The Big Picture: The phantom power of your electronics

Image result for unplugging energy devices

Learn how you can save money on your power bill by making some simple changes and help save the environment.

Many of our modern devices are reliant on electricity, and a lot of us are quite content to leave them plugged in all day long. But these appliances draw electricity even when they’re not in use — so-called phantom power.

According to the Ontario utility Hydro One, the average Canadian home contains more than 20 devices that draw phantom or “standby” power, which can account for up to 10 per cent of home energy use.

Fixing the problem is as simple (or complicated) as unplugging every appliance you own when it’s not in use or deploying advanced power bars that can time out or sense when devices are idle. Here’s a look at the energy use of some typical electronic devices.

A visualization of the phantom power of popular electronics

SOURCE

 

Doug Ford is Tweeting About ‘Bell Let’s Talk Day’. Here Are The Cuts To Mental Health Services He Made as Premier.

The public record shows Doug Ford has made life much harder for Ontarians with mental health challenges

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On Bell Let’s Talk Day, the day telecommunications giant Bell Canada sets aside a five cent donation to mental health groups for each tweet mentioning the company’s initiative.

Although Canada has a universal public health care system, Canada does not cover illnesses of the mind in the same way that it covers illnesses of the body.

Some groups, like the Canadian Mental Health Association, question if Canada can truly say it has a “universal health care system” given this discriminatory double-standard that creates a need for initiatives like Bell Let’s Talk Day in the first place.

One person who started tweeting about Bell Let’s Talk day early this morning is Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who tweeted that “mental health a priority,” vowing that “every Ontarian will have the opportunity to be fully supported on their journey towards mental wellness” under his government.

Doug Ford

Today on Day join us in having a conversation about mental health

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Here are a few things Ford has already cut or says he plans to cut that would make life harder for Ontarians facing mental health challenges.

Cutting $2.1 billion in planned spending on mental health support

One of the Ford government’s first moves after coming to power was to cut a planned increase in mental health funding, reducing funding for mental health services from $525 million to $190 million — a reduction of $2.1 billion over four years.

Ford’s health minister, Christine Elliot, defended the cut by claiming the previously planned spending was never a “solid” promise.

Although Ford’s government would re-announce bits and pieces of the previous government’s mental health strategy, critics noted the cut itself was not reversed.

Allowing the child and youth mental health waitlist to double

In just two years, Children’s Mental Health Ontario found Ontario’s waitlist for child and youth mental health support has more than doubled.

According to CBC News, 28,000 children and youth are currently on wait lists for treatment across the province — up from roughly 12,000 in 2017 owing in part to “chronic underfunding.”

Trying to cut $222 million from disability support

As PressProgress reported previously, the Ontario government’s budget estimates revealed plans to quietly shave $222 million from expenditure on Ontario Disability Support Financial Assistance, a program that supports many Ontarians with mental health disabilities.

While the government eventually walked back moves to raise the amount it claws back from recipients with some work income to 75% — a move service providers widely panned as likely to make people homeless — it did not reverse this cut.

Still, on the on International Day For Persons with Disabilities, Social Services Minister Todd Smith said: “We all want to do better for people with disabilities.”

The minister stressed that he takes strong offence to suggestions his government is indifferent to the challenges faced by those harmed by his government’s cuts.  SOURCE

British Columbia Poses Big Tests for Trudeau 2.0

From Teck’s mine to the Wet’suwet’en blockade, grown-up decisions face the PM.

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Some big B.C. issues will reveal whether Trudeau got the message after losing his majority and 27 seats, six in B.C. Photo by Adam Scotti, Office of the Prime Minister.

….British Columbia is at the centre of some of the biggest issues that will reveal whether Trudeau got the message after losing his majority and 27 seats, six of them in B.C., in the last election.

Stand-off on reconciliation road

The early signs are not reassuring. Although the Trudeau government has said that it continues “to walk the road of reconciliation” with Indigenous Peoples, that is a hard sell in B.C.

