Natural gas provides only a “short and narrow bridge” to a low-carbon future – John Reilly

MIT Sloan Sr. Lecturer John Reilly

From The Energy Collective

The oil industry is pinning its hopes on natural gas. To hear oil executives tell it, natural gas is a veritable “bridge between a fossil fuel past and a carbon-free future,” as Bloomberg News put it recently.

It’s a story that makes sense on its face: natural gas emits about one-half of the carbon dioxide of coal and about three-quarters that of gasoline. Power plants can get more electricity per BTU of natural gas than coal, giving it a further advantage. And in an electric vehicle world, the future of gas could look bright.

But natural gas is not our climate savior. The fuel—which consists primarily of methane—is cleaner than coal and oil, but it is by no means carbon-free. For regions of the world potentially new to gas, expensive investments in pipeline or ocean transport and distribution infrastructure are required.

At best, any “bridge” that the fuel provides to a future where zero-carbon-producing power generation technologies take over is short and narrow. True, gas generation may help firm up intermittent renewables, but the goal would be to operate these as little as possible, minimizing the use of gas. And yes, gas could come back with success of carbon capture and storage (CCS), but advances in this technology have so far not panned out.

Are big investments in new gas infrastructure worth it if fully utilized for only 20 years or so? The gas bridge is getting shorter and narrower as we delay serious action on fighting climate change.

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“Gleaners” can help solve hunger, food waste and nutritional deficiencies, if volunteers managed efficiently – Deishin Lee

MIT Sloan Visiting Asst. Prof. Deishin Lee

From the Griffin Report, July, 2017

Food banks have benefited greatly from the incredible generosity of farmers and volunteers who have taken the time and made the effort of gathering produce left in the fields after a main harvest.

Indeed, the practice of “gleaning” which dates back to ancient times, has been growing in recent years as more efforts and associations are organized to meet the simultaneous need of feeding food-insecure persons at food banks and reducing food waste.

Modern-day gleaning in America is a noble endeavor, but is fraught with operational challenges that introduce inefficiencies into the process.

My colleagues Baris Ata, Xiaoli Fan, Miguel Gomez and Erkut Sonmez and I study the root cause of these process inefficiencies and how to address them in a series of papers, based on our work with the Food Bank of the Southern Tier in New York and the Boston Area Gleaners.

We found that a key part of the problem – and ultimately its solution – is tied to how volunteer staff members are utilized in the gleaning process. It’s not necessarily about a lack of volunteers. In its simplest terms, it’s about when and where those volunteers are deployed for gleaning operations.

But before we get into our recent findings on staffing and other key issues, let’s first step back to look at the larger picture of the gleaning activity itself and the challenges it faces.

It’s been estimated that about 6 percent of planted acres go unharvested in the U.S. To be clear: these are edible crops fit for human consumption that will be left in the fields to be plowed under unless someone goes back to harvest, or glean, them.

Simultaneously, it’s been estimated that about 14 percent of U.S. households faces food insecurity. Food insecurity is not just about hunger. It’s also about people not getting the healthy, micronutrient-rich foods that we all need.

So a gleaning operation is ultimately addressing three societal problems: hunger, food waste, and nutritional deficiencies.

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Has China’s coal use peaked? Hear’s how to read the tea leaves – Valerie J. Karplus

Assistant Professor Valerie Karplus

Assistant Professor Valerie Karplus

From The Conversation

As the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, how much coal China is burning is of global interest.

In March, the country’s National Bureau of Statistics said the tonnage of coal has fallen for the second year in the row. Indeed, there are reports that China will stop construction of new plants, as the country grapples with overcapacity, and efforts to phase out inefficient and outdated coal plants are expected to continue.

A sustained reduction in coal, the main fuel used to generate electricity in China, will be good news for the local environment and global climate. But it also raises questions: what is driving the drop? And can we expect this nascent trend to continue?

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How to improve Boston’s infrastructure future – Venkat Sumantran, Charles Fine, and David Gonsalvez

MIT Sloan Professor Charles Fine

CEO and rector at the Malaysia Institute for Supply Chain Innovation, David Gonsalvez

Chairman of Celeris Technologies, Venkat Sumantran

From the Boston Globe

Mayor Marty Walsh and his team deserve a great deal of credit for creating an enlightened, forward-looking vision for Boston’s transportation future. The initiative Go Boston 2030 tackles a key challenge for the city: its aging mobility infrastructure. However, this plan is missing several opportunities to improve the livability of Boston and foster inclusive economic growth. The plan can and should be more ambitious.

Changes to the plan are critical, since a city’s mobility architecture can have a huge impact on its economy. Inefficiencies that sap economic growth stem from many sources like loss of productivity of people and assets, air quality remediation costs, reduced attractiveness to businesses, and impact on health. In 2016, Boston’s ranking in the INRIX traffic scorecard, which analyzes the impact of traffic in cities around the world, deteriorated from number 28 to 16 among US cities with the worst traffic congestion. The average Boston motorist wastes more than 57 hours each year, notwithstanding declining per capita use of personal transportation. Commuters on I-93, Storrow Drive, and Routes 1 and 128 know this all too well.

Access, connectedness, and capacity — Grade: B

Over 30 percent of the city’s lowest income residents are inadequately served by public or alternative travel modes and are pushed toward car-dependency. In contrast, for those in the highest income segment, only 10 percent face this situation. Initiatives such as the proposed investments in the Green Links project, seeking a four-fold increase in pedestrian commutes, as well as the expansion of the Hubway bike-share system, will widen options for many commuters. Their options may be even more comprehensively augmented with better connectivity.

Boston’s mass transit is highly dependent on the radial metro routes and offers fewer services to many whose commutes do not take them to downtown locations. Adding more circumferential routes for high-capacity Bus Rapid Transit — such as connecting Brighton and Dorchester or Fenway with South Boston — with synchronized connections to existing T stops, could offer many commuters more efficient travel with moderate investment. These systems could also serve as feeders to underserved regions such as Roxbury, Mattapan, Dorchester, and South Boston.

In addition, the issue of capacity augmentation needs urgent attention. To overcome funding limitations, the plan’s expectation to encourage ride-share vans to complement public transit deserves faster expansion. Yet, to avoid controversies, such as those that have arisen with the expansion of app-hailed taxis like Uber and Lyft, these services will need to be operated with appropriate governance, regulations, and oversight.

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Overcoming the culture of waste – Deishin Lee

Deishin Lee, MIT Sloan Visiting Assistant Professor

One of the key messages in the Pope’s recent TED Talk was an entreaty to overcome the “culture of waste.” I wholeheartedly agree — this is a critical issue. The question is how do we even think about taking on such a large problem?

The “culture of waste” can be viewed through many different lenses: moral, philosophical, societal — just to name a few. But in addition to these broader notions of waste, there is simply the mundane notion of trash. Although mundane, trash is omnipresent, and perhaps understanding our mentality towards it can yield insights into broader cultural issues on waste.

Embarking on the study of waste (of the trash kind) several years ago, I was surprised to find that most waste is generated on purpose. Aside from the trash that we discard as individuals (municipal solid waste), there is trash (industrial waste) generated by supply chain processes that make the products we use. It turns out that the amount of industrial waste is orders of magnitude greater than municipal solid waste, which is already staggering. Moreover, the generation of this kind of waste is codified in the processes we use to produce our goods.

Pick any product and look at how it is produced. You will find that along with the desired product, whether it be an automobile or a hamburger, the process that produced it also produced other stuff, which we generally refer to as waste. An industrial example is production of pig iron, a key ingredient for making steel. In the process of making pig iron, a waste stream of oxides and silicates called slag is generated.

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