ISU researchers develop decision-making tool for sustainable cities

The city of Des Moines is involved in ISU’s “Big Data for Sustainable City Decision-Making” research project. (Jason Mrachina/Flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 28, 2016

Researchers at Iowa State University (ISU) and the city of Des Moines are working together to develop a decision-making tool that could revolutionize the way cities tackle climate change and social issues.

Ulrike Passe, associate professor of architecture and director of ISU’s Center for Building Energy Research, is the lead faculty researcher. Passe said, “There’s so much unrelated data available — from census and economic information to policy studies and weather records — but it needs to be merged into a useable model.” Passe added that city planners and officials need to have “a data-based tool that helps them decide how to allocate resources for conservation measures like tree planting and storm water management.”

Passe’s team of 16 researchers from over a dozen disciplines is working closely with Scott Sanders, Des Moines city manager. Sanders said, “The creation of this this decision-making system will provide staff access to an amalgamation of big data, which they presently have no way to effectively evaluate, that is a critical component to the future of successful and resilient cities.” Sanders noted that citywide interest in sustainability is on the rise, he said, “The demand far outweighs the city’s ability to provide all of the required and desired improvements within its current budget constraints. The need for a data-driven process and policy to help assess and prioritize the city’s investments has never been higher.”

The project is focusing its efforts on communities in east Des Moines such as Capitol East, Capitol Park and MLK Jr. Park. Linda Shenk, associate professor of English at ISU, is also involved in the study. She said, “We focus on marginalized populations because they are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to limited resources, yet the most difficult for cities to reach and engage in data collection.” For her part, Shenk has been discussing climate change and brainstorming local solutions with neighborhood groups and high school students. Meanwhile, other researchers in the neighborhoods are gathering data about how citizens interact with their city, communities, and homes using computational thermal-physical models.

Other ongoing projects include a tree inventory in the Capital East neighborhood and energy efficiency research through controlled experiments at ISU’s net-zero energy Interlock house located at Honey Creek Resort State Park. The study’s goal for this year is to compile data about human behavior related to energy use. Moving forward, Passe said, “Our objective is to create decision-making support systems that will help cities and their residents translate this research into actions — new policies, incentives for individual behaviors and community resilience.”

The above graphic outlines the four phases of the research project along with the 16 ISU faculty that are involved. (Iowa State University)

Iowa Rideshare program to cut costs and emissions

Iowa Rideshare allows users to match with other commuters using various modes of transportation. (Iowa Rideshare)
Jenna Ladd | October 27, 2016

Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) recently launched a statewide rideshare program.

Iowa DOT partnered with several agencies to consolidate existing rideshare programs across the state into one state-of-the art system. Among those agencies are Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority, Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, East Central Iowa Council of Governments, and the University of Iowa. University of Iowa (UI) staff, students, and faculty can login to the system using their HawkID and password in order to be matched with other commuters on similar transportation routes. Iowa Rideshare has the capacity to detect matches for carpooling, biking, public transit, and walking, and officials say it has the potential to cut travel costs in half for users.

According to a survey done in 2012, a little more than half of UI employees drive to work alone, and 57 percent of commuters in the Iowa City area do the same. UI Parking and Transportation professionals say that Iowa City is among the most congested urban areas in Iowa, despite the fact that the state ranks seventh for shortest commute distance. Additionally, solo commutes by car can add up over time. Depending on the vehicle type and driving style, the Iowa DOT says that driving a car can cost between 60 cents and $1.20 per mile. After tacking on parking costs, which range from $27 to $110 per month, a person commuting just ten miles to work could pay an additional $555 to $1,500 per year in transportation costs. Consistently commuting alone by car has environmental impacts as well. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 19.64 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) are emitted per gallon of gasoline burned by automobile. The administration estimates that burning motor gasoline resulted in about 1,105 million metric tons of CO2 emissions in 2015.

Michelle Ribble is the commuter programs manager for the UI Office of Parking and Transportation. She said, “The UI is an extremely busy place and parking infrastructure is expensive. Each person using UI RideShare reduces pollution and frees resources that can more directly benefit everyone.”

The system, designed by a company called Rideshark, allows users to calculate miles traveled, emissions curbed, and money saved. Iowa DOT partnered with institutions like the UI to launch the rideshare program in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. A link to sign up for Iowa Rideshare in the Corridor area can be found here, or check out CorridorRide’s Facebook page to get news and updates about the service.

