.
Brighton, Mass.

A. Dearest Jeff,

The greenest house is probably one we build ourselves from natural materials gathered from the forest floor. Somehow this sort of back-to-nature carpentry is a nonstarter for most people, however, so we’re stuck with actual houses that need some type of protective siding. I’ve spent the better part of a day immersing myself in polypropylene, and I’d be tickled to share what I've learned.


Burgs & the bees

Habitats for humanity: Why our cities need to be ecosystems, too


The whole better-greener-more-awesome-cities movement has a problem: We haven’t found a good name for it. Sustainable cities! The term brings to mind such mundanity as energy audits and transit routes. Resilient cities! The notion requires us to consider, first, what horrible shit is coming down the pike. Carbon-neutral cities! Ugh. Don't get me started on that one.

Enter University of Virginia urban and environmental planning professor Tim Beatley with the solution, FINALLY. Here he comes, with the delivery. Wait for it...

Biophilic cities.

Wait, come back! It’s better than it sounds! Biophilic cities are places where animals and plants and other wild things weave through our everyday lives. The name comes from “biophilia,” E.O. Wilson’s theory that humans have an innate connection to other living things, because we evolved alongside them. It’s futurism with a paleo twist: An effort to create human habitat that can also host a menagerie of wild creatures — and not just for their sake, but for ours.

The idea seems to be catching. In October, Beatley helped launch the Biophilic Cities Network, which includes eight cities worldwide, and there are more to come. “Reducing your emissions, hitting people over the head about turning the lights off -- we need to do those things,” Beatley says. “But to motivate people I think we need that vision of where we want to go, not just how much less we want to consume of something.”

Beatley stopped by Grist HQ on a recent swing through Seattle promoting his new book, Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning. Here are a few snippets from our conversation, which covered aerial urban trails, our odd relationship with the natural world, and cities that are far greener than the this here emerald one.

Q. How is a biophilic city different than a “sustainable” city or a “green” city?

Tim Beatley.
Tim Beatley.

A. There’s lot of overlap, to be sure. A biophilic city must be resilient and sustainable and all of those things. But it ought to be a dense, rich, urban life in close contact with nature. The idea grows from the theory that we have coevolved with the natural world, that we’re carrying our ancient brains, and we have an innate need to connect with nature.

Read more: Cities, Living


Waste deep in the big muddy

Has modern agriculture cleaned up its dirty runoff act?

Even the best conservation measures could be thwarted by severe weather leading to floods like this one in North Dakota, 2013
USDA photo by Keith Weston
Even the best conservation measures could be thwarted by severe weather leading to floods like this one in North Dakota, 2013

While I was in Iowa recently, Chris Jones, an environmental scientist at the Iowa Soybean Association, showed me this fascinating graph (based on this study). It basically shows how much dirt was in one of the main rivers flowing through Iowa's farmland over the last century:

Christopher Jones

It doesn’t look like much at first, but becomes more and more interesting as you study it. Because the span of time here is so long (1916 to 2009) and because changes in agricultural policy have had a big effect on the erosion of topsoil into rivers, you can see historical events reflected in these numbers.

That big peak in 1973? That came just after Earl Butz, then the secretary of agriculture, urged farmers to plant fencerow to fencerow. Farmers cut into marginal land, and then heavy rains followed in Iowa. The newly disturbed soil washed off the fields and into the rivers, creating the spike on the graph.

Read more: Food