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Cold Cash

An Intuitive Thermostat?

The Nest thermostat promises to save energy by programming itself and adjusting to users. Dan Gross adds a couple to his own home to find out if the product lives up to the hype.

Can a $250, Apple-like programmable thermostat save the planet?

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From two Apple expats comes the Nest Learning Thermostat, a cleverly intuitive household thermostat that picks up on your daily schedule as well as your heating and cooling habits and programs itself accordingly. (Nest Labs/MCT, via Newscom)

Residential heating and cooling consumes about 10 percent of U.S. energy production. Heating and cooling accounts for about half of the total energy bill of a typical American household.  So if a device can help make a significant dent in usage, it can save a lot of watts, a lot of money, and a lot of emissions.

When the electrical grid is under stress, dialing down usage is as important as bringing new power on line. By paying companies to dim the lights during heat waves, a company in Boston operates a giant virtual power plant.

Heat waves have spread across the United States in recent weeks, starting on the West Coast and now bearing down on Eastern cities. Power grids have struggled to put out enough electricity as overheated Americans try to keep cool both at home and at work. If the demand for energy exceeds the capacity of power plants, consider this doomsday scenario: New York City in mid-July without air conditioning.

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A group of children arrive at Coney Island on one of the hottest weeks in recent New York City history on July 18. (Spencer Platt/Getty)

The best way to ensure that energy supplies stay reliable is to have giant electricity plants on standby that can be fired up at a moment’s notice. But that’s an insanely expensive 20th-century solution. The 21st-century solution is to run a giant, low-cost virtual power plant out of an office in Boston. That’s what EnerNOC (Energy Network Operations Center) does. By paying companies to dial back their electricity usage at times of peak demand, EnerNOC works to assure that peak energy capacity is never exceeded. This approach is called “demand response.” As Gregg Dixon, senior vice president of sales and marketing at EnerNOC puts it, “what demand response allows us to do is less expensively, more cleanly, and more reliably provide for peak demand relief.” Simply put: “We change the way the world uses energy.”

Puff

Coal Country Goes Green

A major energy company has completed one of three planned conversions of a power plant from coal to biomass in Virginia.

Virginians worried about their scandal-plagued governor, torturous traffic, and government furloughs can breathe a little easier. Literally.

Renewable, green, and lower-emission energy production is growing rapidly in the U.S., much to the chagrin of the massive coal industry. But now we’re seeing power companies in coal country make the shift. Last year Virginia was the 11th-largest state for coal production in the U.S.

Dominion Biomass Conversion

A view of Dominion Virginia Power's Hopewell power plant, one of three converting from coal to biomass. (Steve Helber/AP)

Weird Science

Can We Save the Planet?

Politicians reluctant to cut emissions are tempted by an easy fix, but Clive Hamilton says what we actually need is not less politics in the geoengineering debate—but more.

What is your big idea?

President Obama’s long-awaited plan to cut U.S. carbon emissions was met with a sigh of relief by those who get climate change. But the truth is the planned cuts, along with those promised by other major polluting nations, will not limit warming to 2ºC, the agreed safe limit.

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The earth can be saved, at least according to Clive Hamilton. (SSPL/Getty Images)

Light Pollution

Operation Dark Sky

Our bright lights and big cities are causing us to get less sleep and waste a lot of energy. Author Paul Bogard talks to Mindy Farabee about a pollution problem that we can easily do something about.

Not so terribly long ago, people everywhere experienced nights so black that even the Milky Way could cast shadows on the earth. According to some estimates, around 80 percent of people now live under night skies so polluted by artificial light that they’ve never seen the Milky Way at all.

As with many aspects of modern life, light pollution represents both a triumph of technology and a minor disaster. Along with increased safety, convenience and economic benefits, an artificially lit world brings heath problems, environmental degradation and another layer of inefficient energy consumption. It also disrupts a fundamental relationship that has evolved between humans and the natural world. Far from the province just of goblins and bandits, historians such as A. Roger Ekrich have noted how darkness influenced cultural and social practices. The territory of intimacy and imagination, night can also carve out a refuge from the never-ending responsibilities of the day.

Los Angeles City Skyline

Skyline of downtown Los Angeles, California. (Uschools University Images/Getty)

ALL ABOARD!

CapeFLYER Nails The Train Thing

Rail travel in the U.S. is a slow, money-losing also-ran. But a new service that ferries passengers from Boston to Cape Cod has been a success – without huge government subsidies.