Opposition by Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs to Coastal GasLink’s $6.6-billion pipeline has shown the same old Ottawa: Wet’suwet’en blockades met by RCMP checkpoints — and official silence from the Trudeau government. Paul Manly, Green Party MP for Nanaimo-Ladysmith, has already described Trudeau’s response as “political failure.”

A collision on the West Coast is coming between two competing views: A B.C. Supreme Court injunction forbidding the chiefs from denying workers entry to their job site; and the right of the Wet’suwet’en to oppose a project through their territory that they never signed off on.

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Reconciliation or raids? ‘We will never, ever forget,’ said Wet’suwet’en hereditary Chief Na’moks of last year’s armed police actions against LNG pipeline opponents on his people’s territory. Photo by Michael Toledano.

The PM can’t leave it all to Premier John Horgan to de-escalate the standoff through interlocutors like former NDP MP Nathan Cullen, now a political consultant with StrategyCorp. Given Trudeau’s often-repeated personal interest in the reconciliation file, he will have to walk the walk, after having talked the talk through the megaphone of his fame. A tattoo can only take you so far.

How serious on climate crisis?

One of the reasons the Liberals lost nearly a third of their seats in British Columbia in 2019 is the subpar grade voters gave the PM on his commitment to fight climate change.

With Trudeau’s continued backing for the Trans Mountain Pipeline, a commitment virtually impossible for him to back away from now that he has literally bought in, it is only a matter of time before B.C. protesters, including Indigenous land protectors, confront construction workers on that mega-project.

Does Trudeau send in the Mounties, or maybe even the military, cite white man’s law, or find a way to defuse this ticking time bomb in keeping with a man who says that reconciliation is his most important file?

These particular flash points rest on the bedrock of years of failure on both a new governance structure that would create a third order of government, and the question of land title. No politician of any party has had the courage to face, let alone say and act on that.

Another challenge to the PM’s stated commitment to step up the battle on climate change is fast approaching in Alberta. Will Trudeau greenlight a vast, new bitumen mine in the tarsands by Vancouver-based Teck Resources, a facility “twice the size of Vancouver?”

The $20.6-billion Frontier mine project might put a smile on Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s face, but it would wipe out any chance of Trudeau meeting Canada’s “net-zero” emission targets by 2050. It would also turn him into an eco-hypocrite faster than Donald Trump can tell a lie.

Since a federal/provincial review panel has already decided that the Frontier mine is good on balance, the ball is now in Trudeau’s court. February is the month of decision. What will it be for environmentalists — a Valentine or a rude awakening?

Given what the federal government has just done on the East Coast, there is at least faint hope that the PM could stop the Frontier mine in the interests of the environment, and stepping away from the further development of fossil fuels.

The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board has just revoked the license of Corridor Resources to drill for oil and gas on the “Old Harry” structure in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The 30-kilometre by 10-kilometre area is a potentially rich source of natural gas. It is also part of the Laurentian Channel, the southeast entry point into the Gulf, and an important feeding and migratory area for endangered whales and the leatherback turtle.

The project has attracted passionate opposition because of the potential damage to many species, including the right whale and the blue whale. Activist Mary Gorman broke the good environmental news this way on social media: “The Gulf of St. Lawrence at this moment in history has no petroleum leases. Godspeed, it stays that way.”

…Before someone wins the Stanley Cup, Canadians will have a pretty good idea of whether the PM has changed, or the Shiny Pony has just learned a few new tricks.

Just watch what he does, not what he says. SOURCE

Feeling ‘under siege,’ Wet’suwet’en chiefs demand investigation into RCMP’s blockade

RCMP have been blocking access to Wet’suwet’en Territory since Jan. 13, 2020. Photo from Wet’suwet’en Access Point on Facebook

They set up a checkpoint, citing concerns about public safety. It goes on for weeks. Police officers bar people from entering the neighbourhood ⁠— journalists, people who live there, people bringing essential supplies, their lawyers ⁠— using rules that seem to change from day to day.

