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Episode 7: Our Green Future

By Brinley Macnamara
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Show Notes

Just after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its sixth report detailing the dire threats of a warming climate, two MITRE engineers decide it’s time to clarify what a “greener” future will mean.


Full text of transcript

Casey Corrado (00:02):

So from a military perspective, many sustainable practices can increase safety. The best example that I like to use that people might not think about is actually when soldiers are deployed in places like Afghanistan, refueling missions are really dangerous and they typically see one casualty for every 24 field resupply convoys. If you implement things like sustainable fleet management practices, which could include more efficient vehicles, vehicles that use solar power, things like that, you can reduce the number of refueling missions you need which will directly lead to soldiers’ lives being saved.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (00:46):

Hello and welcome to MITRE’s Tech Futures Podcast. I’m your host Brinley Macnamara. At MITRE, we offer a unique vantage point and objective insights that we share in the public interest. And in this podcast series, we showcase emerging technologies that will affect the government in our nation in the future. Today, I’m going to tell you about Casey Corrado and Emily Holt’s recent MITRE investigation into what people really mean when they say an emerging technology is “green”. And once we’ve established what “green” really means, I also hope to inform you about which green technologies hold the most promise for MITRE’s United States government sponsors. But before we begin, I want to say huge thank you to Dr. Kris Rosfjord. The Tech Futures Innovation Area Leader in MITRE’s Research and Development Program. This episode would not have happened without her support. Now, without further ado I bring you MITRE’s Tech Futures podcast, episode number seven.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (01:58):

When Casey Corrado, a Senior Mechanical Engineer and Emily Holt, a Lead Cybersecurity Engineer first started their Green Best Practices project, neither of them had a ton of climate change research experience under their belt. Nevertheless, both engineers did have a great deal of passion for finding technological solutions to this existential problem. Which they channeled into an effort to determine which green technologies are most applicable to the United States government’s mission to mitigate and adapt to climate change. And as Casey noted early into our interview, as the United States’ single largest consumer of energy, the Department of Defense is particularly interested in reaping the safety benefits that come from the adoption of green technologies, such as renewable energy. With this in mind, I turn to Dr. Kris Rosfjord, MITRE’s Tech Features Innovation Area Leader, to better understand what was behind the recent resurgence of climate change related research at MITRE.

Dr. Kris Rosfjord (02:55):

Well, within our IRAD program at MITRE, we have the opportunity and perhaps really even the obligation to go after those hard challenges and gaps that we see that cut across MITRE’s sponsors and climate change is certainly an example of that. So really, as a group of us, there are eight Innovation Area Leaders within MITRE’s IRAD program. Several of us got together and saw how together as a group we could each write this into our research strategies to try to encourage this across MITRE. In that, we realized that this is not just a Tech Futures problem, it’s not just a sensing problem, it’s not just a health problem, it’s not just an aviation and transportation problem. My goodness. Yes, it’s all of those problems.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (03:45):

And according to Dr. Rosfjord, one key research gap in the climate space is the fact that despite the growing popularity of the term “green,” there is still no standard definition of what makes a technology product or organization “green.” While many of us are probably aware of this problem as it relates to our individual purchasing decisions, Dr. Rosfjord believes this problem is having an outsized impact on MITRE’s sponsors.

Dr. Kris Rosfjord (04:11):

Well, we all listen to the news, read the papers and you see green a lot come coming up. And it didn’t really seem like people meant the same thing always when people talked about green, but it was quite a common term. And we thought as we tried to grow this area within MITRE and for our sponsors, understanding these key definitions of what does it mean and how do these definitions impact our sponsors. Now, what the PIs found was really there is no formal definition, but understanding what the ground truth is for the language being used external that our sponsors are going to leverage and use helps us understand the path moving forward.

Emily Holt (04:57):

Right now we have a bunch of industry leaders defining what green means. Different branches of the government are often implementing really exciting practices. And it’s hard to showcase how important those are when we’re comparing apples to oranges.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (05:12):

That’s Emily Holt talking. Emily was the Principal Investigator on the Green Best Practices project.

Emily Holt (05:18):

So we need our government, our regulation authority to come up with this definition so that we can understand and better compare all the players in this field.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (05:29):

Thus, with the ambitious goal of formalizing a set of green best practices for our government sponsors, but no formal definition of green to go on. Emily and Casey decided to start by investigating some notable green success stories from industry and work backwards from there.

