TECH GOES GREEN
Simple computing changes you can make to be kinder to the planet
Climate change, polluted air, plastic-filled oceans – the earth isn’t in great shape. But the creative forces that power the tech industry’s constant state of innovation could help, with clever power generation and storage, roadside air filters paid for by advertising, and plastic-chomping water drones.
Forget the money-making ideas that fund Silicon Valley, there are plenty of clever creations that could do real good for the world, cleaning up energy, encouraging us to cut our power use, and mopping up the mess we’ve made of the environment. Here are some to watch out for and make use of in your own home.
While some technological innovations can be energy guzzlers – we’re looking at you, bitcoin – other ideas help slash energy use, notably smart home and smart city tech, such as the so-called Internet of Things (IoT).
“There’s a real potential benefit to devices that let us manage our energy use in a smart way, such as thermostats,” says Gary Cook, senior corporate campaigner at Greenpeace. No wonder, then, that smart home gadgets such as Nest thermostats and smart home meters are so popular.
A survey last year from Maplin (we miss it already) revealed that a quarter of British homes already have smart devices of some sort, up 135% from the previous year. For the most part, that’s cameras, lighting and thermostats, as well as home hubs and voice assistants such as Amazon Echo and Google Home.
But how much energy do they actually save? Google-owned Nest claims its smart thermostats save 12% on heating and 15% on cooling in the US by using machine learning to track your patterns and adjust your home’s temperature to match.
Smart meters have been touted as energy savers, too, cutting use by a few percentage points, but they merely record and display your power use, so it’s up to you to take that information and use it to change your habits.
However, smart home devices remain complicated to use, hindering their take-up, and can actually lead to higher energy use. That’s according to researchers at RMIT University in Australia, who found that 75% of participants in a study failed to actually use the devices, with many saying they were too difficult to install or “inconvenient or not useful”. Of the quarter of participants left using smart home devices in the study, the researchers noted that some actually increased the amount of energy they used, by switching the heating on before arriving home or keeping the lights on when away for security.
“The danger is in assuming that lower power bills can come neatly packaged in a box – the reality, as always, is more complicated,” the researchers advise.
Aside from managing our personal use, smart appliances and home batteries that let us only pull down power from the grid at times of lower demand can help ease the burden; that’s the idea behind Elon Musk’s Powerwall, which recharges via solar panels on your roof or by drawing from the grid at low-demand times. That takes the pressure off utilities, says Cook, meaning they need not “turn on another power plant”. And that’s a big win, given backup power stations tend to be the dirtiest, as here in the UK we rely first on renewables and nuclear before padding that out with coal.
Renewable energy is the other great hope for environmental change: if we can improve what goes into making electricity, everything we do becomes greener. As much as half of the UK’s electricity came from low-carbon sources in 2017, helped by winter storms turning wind turbines, according to a report from the Centre of Environmental Policy.
There’s plenty of clean-energy startups with tech to help make clean
energy: Kite Power Systems uses an actual kite to turn a turbine to produce energy, while Pavegen collects energy from footsteps on flooring panels. Microgrids such as Brooklyn-based LO3 Energy let us share and sell the energy we each make via solar panels or other renewable methods, either to our neighbours or to utility companies.
DRONING ON ABOUT CLEAN WATER
Given how important water is to our survival, it’s remarkable how terrible we are at keeping it clean: wealthy countries treat only 70% of the wastewater we make, compared to 38% for developing countries, according to the UN. Research published in Science revealed eight million metric tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans each year, leading to giant clumps of garbage at sea, while WWF research shows that 40% of the rivers in England and Wales are polluted by sewage.
Drones are one possible solution. RanMarine Technology’s WasteShark water-based drone has been trialled in Rotterdam’s port, gobbling up garbage.
“We modelled the WasteShark on the whale shark: a gentle, unobtrusive, efficient predator, designed to eat its prey at maximum quantities and with minimal effort,” explains Oliver Cunningham, the company’s chief commercial officer.
It uses Wi-Fi and GPS to navigate with LIDAR – the laser tech that assists most driverless cars – to avoid collisions, and so far there have been no injuries to animals. That means WasteShark can swim on a set path or be allowed to roam autonomously in a predefined area. Each battery charge lets it swim and collect garbage for eight hours, and it can gobble up 180 litres of garbage weighing up to 350 kilograms. “When it is full of trash it will return to land, discharge the payload and then set out to feed again,” Cunningham adds.
Aside from cleaning up water-logged rubbish, the WasteShark drone can be used to mop up oil, clean “alien or pest” vegetation, and even collect golf balls for anywhere that happens to be a problem. Alongside cleaning up, it collects data via built-in sensors to help monitor the environment.