That’s the situation Wet’suwet’en people have been in since the RCMP set up a checkpoint along the forest service road that leads to their Northeastern British Columbia territory, said Harsha Walia, the executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA). The police blockade, set up on January 13, is the latest re-escalation of a long-standing battle over the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which would run through unceded Wet’suwet’en territory over the objections of the nation’s hereditary chiefs.

“The Wet’suwet’en understandably feel under siege,” Walia said at a press conference Thursday, calling for a public interest investigation into the RCMP’s conduct. MORE

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RCMP Limits on Access to Wet’suwet’en Land Illegal and Arbitrary, Groups Say
Coastal GasLink pipeline still lacks key environmental authorization in contested Wet’suwet’en territory
VIDEO: RCMP denying lawyers access to visit Wet’suwet’en territory
RCMP says helicopters can go into Wet’suwet’en territory but cannot bring passengers

National plastic ban on track for next year in Canada

Plastic straws are pictured in North Vancouver, B.C. on Monday, June 4, 2018. Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson says a national ban on many single-use plastics is still on track for next year. Photo by The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward

A national ban on many single-use plastics is on track for next year after a government report concluded Thursday that there is more than enough evidence proving plastic pollution is harmful.

“We will be moving towards a ban on harmful single-use plastics and we will be doing that in 2021,” said Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.

The federal Liberals promised last June they’d seek to ban plastic versions of a number of products such as straws, take-out containers and grocery bags. The ban would happen under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which requires a scientific assessment of the problem first.

A draft version of that assessment was released Thursday. It will be open to public comment until April 1.

The report says that in 2016, 29,000 tonnes of plastic garbage, the equivalent of about 2.3 billion single-use plastic water bottles, ended up as litter in Canada — on beaches, in parks, in lakes, and even, says the report, in the air.

Some of the litter is easily visible: pieces bigger than 5 mm are called “macroplastics.” But much of it is plastic that most of us can’t easily see, known as “microplastics” and “microfibres.” These are tiny remnants of plastic smaller than 5 mm, that come when larger pieces of plastic are broken apart. They are also shed off things like clothes made of synthetic fabric, fleece blankets, and tires.

The science looked at the impact of all types of plastics and concluded that evidence is clear macroplastics are hurting wildlife: Dead birds found with plastic in their intestines, whales that wash up on shore with stomachs filled with tonnes of plastic they ingested as they swam, including flip flops and nylon ropes.

In one case, a turtle was found emaciated and dying. When the plastic was removed from its digestive tract, the turtle recovered.

The evidence is less clear about the harmful impacts of people or wildlife ingesting microplastics, and the scientists recommended further study be undertaken. A new fund of $2.2 million over the next two years will fund research on microplastics.

Wilkinson said the finding on macroplastics is enough to proceed with the ban.

He said the specific items that will be banned are still being worked out with scientists. A list will be released in the next few months, he said.

Plastic bags, straws, bottles and Styrofoam containers meant to be used once and discarded are all expected to be on the list but nothing has yet been confirmed.

Wilkinson said there will be time given to businesses who rely on those products to adapt but he is firm that the government is not going to wait several years.

“I think the Canadian public wants to see action quickly so certainly if there is a phase-in period, it won’t be an extensive one.”

He noted Canadians expect quick action on the file. Some companies are moving on their own. The Sobeys grocery chain is removing all plastic bags from its stores as of Jan. 31, taking 255 million plastic bags out of circulation over the next year. Canadians use as many as 15 billion plastic bags every year.

The Canadian Plastics Industry Association is not in favour of banning plastic items, saying it removes choice and alternatives are often worse.

“Given that scientific and economic studies around the world demonstrate that in most cases plastic packaging, plastic shopping bags and some single-use plastics are a better environmental choice when managed properly, bans are not the answer but rather managing them at their end of life is,” the association says in a statement on its website.

Sarah King, head of the oceans and plastics campaign for Greenpeace Canada, said she doesn’t want the ban to result in alternative single-use items because that would simply be trading in one problem for another.

Rather she said the focus has to be on changing delivery models so we reduce unnecessary packaging and reuse that which cannot be avoided.

