UI research team recognized for environmental study

UI graduate student Andrew Nelson working on a study that examined the effect of fracking on flowback water. (University of Iowa State Hydrolic Labortory)
UI graduate student Andrew Nelson working on a 2013 study that examined the effect of fracking on flowback water. (University of Iowa State Hygienic Laboratory)

Nick Fetty | March 31, 2015

Research led by a University of Iowa graduate student has received national recognition for its focus on the most effective way to measure radium in flowback water (FBW).

Andrew Nelson – a PhD student in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Human Toxicology - and his research team published a report last year entitled “Matrix Complications in the Determination of Radium Levels in Hydraulic Fracturing Flowback Water from Marcellus Shale” in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters. The report has recently been named one of the journal’s best papers of 2014.

The study found that “gamma-ray spectroscopy may provide a more accurate measurement of radium in byproduct water produced by hydraulic fracturing, compared with other methods of analysis.” The researchers studied FBW from the Marcellus Shale Region in northeastern Pennsylvania which was extracted from 2,100-meter deep fracking well.

Funding for the research was provided by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Environmental Management Solutions. Researchers with Quality Radioanalytical Support (Grand Marais, Minnesota) and Radiochemistry Laboratory Basics (The Villages, Florida) also contributed to the report.

Nelson came to the University of Iowa in 2012 and currently holds the UI Presidential Graduate Research Fellowship. He earned a B.A. in biochemistry from the University of Colorado-Boulder in 2009 and a M.S. in Environmental Science and Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines in 2010.

On the Radio: Agriculture now highest source of greenhouse gases in Iowa

Cattle grazing in a field in Story County (Carl Wycoff, Flickr).
Cattle grazing in a field in Story County (Carl Wycoff, Flickr).

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at the Iowa DNR’s 2013 Greenhouse Gas inventory, which shows that Iowa’s agriculture industry is now the leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions for the state. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Agriculture is now the number one contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Iowa.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resourcesʼ 2013 Greenhouse Gas inventory report
found that Iowaʼs agriculture industry contributes to 27 percent of the stateʼs
greenhouse gas emissions.

The figure is due in part to Iowaʼs increasing dependence on wind energy, which has
drastically decreased the need for coal use over the last decade and brought emissions
from electric power generation down to 25 percent.

Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture include those from animal digestive
systems, plant fertilizers and agricultural runoff. The most common of these gases are
methane and nitrous oxide.

Although agricultural emissions increased last year, Iowaʼs total emissions have now
decreased for three straight years.

For more information about greenhouse gas emissions, visit

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, Iʼm Jerry


Catching up with former-Hawkeye-turned-solar-advocate Tim Dwight

Tim Dwight (left) with Iowa state Sen. Rob Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids) during a proposal to install solar panels on Kinnick Stadium in 2012. (Tessa Hursh/The Daily Iowan archives)
Tim Dwight (left) with State Sen. Rob Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids) during a proposal to install solar panels on Kinnick Stadium in 2012. (Tessa Hursh/The Daily Iowan archives)

Nick Fetty | March 27, 2015

Tim Dwight made a name for himself on the gridiron as a Hawkeye and during his 10-year NFL career but for the last seven years he has been making a name for himself as a solar energy advocate and businessman.

After his football career he spent a year traveling around the world which included two USO tours in Iraq. This opportunity helped him to realize the danger that the country was putting itself and its citizens in because of its dependence on oil.

“That was definitely game-changing for me with what I wanted to do for my career,” Dwight said of his USO tours as well as his travels in Africa. “The world runs on energy everywhere and energy runs everything so I knew that market was not going to go away.”

Upon returning to the United States Dwight first started working in the solar industry with a company in Nevada. Calif.  After learning about the basics of the industry, the Iowa City native decided to return to his home state to educate Iowans about the benefits of solar energy.

“Bringing that knowledge (of design, engineering, and installation of solar panels) to Iowa dawned on me. It was like a light bulb went off and I was like ‘You know what, I need to come back to Iowa and help this industry grow because it’s growing everywhere in the world and it’s going to grow in the United States.’ ”

Much of the learning process for Dwight didn’t involve attending classes or lectures but instead was simply a matter of him searching for and reading material available on the internet. He has spent the last five years trying to build the solar industry in Iowa, which includes the creation of the Iowa Solar Trade Association as well as lobbying on policy issues at the statehouse. As a former athlete, Dwight’s competitive nature sometimes comes into play with his work in solar.