Human activity, El Niño contribute to record-setting CO2 levels

Former CGRER graduate outreach assistant, Nick Fetty, interviews Dubuque mayor Roy Buol at the COP21 conference in Paris last December. (KC McGinnis/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | October 25, 2016

With carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reaching 400 parts per million (ppm), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) recently announced that a new era of “climate change reality” has begun.

Earth’s atmosphere contained 400 molecules of CO2 for every one million molecules for the first time in globally recorded history in 2015, and 2016 is likely to be the first year where global averages exceed this threshold.

Even though human outputs of CO2 remained steady from 2014 through 2015, a particularly strong El Niño in 2015 caused a dramatic increase in greenhouse gas levels. El Niño is a weather phenomenon characterized by especially warm temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean that have far-reaching weather effects. In 2015, the phenomenon caused drought in tropical regions around the globe, which negatively affected the amount of gases that forests, vegetation, and oceans were able to absorb.

While El Niño heightened the spike of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere last year, human activities like agriculture and industry caused 37 percent of the warming effect due to methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide increase from 1990 through 2015. Petteri Taalas, WMO secretary-general, said, “The El Niño event has disappeared. Climate change has not.” Scientists at the longest-running greenhouse gas monitoring station in the world in Hawaii say that CO2 levels will not drop below 400 ppm for several generations. Carbon dioxide is responsible for around two-thirds of the warming effect that long-lived greenhouse gases have on the atmosphere.

WMO released this report just before the next round of climate talks associated with the Paris Agreement, a climate change mitigation plan signed by 200 nations last December. Participating countries committed to limiting temperature increases to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Taalas said, “The year 2015 ushered in a new era of optimism and climate action with the Paris climate change agreement. But it will also make history as marking a new era of climate change reality with record high greenhouse gas concentrations.”

The 200 nations will meet in Morocco next month to forge a path forward.

City council extends recycling services to all Iowa City residents

Changes to Iowa City code make curbside recycling services available to all residents of Iowa City. (Mike Mahaffle/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 20, 2016

Iowa City council voted unanimously on Tuesday to ramp up recycling efforts in the city.

The first consideration of the amendment to City Code Title 16, Article 3H passed  7-0. It requires recycling services to be available for all multi-family units; currently the city only services single-family households up to four units. Changes made to city code will also provide curbside food-waste collection services and prohibit residents from dumping computers and televisions into the municipal landfill.

City council member Rockne Cole is a long-time proponent of the measure. He said, “We’re looking at diverting over 1,700 tons of material from the landfill.”

University of Iowa and community environmental groups have been advocating for a city-wide recycling program for years. Jacob Simpson, UISG City Council Liaison, said that these changes benefit students who wish to continue recycling after moving off campus. He said, “At the university, we have the opportunity for students to recycle in the dorms and practice something that they’ve learned, and then a lot of the time, they have to go off campus, and they don’t have that ability,” Simpson added, “I think now that the city has taken this step to provide this in off-campus buildings, we cannot just see a benefit to Iowa City, but I think this is going to be something that benefits the state and beyond, as people become more accustomed to recycling.”

City director of Transportation Services Chris O’Brien said that all residential complexes built after January 1, 2017 must immediately comply with the new recycling policy. Landlords that own existing dwellings will be granted a grace period to get in compliance.

City council member Cole added, “It’s a real great victory for the University of Iowa, our community and most importantly, the environment.”

Energy expert Jay Hakes to visit University of Iowa

Jake Slobe | October 17, 2016

Distinguished author and lecturer Jay Hakes will be visiting the University of Iowa today to discuss energy challenges in the U.S.

The lecture, titled “Energy Challenges for the Next American President,” will focus on the upcoming obstacles that America will face in order to meet energy needs.

The lecture is part of the “Ida  Beam Distinguished Visiting Professorships Program” and will take place this evening from 5 to 6 pm and will be located in Van Allen Hall LR2. Theblecture is available for all to attend and is free of charge.

Hakes is one of the foremost authorities on U.S. energy policy and history. He has a long history working on energy issues and has held several prominent positions including a Director of the Governor’s Energy Office for Florida Governor Bob Graham,  and Administrator of the  U.S. Energy Information Administration during the Clinton administration, and Director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library from 2000-2013.