King said 2021 is fast enough for a ban to start “as long as the ban list is comprehensive,” and includes both specific products and specific types of plastics.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, however, said there is no reason to wait until 2021.

“We know that single-use plastics will stick around forever,” said Singh. “The idea that plastics and a product that is being designed to be used one time and it will last forever is simply irrational and it doesn’t make sense. We’ve got to put an end to it.”

Wilkinson said a plastics ban is only part of the government’s plan to address the problem of plastic waste. He said there is also work underway with the provinces to make the producers of plastics responsible for ensuring they don’t end up as garbage anywhere.

In 2018, when Canada hosted the G7 leaders’ summit, Canada and four other leading economies signed a charter pledging that by 2040 all plastic produced in their countries would be reused, recycled or burned to produce energy. The United States and Japan stayed out. SOURCE

UK sued for approving Europe’s biggest gas power station

Andrea Leadsom overruled climate aims of government’s own planning authority

Drax is planning to build new combined cycle gas turbine generating units in Drax power station, near the town of Selby. Photograph: Drax Group Plc

The UK government is being sued for approving a large new gas-fired power plant, overruling the climate change objections of its own planning authority.

The plant, being developed by Drax in north Yorkshire, would become the biggest gas power station in Europe and could produce 75% of the UK’s power sector emissions when fully operational, according to the environmental lawyers ClientEarth, who have brought the judicial review.

The planning inspectorate recommended to ministers that the 3.6GW gas plant was to be refused permission because it “would undermine the government’s commitment, as set out in the Climate Change Act 2008, to cut greenhouse emissions” by having “significant adverse effects”. It was the first big project rejected because of the climate crisis.

However, Andrea Leadsom, secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, rejected the advice and gave the go-ahead in October. Now ClientEarth has been given permission by the high court to sue ministers, with the case expected to be heard in about two months. The environmental lawyers have previously inflicted three defeats on ministers over their failure to tackle air pollution.

“With scientists ringing the alarm bells for decades, we shouldn’t need to take the government to court over its decision,” said Sam Hunter Jones, a lawyer at ClientEarth. “[Leadsom’s] decision is at odds with the government’s own climate change plans. As the planning inspectorate found, if this plant goes ahead the public risks a carbon budget blowout, or a huge stranded asset that would require propping up by the taxpayer, or a combination of the two.”

A Drax spokeswoman said the company’s ambition was to be removing, not adding carbon to the atmosphere, by 2030. It would do this by burning wood or plants and then capturing and storing the emissions. She said Drax’s carbon negative ambition could be achieved alongside “new, high efficiency gas power capacity as part of our portfolio” and provide electricity when the wind was not blowing or the sun shining.

The UK government’s actions to tackle the climate emergency are under particular scrutiny this year as it will host a vital UN summit in Glasgow in November. The world’s nations must dramatically increase their pledges to cut carbon emissions at the summit to avoid a disastrous 3-4C rise in global temperatures. MORE

 

A BETTER WAY TO TALK ABOUT THE CLIMATE CRISIS

ARTWORK: Thomas Jackson, Party Streamers no. 2, Tumey Hills, California, 2015. Courtesy of Ellen Miller Gallery.

Many of us care about the climate, but it can be challenging to talk about. It’s easy to get bogged down in stats and statistics, for one. And it can be nerve-racking to approach someone if you don’t already know what their beliefs on the topic are. Sometimes, it’s easier to just keep our mouths shut.

Given the urgency of the climate crisis, however, many of us feel that silence is no longer an option. And Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, is the person to talk to about how to talk about climate change. Hayhoe, whose 2018 TEDWomen talk on the subject has been viewed almost 2 million times, talks to everyone about the topic: Uber driverschurch ladies, Rotary Club members, business leaders, managers, elected officials, and more. People may have different backgrounds and views, but she’s found a strategy that works: focusing on the heart — that is, what we collectively value — as opposed to the head.