Everybody knows the U.S. is a pathetic train country. Japan leads the way in passenger rail travel, according to Eurostat, and European countries are not far behind. According to Forbes, the United States ranks 14th on the World Economic Forum's infrastructure list. Our version of high-speed rail—the Acela—travels at a fraction of the speed of Europe and Asia’s bullet trains. Amtrak’s long-haul routes are something of a joke. And the investments required to make the system functional are astronomical.

CapeFLYER

The outbound trial run of the CapeFLYER service stopped at Buzzards Bay. (Wikimedia Commons/CapeFLYER)

But in one corner of the U.S., a transit agency has shown a surprising ability to create a new, popular, reasonably priced rail passenger route. It’s the CapeFlyer, which runs from Boston to Hyannis. MassDot and the MBTA introduced the CapeFlyer on Memorial Day, May 27. It’s a modest affair. It runs only on weekends and has stops at five stations. It is geared toward city dwellers, weekenders, and tourists who prefer a two-hour train ride to the massive traffic that clogs up the route to the Cape on weekends.

BANK SHOT

Citi’s Brilliant Bike Move

In an attempt to improve its image after the financial crisis, one of America’s largest financial institutions sponsored New York City’s fledgling bikeshare program. The investment is already paying off for Citi.

To say that banks aren’t America’s most loved institutions is a vast understatement—five years after the onset of the financial crisis, they are pretty much universally reviled.

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Citi Bikes stand at a docking station in Union Square on May 29, 2013 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty)

Financial institutions have spent untold billions to fix their images, much of it on expensive, integrated media campaigns. Bank of America touts its local business investments, bailed-out insurer AIG said Thank You America, and who can forget Wells Fargo’s cringe-inducing Girl’s First Check.

Saving Ourselves

Psyched Over Climate Change

The Keystone pipeline might be approved this year, but Mark Hertsgaard says an important new book shows what activists have to do to psychologically commit to fighting for the environment.

When President Obama, to most observers’ surprise, addressed the Keystone XL pipeline in his landmark speech on climate change on June 25, it was partly because of Mary Pipher. Inside the Beltway, the conventional wisdom was that Obama would not mention Keystone, a pipeline that would carry particularly carbon-heavy tar-sands oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries, because he was privately planning to approve the project later this year. In a speech designed to highlight his commitment to fighting climate change, what would be the point of talking about a pipeline that, if the president did approve it, would facilitate burning some of the dirtiest fossil fuels on the planet?

Yet activists like Pipher had made Keystone too big an issue to ignore. After years of living-room meetings that gave rise to statehouse rallies, mass demonstrations outside the White House, and the media coverage all this engendered, it was simply not credible for Obama to claim that he cared about climate change but not about Keystone. From her residence in Nebraska, Pipher had been one of countless grassroots activists who publicized what the pipeline would do—not only to the stability of the climate, but the soil and water of the Midwestern states the pipeline would traverse—and rallied citizens to demand that this catastrophe in the making be prevented.

The Green Boat by Mary Pipher

“The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture.” By Mary Pipher. $16; Riverhead; 240 pages.

Cold War

Why Do Climate Talks Fail?

Climate change is a political issue, and needs political solutions. But diplomats are focusing on national interests, and the interests of the world’s ordinary people are being shunted aside.

What's your big idea?

Climate politics, and the policies that result from it, should be designed to promote human wellbeing. This goes without saying, unless one is a misanthrope. Nevertheless, climate politics has instead been about something quite different, namely promoting short-term interests of actors with close connections to governments, leaving almost all of us worse off and devastating the lives of millions of people in the future. So my idea is simple: let’s focus climate politics and policy on making all of us better off. What’s nice about this idea is that even the climate deniers and their backers in the fossil-fuel industry cannot disagree, at least openly, that it’s what we should be aiming for.

What's Wrong with Climate Politics and How to Fix It

Jeannot Olivet/Vetta/Getty

GUSHER

U.S. Fracks to Freedom

Oil production in the U.S. hit its highest level in over a decade, marking a move from dependence on countries overseas to energy independence.

The U.S. is often painted as an energy-strapped nation reliant on foreign countries for most of its oil use.  But that picture is changing as the country gets closer to complete energy independence.

Gas Drilling Western Politics

The sun sets over an oil pump jack in the Rocky Mountains near Frederick, Colorado. (Ed Andrieski/AP)

A report issued this week shows that the U.S. is increasingly producing more crude oil inside of its borders. Production jumped last week to its highest level since January 1992, according to a recent report by the Energy Information Administration. In the week ended July 5, the U.S. produced 7.4 million barrels per day, up 1.8 percent from the previous week, and the highest weekly level in more than 20 years.

Shame on You, Walmart!

With an Ohio Walmart hosting a holiday food drive for its own workers, The Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky criticizes the notoriously stingy company for not paying them more.

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