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The $1 trillion infrastructure bill is a baby step toward the US grid we need



The $1 trillion infrastructure bill is a baby step toward the US grid we need

Any effective plan to tackle climate change hinges on a basic technology: long wires strung across tall towers.

The US needs to add hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission lines in the coming decades to weave together fragmented regional power systems into an interconnected grid capable of supporting a massive influx of renewables.

A national network of short spur lines and long-distance, high-voltage wires would deliver wind, solar and hydroelectric power to where it’s needed when it’s available across the country. It could help provide reliable backup power when heat waves or winter storms cause regional power shortages, and keep up with soaring demands as homes and businesses increasingly come to rely on electricity to power their vehicles, heating systems, and more.

It’s a grand vision with a few serious flaws. For starters, it could cost hundreds of billions of dollars to build out the necessary power lines this decade alone. A Princeton-led study found it will take an additional $350 billion for the US to develop the transmission capacity needed in just the next nine years. That’s under a scenario in which wind and solar provide half of the country’s electricity by 2030, putting the nation on track to zero out emissions by midcentury.

Even if the government and businesses free up the necessary funds, there’s an even trickier challenge ahead: states, counties, cities, and towns across the nation would need to quickly sign off on a multitude of new transmission lines. And the US has become terrible at permitting such multi-state projects.

A series of efforts to deliver cheap, clean hydro power from Canada, wind from the Great Plains, and a blend of renewables from the Southwest have been mired in legal battles for years, or rejected, often because a single region balked at having the wires cut through its land. Even those large grid projects that do get built can easily take a decade to work through the approvals process.

Some help may finally be on the way. The roughly $1 trillion infrastructure package moving forward in the Senate, which has bipartisan support, provides billions of dollars for transmission lines. It also includes some provisions that might prove even more important than the money, by enhancing and clarifying federal power over project approvals.

Still, the package would represent just a small down payment on the investments and permitting changes that will be required.

‘Lagging behind’

The US doesn’t have a single grid. It has three aging, disconnected systems, largely built around the middle of the last century, with limited abilities to swap electricity across states and larger regions. That’s a problem because power plants can be hundreds of miles away from major cities, where the demand for the electricity is greatest.  

The isolated grids mean that electricity from fluctuating sources like solar and wind can only be shipped so far, wasting some portion of the output and driving down prices when generation outstrips regional demand during particularly windy and sunny periods (which is occurring more and more as those sources make up a greater share of the electricity supply). For instance, California can’t ship its excess solar power to the Midwest during the middle of a summer day, or draw on the steady wind power from, say, Oklahoma when the sun starts to dip on the West Coast.

But operators of an integrated grid could tap into the lowest-cost electricity available across a far larger area and deliver it to places with high demand, notes Doug Arent, an executive director at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Whatever renewable sources are cranking out electricity at the time, whether it’s wind in Wyoming or solar in Florida, could find a willing market.

Long-distance, high-voltage transmission lines also enable more development of solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal plants in the regions blessed with the weather, geology, or waterways to supply them: developers will be able to count on larger customer bases in cities that may be a time zone or two away.

A recent Lawrence Berkeley lab presentation noted there’s already more than 750 gigawatts of power generation proposals in the queue across five regions of the US, awaiting transmission connections that could deliver the electricity to customers. The vast majority of them are solar and wind projects. (By way of comparison, the US’s entire fleet of large-scale plants can generate a little more than 1,100 gigawatts.)

Other countries are zipping ahead in this area. China has emerged as the world’s clear leader in high-voltage transmission, building tens of thousands of miles of these lines to connect its power plants with cities across the vast nation. But while China developed 260 gigawatts of transmission capacity between 2014 and 2021, all of North America added just seven, according to a survey conducted by Iowa State University.

“The US is lagging behind, yet it has every reason to catch up,” James McCalley, a professor of power systems engineering at Iowa State University and a coauthor of a national grid study published late last year, said in a statement.

A fraction of what’s needed

So how could the US begin to close that gap?

First, it will need more money. While the Biden administration has boasted that the infrastructure package provides $73 billion for “clean energy transmission,” those funds are spread across a wide array of efforts, including research and development as well as demonstration projects in areas like carbon capture and clean hydrogen.

The current version of the infrastructure package sets aside only about $10 billion to $12 billion specifically for erecting transmission towers and wires, notes Rob Gramlich, president of power consulting firm Grid Strategies.

That’s a fraction of the amount the Princeton study found the US will need to put in work in the next nine years. While federal spending is designed to unlock private capital, the US would still need to invest tens of billions more to get to the necessary scales this decade, says Jesse Jenkins, a coauthor of the Princeton study and an assistant professor at the university.

It also establishes a $2.5 billion revolving loan program for projects, which effectively makes the Department of Energy the initial customer for new transmission lines. This federal financing could help get time-consuming but necessary transmission projects under way before the developer has lined up customers. That could ease the perpetual chicken-and-egg problem between building more electricity generation and constructing the lines needed to transport it, observers say.

Eventually the federal government can sell those rights to clean electricity plants that need access to the lines.

It’s a promising policy tool that “just needs another zero in that budget line,” Jenkins says.

Permitting permits

Though short on money, the proposed infrastructure bill does address approval logjams.

A long-running challenge in many parts of the US is that electricity generating capacity and energy demands grow faster than transmission systems. People and businesses want cheap, reliable electricity, but few embrace the necessary towers and wires—especially if they seem to deliver electricity and economic benefits mostly to far-off areas. There are often aesthetic, environmental, social justice, and business competition criticisms as well.

“If we are going to meet our climate goals, we have to figure out ways to approve these big transmission projects—and historically we’ve struggled to do so,” said Lindsey Walter, deputy director of the climate and energy program at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington, DC, in an email.

A 2005 energy law sought to address these tensions, granting the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) the ability to step in and sign off on projects that could alleviate transmission constraints in certain areas designated national electric transmission corridors. But so far, the Department of Energy has only designated two such areas, in the mid-Atlantic and in Southern California.

In addition, a federal court of appeals ultimately limited FERC’s authority, finding it only had the right to sign off on projects if states or other jurisdictions held up an application for more than a year. It did not have the ability to overrule state rejections of applications under the law, the court ruled.


The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush



The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan



The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI



Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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