“Ocean trash is a critical global problem, for sure, but we have designed the WasteShark for much more than just that,” Cunningham explains.
“The WasteShark has been designed for urban water: it is compact, agile, lightweight and green, so it is perfectly adapted to navigate the tight angles and confined spaces of cityscape marine environments.”
After the Rotterdam trial, WasteShark is being tested in South Africa, Sweden and the US – so keep an
eye on the water if you’re in Cape Town, Kristianstad or Baltimore, and you may spot one of the rare creatures.
As clever as such ideas are, the best solution is to prevent pollution.
“Rather than having robots and drones to clean up, it’s much better to eliminate the problem in the first place,” notes Cook.
In the meantime, however, at least we can set such drones to work cleaning up our water.
Air pollution is a problem for us all, but most of all in urban areas. Data from the London Atmospheric Emissions Inventory revealed last year that 95% of residents of the capital live in areas that exceed World Health Organisation limits by more than 50% for levels of dangerous particles known as PM2.5, while the city surpassed the legal limits for nitrogen dioxide within the first week of this year.
After facing lawsuits, central government is finally taking action with a new clean air strategy, while London mayor Sadiq Khan has rolled out plans to ban diesel vehicles from the centre of the city.
But technology could offer an answer, too. Airlabs is a British startup that’s working on smart street furniture to clean up air in places we wait, such as transport hubs. Its benches and bus stops filter out pollution, with one test by King’s College London in 2016 showing the Airlabs filter removed 87% of key pollutants.
City Green Solutions has a similar idea, but pairs the IoT and plants for its street-level filters. The CityTree, as the first product is called, is a wall of moss that can be integrated into a bench, which uses sensors to measure air pollution and to keep the air-filtering mosses – not normally at home in an urban jungle – well fed and watered.
Meanwhile, students at Imperial College London and Royal College of Art have created water-mist-based air filters called Pluvo that would sit at the side of roads to suck up and clean emissions, all while showing advertising in their ‘mist’. Developer Nick Hooton says air could be 60% cleaner after being filtered by Pluvo: “It should have quite a significant impact on the level of air quality on London’s streets.”
While cleaning up the air for city dwellers is important, we need to prevent pollution, too. Electric cars are one key technology, and innovations in battery technology make them ever more viable. Even if they’re powered by electricity generated by coal, they’re at least not spewing fumes in your child’s face on the way to school.
Another possible solution is drone-based deliveries. As silly as Amazon Prime by Air may sound, courier lorries release a significant amount of carbon and other pollution into our air; in the US, trucks make up just shy of a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions from transport, according to research published in Nature
Communications. That study revealed drones required less energy and emitted fewer greenhouse gases than trucks for small deliveries at half a kilogram and below. Larger packages didn’t see the same substantial savings, however. The researchers also noted that there were other costs, such as setting up more warehouses to make up for shorter flights, but suggest drone deliveries could help clear the air in urban areas, making an otherwise sillysounding idea suddenly a lot more appealing.
IS TECH THE ANSWER?
Clever ideas aside, it’s worth remembering how much damage to the planet the technology industry causes: the sector eats up as much as 12% of global electricity, e-waste is piling up at a rate of millions of tonnes a year, and it’s only going to get worse as more and more of the world gets connected.
So while we look to tech for solutions to polluted water, air and planet, we need to ensure we’re not making it worse. A smart home or IoT-enabled office can slash energy use, but it’s of little use if the devices behind such environmental gains are damaging the planet in their manufacture.
“This explosive growth in internet devices is often sold to us as a good thing: ‘smart’ is more efficient and helps us save energy,” notes Nesta data scientist Katja Bego.
“But what we often forget when we install that smart thermostat is that the production processes behind these products have a significant carbon footprint and rely on the use of finite, harmful and hard-to-recycle resources.” Cramming sensors and gadgets into our homes and cities can help us understand where the worst pollution is and assist with mopping it up, but let’s make sure green tech isn’t giving us more to clean up, too. Drones that clean up polluted ports are great for our planet, but so are phones that don’t get sent to landfill after 18 months.
TOP: The Tesla Powerwall draws power from the grid when demand is low
ABOVE: Nest claims its smart thermostats can save you money on your heating bills
TOP: Kite Power Systems uses an actual kite to produce energy
ABOVE: Pavegen collects energy from footsteps
ABOVE: Junk food: the WasteShark gobbles up rubbish in polluted water
LEFT: The company also produces benches that perform the same function
ABOVE: The Airlabs bus stops filter out pollutants from the air we breathe
ABOVE: Air filters from Pluvo sit next to the road and clean vehicle emissions
RIGHT: City Green Solutions’ wall of moss integrates with a bench to measure air pollution