Hakes also served as the Director for Research and Policy for President’s Obama’s BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Commission.

Hakes travels widely in the United States and the world to lecture on energy issues, and is a regular contributor to the energy news and opinion website Real Clear Energy.

Hakes’ 2008 book, A Declaration of Energy Independence, analyzes U.S. energy policy since the 1970’s and provides workable solutions to the nation’s energy dilemmas. Hakes also has two forthcoming books; one on the energy crises of the 1970s, and the other on the history of the climate change debate in the United States.


Iowa professor selected to serve on U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce

University of Iowa associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, associate faculty research engineer at IIHR, and Director of the Environmental Policy Research Program, David Cwiertny. (Anne Easker, IIHR)
Jenna Ladd | October 6, 2016

Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) member David Cwiertny has been selected to serve on the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce as minority staff. Cwiertny, who is also the Director of the Public Policy Center’s Environmental Policy Research Program, received the appointment through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). AAAS creates opportunities for scientists to offer their expertise and analytical skills to legislators while also learning more about the policy making process firsthand. Cwiertny said,

“Evidence, rooted in sound science, should whenever possible be used to inform and improve decision making and new policy.  And science has never been more important for informing policy, particularly as society begins to address how best to manage and adapt to a changing climate. So in my discipline of environmental engineering and environmental science, I think there is a real opportunity for scientists and engineers to help advance policy that better enables sustainable development both in the US and around the globe.”   

As an AAAS 2016-2017 Congressional Fellow, he will serve on both the energy and power and environment and economy subcommittees. Cwiertney, who is also an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and associate faculty research engineer at IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering, will function as a technical expert within the two subcommittees, which are responsible for all legislation and regulation related to water, air, and soil quality and energy. He added, “I’m eager to see, first hand, what the major hurdles are to translating scientific discovery into evidence-based decision making, and how we can improve and evolve our craft as researchers to better help policy makers.”

Cwiertny is one of two fellows that were selected from a pool of over 100 applicants.

Iowa ranks among top 20 states for air pollution

Three of the national top 100 toxic chemical producing companies are located in Iowa. (Cliff/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 30, 2016

A recent analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found that Iowa is ranked among the top 20 states in the union for both toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases in the air.

The center, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that performs analysis of government and ethics issues that affect the public, analyzed federal air quality data from 2010 to 2014, the most recent year for which complete data is public. The report showed that Iowa’s hazardous air emissions increased from 17.6 million pounds per year in 2010 to 18.7 million pounds per year in 2014. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), some common hazardous air pollutants include lead compounds, arsenic compounds, vinyl chloride, and chloroform. Iowa ranks 17th nationally for toxic air emissions.

Analysis reveals that most toxic air emissions can be attributed to a handful of power plants, factories, and other facilities. Three of the top 100 contributors are located in the state of Iowa. Climax Molybdenum Co. of Fort Madison ranks among the top ten and released 4.4 million pounds of hazardous chemicals such as ammonia into the air in 2014. Eric Schaeffer, Director of the Environmental Integrity Project called ammonia a “serious pollutant.” Schaeffer said, “It can cause significant health effects when people are exposed to it,” he added, “But it also can lead to water pollution when it falls back to Earth and gets transformed into nitrogen.” Eric Kinneberg, a spokesperson for the Phoenix-based company that owns Climax Molybdenum, said that the plant is working to curb emissions. While not yet fully operational, the company is installing an ammonia scrubber that is predicted to cut ammonia emissions by 90 percent. Kinneberg said, “We share the same goals of achieving and maintaining clean air for all Iowans.”

While the Hawkeye state still ranks 19th nationally for greenhouse gas emissions, emissions dropped by 11 percent from 2010 to 2014. Experts say that much of Iowa’s greenhouse gas emission decrease can be explained by a surge in wind and solar energy investments. Power plants owned by MidAmerican Energy and Berkshire Hathaway are responsible for a large portion of greenhouse gases in the air, but both companies are making strides to limit emissions. Berkshire Hathaway said that it has invested in technology that has significantly reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter and mercury. Perhaps more notably, MidAmerican Energy has retired four coal fueled units and switched a fifth over to natural gas, which also curbs emissions. The company has also invested over $10 billion in wind energy since 2014. MidAmerican most recently announced a $3.6 billion wind energy project that will be constructed on multiple sites around the state.