Casey Corrado (05:47):

We started by just evaluating sustainability rankings. There’s really popular global 100 released yearly by Corporate Knights that we looked at. We looked at a lot of popular green blogs, articles, things like that. It came to three major companies that we use for a lot of our… as like a case study for our research. So we identified Google, Apple, and Starbucks.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (06:12):

Google, Apple, and Starbucks, all household names, but could it really be true that searching for cat memes or sipping a frappuccino had become more environmentally friendly in recent years? Well, according to Emily and Casey, these three companies all seem to be making some significant progress on that front with heavy investments in a few emerging and not to mention ridiculously cool green best practices to increase the sustainability of their operations. And for the rest of this episode, we’re going to discuss three of these green best practices in more detail. Be sure to listen closely to this part as it just so happens that MITRE’s U.S. government sponsors are also quite interested in these technologies.

Emily Holt (06:58):

A huge threat to our power grids is the fact that they’re so concentrated and also vulnerable to cyber attacks. So if we increase the number of grids we rely on, if we increase the number of energy resources we’re able to pull from, it’s decreasing our vulnerabilities. So not only having more distributed sources with the microgrids that you can only think of with solar, but also just decreasing our dependency on fossil fuels.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (07:27):

To recap what Emily just said, energy microgrids, the first green best practice you wanted to highlight today, offer not only a more renewable friendly way powering our communities, but also come with the bonus of being more fault tolerant than our current method of keeping the lights on. Which is to rely on only a handful of really big electric power grids often referred to as macrogrids to sustain the electricity needs of the entire continental United States. By the way, the term microgrid is often used rather loosely to refer to any self-sustaining source of power.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (08:02):

Thus, a microgrid doesn’t necessarily have to be powered by renewables. For example, a microgrid can be as simple as a diesel powered backup generator. Moreover, a microgrid doesn’t necessarily have to be completely disconnected from a macrogrid either. In fact, most microgrids deployed today are connected to macrogrids by default and only operate autonomously in the event of emergencies like a macrogrid outage. But as renewables have gotten cheaper, both industry leaders and several U.S. Federal government agencies have deployed some promising demonstrations of renewable powered energy microgrids with large capacities to operate autonomously

Emily Holt (08:43):

Apple Park, which is Apple’s headquarters in California, their power comes from multiple sources, in particular, a giant rooftop solar installation. They also have biogas fuel cells and they’re all controlled by a microgrid with battery storage. And that’s how Apple Park is able to be powered by a hundred percent renewable energy.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (09:04):

Even more recently, a microgrid designed by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab was deployed to a Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego. This particular microgrid is powered by a combination of methane gas from a local landfill, fossil fuels, and solar energy. And comes with enough battery storage to operate autonomously for up to three weeks in the event of a macrogrid outage. After several successful energy resilience readiness exercises that proved the microgrid’s ability to sustain all of the air station’s operations for an entire workday. The microgrid came to the rescue in the summer of 2020 by providing supplemental power to surrounding communities during a massive heat wave. Without the air station’s microgrid, these communities would’ve experienced wide scale blackouts. When I asked Emily to tell me about another common green best practice, she was quick to bring up the circular economy.

Emily Holt (10:02):

What we found is that the circular economy that our industry leaders are referencing is one where they prioritize designing out waste and creating goods that are renewable, repairable, reusable, and have recyclable components

Brinley Macnamara (host) (10:16):

To understand how this works in practice, google’s dramatic move to transition its data centers to a circular economy is a great case study. To this end, Google prioritizes refurbished equipment for its data center upgrades. And in the event that a computer part cannot be refurbished and redeployed. Google will resell the part on a secondary market. And in the event that a part cannot be resold, Google will recycle the part as a last resort. All in all, Google reports that the circular economy of its data centers has led to an 86% landfill diversion rate. An impressive feat, especially when one considers the sheer volume of traffic that the equipment and Google’s data centers must handle. Search of alone is estimated to handle trillions, that’s trillions with a T of searches per year. I asked Dr. Rosfjord about which of MITRE’s sponsors might be early adopters of the circular economy.

Dr. Kris Rosfjord (11:10):

When you’re working on a ship, you are in an area of limited material access, and you need to understand how to make the most do with what you have available. I think they’re interested in sustainable products, and you can see that they have research efforts into things like sustainable furniture, even. Perhaps aligns with a staff that is used to a mission that is accomplished in a really space constrained area.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (11:42):

I should note that while the term “circular economy” has become quite trendy in recent years, NASA has been deploying circular economy like design strategies for over half a century. At NASA, they call this closed loop thinking. A design strategy that is based on the same core principle of the circular economy. Which is, when designing systems to support human life in resource constrained environments, like the International Space Station, for example. Everything must be designed to be reused. At NASA, when they say everything must be reused, they really mean everything. I’m talking everything from the astronauts’ sweat to their urine, and even the CO2 they admit when they exhale is captured and reconstituted to create the future water they will drink and oxygen they’ll breathe. And in recent years, our space agency has begun to bring some of its close loop solutions back down to earth. An effort that is perhaps most beautifully embodied in a facility that they call the sustainability base. And NASA’s sustainability base also happens to be a demonstration of the third and final green best practice we wanted to highlight today, sustainable buildings.