So no matter your conversational goal, whether it’s encouraging your company to act on climate issues or getting your employees to understand how the decisions they make affect your company’s climate goals, this edited interview with Dr. Hayhoe is a great place to start.

What should any leader take into consideration when talking to people — employees, clients, suppliers, etc. — about climate change?

Ultimately, whether you’re training a new employee, reviewing best practices with a supplier, or just having a conversation about climate change with a client, follow this rule of thumb: Don’t start with fear, judgment, condemnation, or guilt. And don’t start with just overwhelming people with facts and figures. Do start by connecting the dots to what is already important to both of us, and then offer positive, beneficial, and practical solutions that we can engage in.

Why have you found that this method works best? And how does it lead people toward understanding the urgency of climate change and taking action?

Often we believe that to care about climate change we have to be a certain type of person: an environmentalist, someone who bikes to work, or is a vegan. And if we’re not any of those things, then we think, “Why should climate change matter to me?” But the reality is that if we are a human living on planet Earth, then climate change already matters to every single one of us; we just haven’t realized it yet. Why? Because climate change affects the economy, the availability of natural resources, prices, jobs, international competition, and more. Failing to account for climate change in future long-range planning could lose us a competitive edge even in a best-case scenario, and potentially mean the end of a product line or an entire business in the worst case. By connecting climate impacts to what we already care about, we can recognize the importance and urgency of taking action.

So if I’m a leader, what are some specific ways in which I can communicate with my employees that sustainability is a key part of their jobs?

I would start early. During their initial training, I would explain very clearly how our products, our production, and our waste contributes to the problem of climate change. If our production is very energy intensive or produces a lot of organic waste, for example, that means we may be generating massive amounts of greenhouse gases. If our goods are transported over long distances, that also requires fossil fuels that produce heat-trapping gases. And aside from the issue of climate change, if we produce a lot of non-recyclable waste that just piles up in landfills or the ocean, how much are we contributing to the pollution problem as well?

But I would also be sure to pair this information hand in hand with what we’re doing to fix the problems from our end and how it’s paying off. Give people analogies so it’s really clear, so they can see it. I love giving examples of how many X worth of Y we’ve reduced; for example, something like “Through increasing the energy efficiency of our facilities, we have taken the equivalent of 500 cars off the road. Isn’t that incredible? That’s what we’ve been doing through our efforts.” Or, “We have reduced our waste by 50%. That’s the equivalent of X garbage trucks of waste per year.” Or, “We are now powered by 38 wind turbines; that’s X trainloads of coal we don’t need to use anymore.”

Finally — and this is the most important part! — I’d engage the employees themselves in the solutions. As humans, we want to be part of a solution. We want to make a difference. That is part of what gives us hope and what gives us energy, the idea that we’re actually doing something good for the world.

So, for example, I might say, “We’re aiming for an even better milestone. I want your ideas to help us get to this new milestone, too.” That’s even more incentivizing, when you feel like a company encourages you and supports you and wants you to be part of their plan.

Does this advice extend to people who might not believe that climate change is that severe — or that it exists at all? What might this kind of conversation look like in a professional setting?

Only around 10% of the population is dismissive [of climate change], but they are a very loud 10%. Glance at the comment section of any online article on climate change, check out the responses to my tweets, or search for global warming videos on YouTube — they’re everywhere. They’re even at our Thanksgiving dinner, because just about every one of us has at least one person who is dismissive in the family. I do, too!

A person who is dismissive is someone who has built their identity on rejecting the reality of a changing climate because they believe the solutions represent a direct and immediate threat to all they hold dear. And in pursuit of that goal, they will reject anything: hundreds of scientific studies, thousands of experts, even the evidence of their own eyes. So, no, there is no point talking to a dismissive about climate science or impacts, unless you enjoy banging your head against the wall.

But it can be possible to have a constructive conversation with a dismissive — and I’ve had these! — by focusing solely on solutions that they don’t see as a threat because they carry positive benefits and/or are good for their bottom line. And the fascinating thing is that once they are engaged in helping fix the problem, that very action can have the power to change a dismissive person’s mind.

