Announcing an Interactive Energy Game from the US EPA

The US EPA has just released an interactive board game developed by physical scientist Rebecca Dodder, PhD, in collaboration with classroom teachers and others at the EPA, and this is a game that teachers are going to love incorporating into their instruction!  The Generate! Game lets participants engage in friendly competition while conducting a  simulation that enables them to examine the costs and benefits of using varied fossil and renewable energy sources to power their electrical grid.

Each team is given a game board which represents their power grid.  Every team has same size grid and thus can generate the same total amount of energy, but teams do not have the same mix of energy sources. Each team assembles a portfolio of energy sources for their grid under constraints provided by the facilitator – which group can come up with the least expensive energy portfolio?  Which group can come up with a portfolio that generates the least amount carbon dioxide emissions? Which energy portfolio utilizes the least amount of water and would presumably be more resilient during a drought?  How does the addition of energy efficiency measures impact costs? emissions?Game-in-playI have seen this game played numerous times, both with high school students and teachers and it is always well received. In fact, most people want to keep playing the game as each round brings an improved understanding of the kinds of decisions that must be taken into account when choosing which energy sources will be used to provide electricity. This game is a very effective instructional tool that cultivates critical thinking about the energy sources used to generate electricity both now and in the future.

Materials for making your own Generate! game are now available along with a PowerPoint slide set for introducing the game to students and a teacher’s guide for both middle school and high school teachers. Once you conduct this game with students, you will find that students are more prepared to thoughtfully engage in a discussion about the future of electricity generation and to grapple “with the complexities of our energy challenges.”

Have fun!


Two Solar Energy Lessons from My NASA Data

I think it is great when students can interact with real data as this brings not only relevance to an activity but also enables them to practice the skills required to analyze and interpret data.

These two solar-energy related lessons from NASA utilize satellite data from the MY NASA DATA Live Access Server (LAS).  The LAS contains over 149 parameters in atmospheric and earth science from five NASA scientific projects and enables teachers to create their own data microsets that also take into account geographic location (latitude and longitude). While easy to use, I would get familiar with this tool first; a tutorial is available on the LAS home page.

Think GREEN – Utilizing Renewable Solar Energy
In this lesson, students analyze line plots that are generated using satellite data to determine the average monthly amount of solar energy received by their region and assess the impact of clouds on the amount of solar energy received.  Students practice constructing and interpreting graphs and evaluate the solar energy potential for their region.

Solar Cell Energy Availability From Around the Country
In this lesson, students analyze incoming solar radiation graphs for the country to determine the areas of the country that have the greatest solar energy potential. To conclude the activity, each student explores where in the US they would choose to live if solar energy was to power their home.


A nice companion activity for either lesson would be to have your students create sun charts for their region and/or the regions they are comparing.


The Growth of the Solar Industry in North Carolina

I asked my colleague Steve Wall, Policy Research Associate at the UNC Institute for the Environment, to reflect on the growth of solar in NC and to give you ideas of places where you can go to learn more.

North Carolina has long been recognized as a national leader in a number of economic sectors, from biotechnology to agricultural to tourism. The emergence of the solar industry in the state means that North Carolina can now stake a claim to being a national leader in renewable energy. Just last week Duke Energy announced that it will be investing $500 million in solar projects across the state in coming years.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association North Carolina was ranked third in the country for the amount of solar installed in 2013. As the recent announcement by Duke Energy illustrates, solar development appears to be on a path to continue this strong growth. Primarily the growth in the solar industry across the state has developed through the construction of large solar farms rather than conventional rooftop solar on homes and businesses.

The success of the solar industry in North Carolina leads to the question of how did the state best known for basketball and barbeque become a national player in solar development? There are many factors that go into answering that question. However, one critical factor assisting in the solar industry’s remarkable rise is the foundation of state policy.

When North Carolina lawmakers adopted a Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (REPS) in 2007, it became the first state in the Southeast to have such a law. The REPS requires that the utility companies in North Carolina produce a certain amount of their electricity from renewable resources. The law also required that a certain percentage of the renewable generation come from solar—a provision deemed the solar set-aside. Teachers: Have your students learn more about the NC REPS and identify what other “renewable resources” can be utilized to meet its mandates. The Citizen’s Guide to the REPS from the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association is a good place to start.

The increasing amount of solar development across North Carolina has not come without some controversy. In some instances, local governments, community groups, and individual landowners have expressed concerns about the impacts of solar farms. Some of the concerns include potential impact on property values, taking agricultural land out of production, and aesthetics. Faculty at the UNC School of Government released a report earlier this year to help guide local government leaders to ensure that the siting of solar farms is done in a responsible manner. Teachers: Have your students explore whether there are any solar farms (click here for a summary of Duke Energy Renewables’ commercial solar farms) in your region and whether there was any opposition to their construction. Internet research and local newspapers may be the best resources for this exercise.

The recent surge of solar development in North Carolina appears likely to continue into the foreseeable future. The long-term success of the industry remains reliant on sound policies as well as addressing issues raised by local communities where these facilities are sited. If state and local officials fail to recognize the economic value of these new industry and choose to back away from the current policies that have made the state a national leader, the Palmetto state has passed a new law that shows it is willing to take North Carolina’s place.

Teachers: For more information on solar and renewable energy policies in North Carolina and across the country the North Carolina Clean Technology Center is a great resource!

WFAE’s Charlotte Talks examines Fracking in NC

When I lived in Charlotte one of my favorite programs to listen to during my commute was WFAE’s Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins and so I am looking forward to listening to a two part discussion on fracking in North Carolina that aired on September 3rd and 8th, 2014.