“When I was in high school and junior high I always wanted to be the fastest guy, I wanted to be the best football player, I wanted to win state championships, I wanted to win a national championship,” he said. “But when I got out of football I was like ‘You know what, energy is the biggest game in the world and solar is going to change everything.’ Being a part of something like that is very exciting and very humbling, understanding what it’s going to do for the world and the people.”

Part of Dwight’s goal is to use to solar energy as a way of bringing affordable and efficient electricity to undeveloped parts of the world, where as many as one billion people do not have access to electricity. On the other side of the spectrum, highly industrialized areas are contributing to carbon emissions and other pollution, so Dwight hopes to use solar as a cleaner, more environmentally-friendly energy source.

“To understand that a mile-long coal train will burn a city of 150,000 people for one day is pretty substantial on how much we’re burning,” he said.

Coal is particularly inefficient, he said, because roughly 70 percent of the energy from burning coal is wasted, not to mention the inefficiency of distributing electricty via the current grid system.

“We’re starting to realize that the way that we procure and the way we burn and the way we power our lives is not the correct way to do it. We’ve got to change. We’ve got to move to another level like we have with communication,” he said.

He compared the evolution of solar energy to that of telecommunications. When cell phones were first released they were inefficient, expensive, and relatively few people owned them. However as the technology evolved, it became cheaper and more accessible to a greater number of people. Solar technology – with the first solar cells developed in the 1830s – has experienced a similar evolution and has become considerably more efficient and affordable in just the last ten years alone.

“You have this technology that’s been laying around for awhile it just hasn’t been put into use because it changes the energy paradigm when you have monopolized markets,” Dwight said.

The current tax incentives are curial for solar to succeed, according to Dwight, and he hopes to see an extension of Solar Investment Tax Credit, which is scheduled to sunset at the end of 2016.

“We really need to have that extended out for another probably five years,” he said. “I think it’s important that people understand that these policies have been working and are putting people to work.”

While Iowa has been a national leader in wind energy, solar energy has also been catching on particularly in the agricultural industry.

“You look at our solar industry right now, it’s all ag. It’s 90 percent ag. A lot of farmers are putting in a lot of solar,” he said.

While he supports the tax incentive now, his goal is the solar industry will eventually be able to sustain without it.

“We don’t want to be incentivized, we just want a level playing field,” he said. “We’re starting to see that climate change is real and it’s happening and it’s affecting everything across the board and one of the main drivers of that is carbon and technologies we’ve build our world around the last fifty, sixty, one hundred years.”

However, despite the challenges, Dwight is optimistic that solar will continue to grow and will be the energy source of the future.

“There’s just a lot of things that go into energy and it’s been pretty eye opening. Sometimes I’m like ‘Wow. What did I get myself into?” he said. “But seeing where it’s going and seeing how it’s going to change the world for the better is incredible.”

UI researchers use satellite data and GPS to examine earthquakes

A satellite radar image of a 2012 earthquake in California. The rainbow patterns indicates areas where the earthquake deformed the earth’s surface (European Space Agency/Iowa Now)

Nick Fetty | March 26, 2015

Researchers at the University of Iowa teamed up with the United States Geological Survey to study ways that satellite data and GPS can be used to better respond to earthquakes within 24 hours of them happening.

William Barnhart – an assistant professor in Earth and Environmental Sciences – along with a team of researchers created a three-dimensional map using GPS and satellite measurements to study how the ground was impacted by a 6.0-magnitude earthquake that occurred in South Napa, California on August 24, 2014. The map did not use typical instruments such as seismometers which often cannot offer the same level of detail as Barnhart’s method.

“By having the 3D knowledge of the earthquake itself, we can make predictions of the ground shaking, without instruments to record that ground shaking, and then can make estimates of what the human and infrastructure impacts will be— in terms of both fatalities and dollars,” Barnhart said in an interview with Iowa Now.