I want to end by asking about the importance of climate conversation over the next few years. I’ve heard anecdotally that companies are hearing more questions from younger job candidates or employees: “What are you doing? How are you addressing climate change as a company?” Does that resonate with you at all? Should companies be preparing for more conversations like these?

We see a very strong age gradient when it comes to levels of concern about climate change primarily among conservative populations, with younger people caring much more and being much more engaged than their elders. (Among more liberal populations, levels of concern are relatively high across all age groups.) At my own school, the number of students going to the president and asking, “What is our university doing?” has increased noticeably. I hear this anecdotally from colleagues all around the country, too. And when those students graduate, that’s what they ask in their interviews, because they want to be part of the solution. Young people understand how urgent the problem is, and they know that there’s no time to waste. A lot of them don’t want to do a job that is not helping to fix this massive problem that we have.

If companies want to be competitive, if they want to hire the best and the brightest, the ones who are most engaged, the ones who are most in tune, the ones who really put their heart and their soul and their passion into their work, then they have to start talking about climate change differently. Because this is increasingly becoming something that young professionals really care about. SOURCE

Rideshare Drivers From Around the World Are Coming Together, With Help From a Familiar Benefactor

Photo: Damian Dovarganes (AP)

As Uber, Lyft, and lesser-known transportation companies masquerading as tech firms have gradually squeezed savings out of their contingent workforces, those same contract drivers have gotten angry and organized. The first big mass action was a global strike in May of last year, kicked off by LA’s Rideshare Drivers United (RDU).

On Thursday, many of those groups, both grassroots and union-backed, are coming together to meet in London under the auspices of the philanthropic group Open Society Foundations to found a new entity they’re calling the International Alliance of App-Based Transport Workers (IAATW).

“The rapid growth of platform companies has been built on a business model that excludes fair labor practices and perpetuates low pay for drivers. But the global reach of the companies dominating this sector also presents important opportunities for shared action among workers across borders,” Elizabeth Frantz, director of Open Society Foundations’ Fair Work portfolio, told Gizmodo over email. Attendees will span 23 counties, and include several U.S.-based heavy hitters like RDU, as well as New York’s Taxi Workers Alliance and the Philadelphia Drivers Union, and will be hosted by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain.

While ridesharing looms large in the conversation for worker rights, according to Frantz, IAATW will also include contingent security, janitors, bike couriers, and foster care contractors.

Despite the impressive list of groups intent on convening, IAATW doesn’t truly exist yet: The first order of business will be the production of a manifesto that, one assumes, will guide the operations of any future actions. Open Society Foundation, founded by billionaire George Soros and operating with a $1.2 billion budget for 2020, has thrown the clout of its name and a $130,000 grant to cover convention costs behind this effort. And as of now, however, no governance structure or policy goals have been set in stone. RDU and IWGB did not respond to a request for additional comment.

Both the current nebulous state of the group, as well its funding source, draws an immediate comparison between IAATW and Athena, the Open Society-backed coalition that made its splashy debut in the New York Times in November. A cadre of groups currently taking action against Amazon—Illinois’s Warehouse Workers for Justice, Minnesota’s Awood Center, and national policy center Good Jobs First—have thrown their names behind Athena. And while it may grow into a fearsome force, currently its broad mandate and lack of policy wins make it feel more like a holding company of loosely connected ideas. “A coalition to stop Amazon’s injustices—#spying, gentrification, #dirtyenergy #monopoly & worker abuse,” the group’s Twitter bio currently reads: all important fights, but ones that have historically remained the target of separate actions.

Even if a one-off is all IAATW amounts to, it’s a crucial way for often-atomized workers who don’t share an office or other means of direct communication to build relationships and swap strategies.