Casey Corrado (12:53):

A sustainable build building is one that reduces the use of resources like energy, water using the land that you have your building on effectively, things like that. Which all of them long term will have cost savings. So if you’re using less energy, you’re saving money, you’re using less water, you’re saving money. Then many of kind of design decisions that you make for those buildings, not only can help with those things like saving energy, saving water, but can make your workplace, your work environment, a better place for employees to work. An example of that would be things like increased ventilation, the use of natural lighting over artificial lighting. Those both help to reduce cost, but they have been shown to improve employee productivity. It’s kind of this like good business cycle and that’s probably why we’re seeing sustainable buildings being one of the major investments that companies are making in green.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (13:52):

The sustainability base is located on NASA brawling, Silicon valley campus. And as part of the U.S. government’s growing inventory of over 2,500 sustainable buildings and counting. NASA’s tradition of closed loop thinking is at the core of this building’s design. For example, you can find the remnants of an old NASA wind tunnel and its main lobby. The sustainability base also generates more energy than it consumes through the combined use of solar panels, a fuel cell, and a local wind turbine. But perhaps the most impressive thing about the sustainability base is its showcasing of how reuse technologies deployed in space, like the recycling of water on the International Space Station can be deployed to facilities on earth to dramatically minimize their environmental impact. As I read about the innovations that NASA’s engineers have created to execute on their mission in the context of the extreme constraints of space, I’m filled with a strong sense of hope and our collective ability to innovate in the face of the increasing constraints that our changing climate will levy on our us government sponsors.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (14:57):

Moreover, as I chat with Dr. Rosfjord, Emily, and Casey about their growing interest in climate change research, I realized that these three engineers embody another important lesson about constraints, which is the following: while the physical constraints on a mission are often the drivers of innovation, it will be important for us at MITRE to not be constrained by our respective engineering disciplines when it comes to developing solutions for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (15:24):

For the Green Best Practices project, an Electrical Engineer turned Innovation Area Leader, Cybersecurity Engineer, and Mechanical Engineer came together to fill a critical research gap in providing a baseline for what a green future will mean for our sponsors. Moving forward, it will be incumbent upon all of us to do the same because quite honestly, our survival will depend on it. This show was written by me. It was produced and edited by Dr. Kris Rosfjord, Dr. Heath Farris, and myself. Our guests were Casey Corrado, Dr. Kris Rosfjord, and Emily Holt. The music in this episode was brought to you by Yi Nantiro, Ooyy, Infinity Ripple, and Truvio. We’d like to get a special thanks to Dr. Kris Rosfjord, the Technology Futures Innovation Area Leader, for all her support. Copyright 2022 MITRE PRS number 21-2729, February 8th, 2022.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (16:30):

MITRE: solving problems for a safer world.

Meet the Guests

Casey Corrado

Casey Corrado is a Lead Mechanical Engineer in the Mechanical and Reliability Department of MITRE Labs. Her background is in finite element analysis (FEA) for structural and thermal applications. Over the last few years, her work has focused on advanced design and manufacturing, specifically the development topology optimization methodology and its applications for mechanical metamaterials. More recently, Casey has pursued work in sustainability and ‘green’ technology. Before joining MITRE, she received her Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from Tufts University, where she researched unmanned aerial vehicles for first responder applications. Casey is an active member of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), leading efforts both here at MITRE and with SWE Boston. In her free time, she enjoys skiing, hiking, and fly fishing.

Dr. Kris Rosfjord

Dr. Kris Rosfjord is a senior principal member of the technical staff at the MITRE Corporation. At MITRE, she directs emerging technology research including prototype development across many fields such as Artificial Intelligence and Analytics, Sensing and Imaging, and Advanced Materials and Manufacturing. Prior to joining MITRE, she was the Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she led a research group in nanostructures and materials development.  Previously she was a postdoctoral fellow in the Quantum Nanostructure and Nanofabrication Group at MIT and a member of the technical staff at MIT-Lincoln Laboratory. Kris earned a B.E. in Electrical Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a M.S. and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of California, Berkeley.

Emily Holt

Emily Holt is a Lead Cyber Security Software Engineer in the Software Engineering department of MITRE Labs. Her background is in the intersection of cyber security and machine learning, where she has researched the security of machine learning systems as well as applications of machine learning in automated software generation. Currently, Emily is applying her interests in machine learning towards sustainability and climate security by pursuing a PhD at Tufts University with a focus on data science and sustainability.