Fracking in NC| Sept 3rd program with featured guests:

  • Christopher Hardin, P.E. – Senior Project Director, CH2M HILL
  • Franklin H. Yoho – Senior Vice President – Chief Commercial Officer, Piedmont Natural Gas
  • Dr. Andy Bobyarchick – Associate Professor of Earth Sciences, Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at UNC Charlotte

Fracking Part 2| Sept 8th program with featured guests:

  • James Womack – Commissioner for the Mining & Energy Commission
  • Dr. Andy Bobyarchick – Associate Professor of Earth Sciences, Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at UNC Charlotte
  • Cassie Gavin – Director of Government Affairs with Sierra Club’s NC Chapter

You can listen to each segment online and find links to related content from WFAE.

EPA’s Clean Power Plan & NC

On Monday June 2nd, the EPA proposed its Clean Power Plan that is intended to cut U.S. carbon emissions from existing power plants by 30 percent (compared with 2005 emissions) by 2030.  The reductions in carbon pollution that will need to be implemented will be different for each state given that each state utilizes a different fuel mix for electricity generation and may already be incorporating low-carbon technologies at existing power plants. According to the EPA, “states can choose the right mix of generation using diverse fuels, energy efficiency and demand-side management to meet the goals and their own needs.” You can view the June 2nd press release here.

As a teacher, this proposed rule provides a great opportunity for your students to examine the current energy sources used to generate electricity in NC and then to critically assess the various strategies that could be used to reduce carbon pollution by the electricity sector in NC.   Janet McCabe, head of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, in her post titled Understanding State Goals Under the Clean Power Plan on the EPA Connect Blog, summarized the four measures the  EPA identified that are “technically sound,  affordable, and that result in significant reductions in carbon intensity. They are:
1) improving efficiency at existing coal-fired power plants,
2) increasing utilization of existing natural gas fired power plants,
3) expanding the use of wind, solar, or other low- or zero-emitting alternatives, and
4) increasing energy efficiency in homes and businesses.”

According to data from the US Energy Information Agency (EIA), in 2012 NC ranked 15th nationally in terms of its contribution of carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity sector.

The EPA’s Clean Power Plan interactive map tool enables users to click on a state to learn more about EPA’s carbon reduction goals for that state and to learn about the fossil fuel fired power plants covered by the proposed plan.  The EPA has proposed that North Carolina  lower its carbon pollution to 992 lb/MWh in 2030. North Carolina’s 2012 emission rate was 1,646 pounds/megawatt hours (lb/MWh) so this represents a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030.

You can read more about what this plan means for NC by reading the June 2, 2014 News and Observer article, EPA calls on NC power plants to reduce emission rates 40% by 2030. According to the article, which referenced Jonas Monast, director of the climate and energy program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and adjunct professor at the UNC School of Law, federal projections show North Carolina is already on track to see an 18 percent drop in carbon emissions by 2020, compared with 2005.

Fact sheets and details about the proposed rule are available here.

This graphic from the New York Times may also be useful in instruction.

Energy, Water and Land: National Climate Assessment

The National Climate Assessment “provides an in-depth look at climate change impacts on the U.S. It details the multitude of ways climate change is already affecting and will increasingly affect the lives of Americans.”  Chapter 10 of the report is devoted to exploring the connections between energy, water and land as understanding these connections “can improve our capacity to predict, prepare for, and mitigate climate change.”

The report is organized around three key messages:
1. Energy, water, and land systems interact in many ways. Climate change affects the individual sectors and their interactions; the combination of these factors affects climate change vulnerability as well as adaptation and mitigation options for different regions of the country.
2. The dependence of energy systems on land and water supplies will influence the development of these systems and options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as their climate change vulnerability.
3. Jointly considering risks, vulnerabilities, and opportunities associated with energy, water, and land use is challenging, but can improve the identification and evaluation of options for reducing climate change impacts.

Each chapter of the report includes interactive graphics as well as figures and graphics that can be downloaded for use in the classroom.  Check out the interactive version of Figure 10.4 that shows the energy production by source, amount of water withdrawn by key sectors and land cover type for each region of the US along with projected climate change impacts. This figure provides an at-a-glance view of water, energy and land use that can be used by students as they consider how projected climate impacts might influence each of these sectors in their region.

The report also includes examples of energy, water and land connections by exploring the following technologies and the corresponding energy-water-land tradeoffs in more depth:

  • shale gas and hydraulic fracturing
  • solar power generation
  • biofuels
  • carbon capture and storage

So the next time you ask students to critically evaluate the various energy sources used by society, encourage them to also consider the role of water and land in the mining and acquisition of energy sources, the generation of electricity, and the manufacture and delivery of transportation fuels.



Examining coal ash ponds near you

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in collaboration with numerous environmental and community non-profit organizations from across the southeast has produced a “one stop shop” for all things coal ash. The site includes a user-friendly, interactive map tool to locate power plants with coal ash storage facilities (ponds or landfills) and then inform the user about the owner of the power plant, and, for each ash storage facility, the year it was built, whether it is active or inactive, its EPA dam hazard rating, and any additional concerns  (e.g., unlined pond, poor condition of dam, evidence of contamination).  

Data on each power plant’s coal ash storage facilities is compiled from data made available by the Energy Information Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, utility providers and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. In addition, all data is available as Google Earth KMZ or GIS shapefile.

ccw_map__Cape Fear Power Station

Credit: SELCNC

What I like about this tool from a teaching perspective is that the information for each power plant can be downloaded as a pdf for easy review by students and incorporation into instruction.  An aerial map is available for each power plant that shows the power plant, ash pond and landfill boundaries and proximity to local waterways.

There are numerous other resources available on this website.  You can learn about the state of coal ash in NC by clicking here.  In addition, there is a news page dedicated to the 2014 Dan River coal ash spill which includes links to news articles, pictures, press releases, videos.



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