Naturally, though, the attendees have higher hopes. “In California, we are fighting to defend AB5,” Nicole Moore a member of RDU wrote in a statement to press, referencing the bitter fight over a new gig-work law in California. “But what we are learning through international organizing is that no matter where the gig giants go, they break the law at every turn. That’s why we need the IAATW—not just to share information, but to build a global strategy.” SOURCE

 

Renewable Energy Could Save $160 Trillion In Climate Change Costs by 2050

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In the face of rising global emissions, intensified electrification and an increase in renewable energy could make the difference that ensures we reach future climate goals . With development and energy demands soaring worldwide, there is an opportunity for clean, renewable energy to supplant fossil fuels and take over as the main form of electricity generation. New findings published by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) have emphasized the need to scale up efforts to transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy.

A demonstrator is detained for sitting in the road at Oxford Circus in London, Friday, April 12,... [+] 2019. Young protestors took to the streets after a government report has revealed that the nation is set to miss its emissions targets.

The Global Energy Transformation: A Roadmap to 2050 outlines how the world can successfully implement large-scale renewable programs that will not only help reduce carbon emissions but improve global socioeconomic development. The analysis provided by IRENA shows that global energy demands are expected to double by 2050, and that 86% of global electrical needs could be met by renewable energy within that same timeframe. A large scale up from current levels, the extra energy load would be carried mostly by wind and solar installations.

Barriers To Change

Despite the optimistic outlook, IRENA warns that more needs to be done in order to reach the goal they anticipated. IRENA’s Director-General Francesco La Camera explains that, “The energy transformation is gaining momentum, but it must accelerate even faster, The UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the review of national climate pledges under the Paris Agreement are milestones for raising the level of ambition. Urgent action on the ground at all levels is vital, in particular unlocking the investments needed to further strengthen the momentum of this energy transformation. Speed and forward-looking leadership will be critical – the world in 2050 depends on the energy decisions we take today.”
Donald Trump says he is imposing new tariffs to "protect American jobs and American workers." Trump... [+] acted to impose new tariffs on imported solar-energy components and large washing machines in a bid to help U.S. manufacturers.

SOURCE

AI-powered robot warehouse pickers are now ready to go to work

Covariant, a Berkeley-based startup, has come out of stealth and thinks its robots are ready for the big time.

Covariant co-founders work on their robotic arm.

Covariant’s cofounders (left to right): Tianhao Zhang, Rocky Duan, Peter Chen, and Pieter Abbeel. ELENA ZHUKOVA

In the summer of 2018, a small Berkeley-based robotics startup received a challenge. Knapp, a major provider of warehouse logistics technologies, was on the hunt for a new AI-powered robotic arm that could pick as many types of items as possible. So every week, for eight weeks, it would send the startup a list of increasingly difficult items—opaque boxes, transparent boxes, pill packages, socks—that covered a range of products from its customers. The startup team would buy the items locally and then, within the week, send back a video of their robotic arm transferring the items from one gray bin to another.

By the end of the challenge, executives at Knapp were floored. They had challenged many startups over six or seven years with no success and expected the same outcome this time. Instead, in every video, the startup’s robotic arm transferred every item with perfect accuracy and production-ready speed.

“Every time, we expected that they would fail with the next product, because it became more and more tricky,” says Peter Puchwein, vice president of innovation at Knapp, which is headquartered in Austria. “But the point was they succeeded, and everything really worked. We’ve never seen this quality of AI before.”

KNAPP’s Covariant-enabled robotic arm in a live warehouse environment in Berlin, Germany. JANNIS KEIL

Covariant has now come out of stealth mode and is announcing its work with Knapp today. Its algorithms have already been deployed on Knapp’s robots in two of Knapp’s customers’ warehouses. One, operated by the German electrical supplier Obeta, has been fully in production since September. The cofounders say Covariant is also close to striking another deal with an industrial robotics giant.

The news signifies a change in the state of AI-driven robotics. Such systems used to be limited to highly constrained academic environments. But now Covariant says its system can generalize to the complexity of the real world and is ready to take warehouse floors by storm.