Barnhart and his team’s research can be especially beneficial for improving response times in countries in the developing world, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that claimed nearly a quarter of a million lives. The use of satellite technology allows researchers to study the aftermath of earthquakes without needing to travel to disaster area.

The study – entitled “Geodetic Constraints on the 2014 M 6.0 South Napa Earthquake” – was published in the March/April edition of Seismological Research Letters.

Energy Dept to fund research on longer wind turbine blades

(U.S. Department of Energy)

Nick Fetty | March 24, 2015

The U.S. Department of Energy recently announced $1.8 million in funding available for research to develop larger wind turbine blades.

The funding is designated for the manufacturing, transportation, and assembly of wind turbine blades longer than 60 meters. The announcement coincides with current research the Energy Department is funding to develop taller wind turbines which includes a study at Iowa State University.

A report by the Energy Department released earlier this month shows that the current amount of electricity generated from wind turbines could double by 2020. The report, entitled Wind Vision: A New Era for Wind Energy in the United State, built upon the findings in the Energy Department’s 2008 study, 20% Wind by 2030. The more recent report highlights the economic and infrastructural impact of wind energy, outlining scenarios with “potential economic, environmental, and social benefits” if the U.S. increased its proportion of wind-generated electricity from 10 percent in 2020 to 35 percent in 2050. Currently the U.S. generates about 4.5 percent of electricity from wind.

Based on its projections, the report concludes that over the next three and a half decades increased emphasis on wind energy will save $400 billion in global climate change damages, provide 600,000 jobs, and reduce water consumption by 260 billion gallons.

The development of taller wind turbines could be particularly beneficial for the southeastern region of the U.S. which lags behind the rest of the country in wind energy. The taller wind turbines can also be utilized for offshore operations, particularly along the gulf coast and eastern seaboard.

On the Radio: Iowa stays ahead in wind generation

An Iowa wind farm (Brian Hoffman / Flickr)
An Iowa wind farm (Brian Hoffman / Flickr)
March 23, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at an assessment of Iowa’s wind energy industry that shows the state still leads the nation in percentage of wind energy production. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Iowa Wind

With over 3,400 turbines, Iowa maintained its third-place ranking in wind energy generation last year.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The American Wind Energy Association recently released fact sheets for each state,
showing that Iowa sits behind only Texas and California in wind projects added as of last year. Iowa still leads the nation in energy percentage from wind, with 27 percent,
resulting in a wind capacity of over 5,000 megawatts. Thatʼs enough to power nearly 1.5
million homes.

Even with those gains, the Association estimates wind power could meet
the stateʼs electricity needs forty times over. Iowa has one of the largest turbine
manufacturers in the country and two of the largest blade manufacturers.

The report shows that thanks to wind, Iowa avoided over 9 million metric tons of CO2
emissions and saved over 3 billion gallons in water usage.

For more information about wind energy, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, Iʼm Jerry


Obama orders fed gov’t to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, more emphasis on renewable energy

President Obama recently signed an executive order calling for the federal government to reduce grennhouse gas emissions while putting more emphasis on renewable energy sources. (Steve Jurvetson/Flickr)
President Obama recently signed an executive order calling for the federal government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while putting more emphasis on renewable energy sources. (Steve Jurvetson/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | March 20, 2015

President Obama signed an executive order on Thursday calling for the federal government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent compared to 2008 levels over the next decade. The order also calls for renewable energy sources to make up 30 percent of total electricity consumption over the same period. The plan is expected to save taxpayers $18 million in electricity costs.

“We thought it was important for us to lead by example,” Obama said in an interview with the Associated Press. “These are ambitious goals, but we know they’re achievable goals.”

The Obama administration hopes that this decision will serve as a model for encouraging other nations to deal with the effects of climate change. Other nations are expected to set similar carbon emission and renewable energy goals as part of a global climate treaty to be finalized in December.

According to the most recent data available, the federal government contributed to less than one percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2013. Obama also lauded efforts made by private sector companies such as General Electric, IBM, and Northrup Grumman which have taken voluntary steps at mitigating the effects of climate change.

This announcement comes on the heels of last month’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2015 which calls for a 7 percent increase in funding for clean energy and $4 billion to encourage further reduction in power plant emissions.