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California Startup Pays Users to Consume Less Energy

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You may know that turning off the lights when leaving a room or lowering the thermostat before bed are smart habits, but with no way to see their immediate impact, they can be hard to keep. OhmConnect is built around the premise that more people would follow through with these actions if they had a little motivation. As Fast Company reports, the San Francisco-based startup rewards California residents for their green choices with real cash.

The mission of the company is to prevent energy grids from using costly and dirty emergency power plants by encouraging customers to conserve power when demand outweighs supply. During “OhmHours,” users receive a text suggesting energy-saving practices. They can choose to opt out or agree to make an effort to lower their consumption. If their usage in the next hour is lower than the average for their home on that type of day (weekdays are compared to the weekday average; weekends to the weekend average) they receive points which can be redeemed for money. The more people participate on a regular basis, the more points they’re able to earn.

Participants in homes equipped with smart devices like a Nest thermostat or Belkin smart switches can program them to automatically consume less during those times. Nearly a fifth of the user base chooses some type of automatic response.

Someone living in a small apartment participating once a week has the potential to make $40 to $50 a year, while a family living in a larger home can earn up to $200. The California energy grid has also reaped the benefits: Since launching in 2014, OhmConnect has saved the state a total of 100 megawatts (the equivalent of not running two emergency power plants at high-demand times). California residents who get their energy through Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, or San Diego Gas & Electric can sign up to participate online. If you don’t live in the state but are interested in the service, you may get a chance to try it out soon: OhmConnect plans to expand to Texas, Toronto, and potentially the East Coast.

[h/t Fast Company]

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Scientists Accidentally Make Plastic-Eating Bacteria Even More Efficient
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In 2016, Japanese researchers discovered a type of bacteria that eats non-biodegradable plastic. The organism, named Ideonella sakaiensis, can break down a thumbnail-sized flake of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the type of plastic used for beverage bottles, in just six weeks. Now, The Guardian reports that an international team of scientists has engineered a mutant version of the plastic-munching bacteria that's 20 percent more efficient.

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the University of Portsmouth in the UK didn't originally set out to produce a super-powered version of the bacteria. Rather, they just wanted a better understanding of how it evolved. PET started appearing in landfills only within the last 80 years, which means that I. sakaiensis must have evolved very recently.

The microbe uses an enzyme called PETase to break down the plastic it consumes. The structure of the enzyme is similar to the one used by some bacteria to digest cutin, a natural protective coating that grows on plants. As the scientists write in their study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they hoped to get a clearer picture of how the new mechanism evolved by tweaking the enzyme in the lab.

What they got instead was a mutant enzyme that degrades plastic even faster than the naturally occurring one. The improvement isn't especially dramatic—the enzyme still takes a few days to start the digestion process—but it shows that I. sakaiensis holds even more potential than previously expected.

"What we've learned is that PETase is not yet fully optimized to degrade PET—and now that we've shown this, it's time to apply the tools of protein engineering and evolution to continue to improve it," study coauthor Gregg Beckham said in a press statement.

The planet's plastic problem is only growing worse. According to a study published in 2017, humans have produced a total of 9 billion tons of plastic in less than a century. Of that number, only 9 percent of it is recycled, 12 percent is incinerated, and 79 percent is sent to landfills. By 2050, scientists predict that we'll have created 13 billion tons of plastic waste.

When left alone, PET takes centuries to break down, but the plastic-eating microbes could be the key to ridding it from the environment in a quick and safe way. The researchers believe that PETase could be turned into super-fast enzymes that thrives in extreme temperatures where plastic softens and become easier to break down. They've already filed a patent for the first mutant version of the enzyme.

[h/t The Guardian]

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Coin-Operated Lamp Drives Home the Cost of Energy Consumption
Moak Studio
Moak Studio

You consume energy every time you switch on a light, and that ends up costing you, your power company, and the planet. This cost is easy to ignore when just a few minutes of light adds only cents to your electric bill, but over time, all that usage adds up. A new conceptual product spotted by Co.Design visualizes our energy consumption in a creative way.

Moak Studio presented their coin-operated Dina lamp at the Promote Design DIN Exhibition for Milan Design Week. To turn it on, users must first insert a medium-sized coin into a slot on the shade, whether it's a nickel, a quarter, or a euro. The coin fills in a gap in the lamp's circuitry, providing the conductive metal needed to light it. After switching the lamp off, users can flip a knob on the base to retrieve their coin.

The Dina lamp isn't meant to solve our global energy problems singlehandedly; rather, it's designed to get people to pause and think about the impact of their daily choices before they make them. But other strategies, like paying people to conserve energy rather than making them pay to use it, may be more effective when it comes to spurring real change.

Dina Lamp from MOAK Studio on Vimeo.

[h/t Co.Design]

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