There are two categories of tasks in warehouses: things that require legs, like moving boxes from the front to the back of the space, and things that require hands, like picking items up and placing them in the right place. Robots have been in warehouses for a long time, but their success has primarily been limited to automating the former type of work. “If you look at a modern warehouse, people actually rarely move,” says Peter Chen, cofounder and CEO of Covariant. “Moving stuff between the fixed points—that’s a problem that mechatronics is really great for.”

Covariant's robotic arm
A robotic arm in Covariant’s office  ELENA ZHUKOVA

But automating the motions of hands requires more than just the right hardware. The technology must nimbly adapt to a wide variety of product shapes and sizes in ever-changing orientations. A traditional robotic arm can be programmed to execute the same precise movements again and again, but it will fail the moment it encounters any deviation. It needs AI to “see” and adjust, or it will have no hope of keeping up with its evolving surroundings. “It’s really the dexterity part that requires intelligence,” Chen says.

In the last few years research labs have made incredible advances in combining AI and robotics to achieve such dexterity, but bringing them into the real world has been a completely different story. Labs can get away with 60% or 70% accuracy; robots in production cannot. Even with 90% reliability, a robotic arm would be a “value-losing proposition,” says Pieter Abbeel, Covariant’s cofounder and chief scientist.

To truly pay back the investment, Abbeel and Chen estimate, a robot needs to be at least 99%—and maybe even 99.5%—accurate. Only then can it operate without much human intervention or risk slowing down a production line. But it wasn’t until the recent progress in deep learning, and in particular reinforcement learning, that this level of accuracy became possible.

Knapp’s Covariant-enabled robotic arm in a live warehouse environment in Berlin, Germany. JANNIS KEIL
Covariant’s office is situated not far from the San Francisco Bay waterfront, off a dilapidated parking lot between a row of unmarked buildings. Inside, several industrial robots and “co-bots,” collaborative robots designed to operate safely around humans, train for every product possibility.
On a regular basis, members of Covariant’s team go on convenience store runs to buy whatever odds and ends they can find. The items range from bottled lotions to packaged clothes to eraser caps encased in clear boxes. The team especially looks for things that might trip the robot up: highly reflective metallic surfaces, transparent plastics, and easily deformable surfaces like cloth and chip bags that will look different to a camera every time.  
Hanging above every robot is a series of cameras that act as its set of eyes. That visual data, along with sensor data from the robot’s body, feeds into the algorithm that controls its movements. The robots learn primarily through a combination of imitation and reinforcement techniques. The first involves a person manually guiding the robot to pick up different objects. It then logs and analyzes the motion sequences to understand how to generalize the behavior. The latter involves the robot conducting millions of rounds of trial and error. Every time the robot reaches for an item, it tries it in a slightly different way. It then logs which attempts result in faster and more precise picks versus failures, so it can continually improve its performance.

 

Because it is ultimately the algorithm that learns, Covariant’s software platform, called Covariant Brain, is hardware agnostic. Indeed, the office has over a dozen robots of various models, and its live deployment with Obeta uses Knapp’s hardware.

 

A gray bin with lots of convenience store items
Covariant’s training regime. KAREN HAO

 

Over the course of an hour, I watched three different robots masterfully pick up all manner of store-bought items. In seconds, the algorithm analyzes their positions, calculates the attack angle and correct sequence of motions, and extends the arm to grab on with a suction cup. It moves with certainty and precision, and changes its speed depending on the delicateness of the item. Pills wrapped in foil, for example, receive gentler treatment to avoid deforming the packaging or crushing the medication. In one particularly impressive demonstration, the robot also reversed its air flow to blow a pesky bag pressed against a bin’s wall into the center for easier access.

Knapp’s Puchwein says that since the company adopted Covariant’s platform, its robots have gone from being able to pick between 10% and 15% to around 95% of Obeta’s product range. The last 5% consists of particularly fragile items like glasses, which are still reserved for careful handling by humans. “That’s not a problem,” Puchwein adds. “In the future, a typical setup should be maybe you have 10 robots and one manual picking station. That’s exactly the plan.” Through the collaboration, Knapp will distribute its Covariant-enabled robots to all of its customer’s warehouses in the next few years. SOURCE