Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Scientists train ‘robot chef’ to prepare tastier foods

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British scientists have trained a “robot chef” to taste ingredients during food prep — with the long-term goal of streamlining and even improving future meal production.  

“The development of robotic chefs will play a major role in busy households and assisted living homes in the future,” Muhammad Chughtai, senior scientist at Beko plc appliances, said in a statement.  

The discovery marks a big step toward automating culinary tasks, which could be transformative to both household and global sustainability initiatives, but could also cut jobs for human cooks. 

“This result is a leap forward in robotic cooking, and by using machine and deep learning algorithms, mastication will help robot chefs adjust taste for different dishes and users,” Chughtai said.  

Chughtai’s company worked with University of Cambridge researchers to help their robot chef understand whether food is sufficiently seasoned at various stages of the chewing process, according to their study, published in Frontiers in Robotics an AI.   

As people chew and release both saliva and digestive enzymes, their perception of a food’s flavor changes — and the robot chef is now imitating this human sensibility, the authors explained.  

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Today we’ll examine the ongoing litigation and settlement efforts regarding the Flint water crisis. Then we’ll look at why Volkswagen probably isn’t quitting coal, as well a look at the affordability of rooftop solar installations. 

More time for Flint victims

Residents of Flint, Mich., may get more time to join the $626 million water crisis settlement that seeks to compensate victims who suffered from widespread lead poisoning in 2014.  

While roughly 50,000 people submitted preliminary applications or a share of the settlement with the state of Michigan, the city of Flint, McLaren Flint Hospital and Rowe Professional Services, thus far, only 13,000 official claims have been filed, Michigan Radio reported.  

And time to do so is quickly running out, as the deadline to file a claim is May 12.

What was the Flint water crisis?

  • In April 2014, the city of Flint’s drinking water source changed from Detroit’s water network to the adjacent Flint River.
  • That resource was not properly treated, and corrosive river water damaged the city’s pipes, causing the release of lead and other pollutants into Flint’s drinking system.
  • A year and a half later, Flint returned to Detroit’s water system.  

Hundreds of millions earmarked for children: U.S. District Judge Judith Levy gave final approval for the $626 million settlement in November.

About 80 percent of the settlement funds were earmarked for plaintiffs who were children during the time of the water crisis, because children are particularly at risk of enduring long-term health impacts from lead exposure, Michigan Radio reported.  

Risks and expense: “The complexity and volume of this litigation present significant risks and potentially great expense to all parties if the cases were to be tried,” Levy wrote in her opinion in November, cited by the Detroit Free Press

TRIALS AND TRIBUNALS

Levy is presiding over a federal lawsuit whose trial began in February, Michigan Live reported. 

The families of four children are suing two engineering companies for alleged negligence in the city’s water crisis, according to Michigan Live.  

Trouble focusing, bouts of rage: On Tuesday, the parents of one of these children — Riley Vanderhagen, who was an infant at the time of the crisis — described their daughter’s trouble focusing and her alarming bouts of rage, Michigan Live reported.  

“I worry about her anger,” her father said of her now eight years old. “She goes from super happy, and then she doesn’t get something she wants, and her head pops off.” 

Criminal proceedings are also ongoing: Cases are underway against several defendants, including former Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who was charged with two counts of willful neglect of duty, the Detroit Free Press reported.  

  • Nine people have been charged in connection with the Flint Water Crisis, announced by the Michigan Solicitor General in January 2021, local NBC affiliate Mid-Michigan Now reported.  
  • The Michigan Supreme Court began hearing the arguments of three of the defendants on Wednesday, according to Mid-Michigan Now.     

And as for the settlement? Extra time may be on the horizon. During a Tuesday court hearing, Special Master Deborah Greenspan — who oversees the claims process — said she may submit a recommendation to Levy for an extension in the coming days, Michigan Radio reported. 

“It will likely be helpful to the entire process to provide a bit more time for individual claimants…and for the lawyers to finish compiling all the information,” Greenspan told Michigan Radio. 

BURN, BABY, BURN?

Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess announced on Wednesday that the scarcity of natural gas supplies — owing to tensions with Russia — might force his company to keep powering its factories with coal for longer than expected, CNBC reported.  

“Really a threat:” Diess had been asked how concerned he was about gas supplies from Russia being shut off, CNBC reported.  

“That’s actually really a threat … because it’s very hard to predict what’s going to happen,” he said.  

Sudden hesitation: “Here in Wolfsburg [Germany] we still have coal-fired power plants which we wanted to — and we are — converting into gas,” Diess told CNBC. 

“It’s all prepared but now we are a little bit hesitating, and we will look and see how the situation is going to develop,” he added. 

Delaying the shift: Volkswagen can deal with the uncertainty by slowing its transition, according to Diess.  
 
We can, [for] a little bit, prolong our coal-fired plants — hopefully it’s not for too long,” he said. “Then we would like to change to gas once the supply is secured.” 

Rising tensions: Diess spoke against the background of a new proposed E.U. boycott of all Russian oil — though not of natural gas — by the end of 2022, as our colleague Zack Budryk reported. 

While Congress passed legislation last month to ban energy imports from Russia, the European Union has been more hesitant to do so, as the bloc relies much more heavily on Moscow’s oil and gas supplies.  

Rooftop solar leaps ahead

While much of the discussion over clean energy tends to focus on consumers, rooftop energy is also becoming increasingly appealing to big investors, according to energy investment expert Chaim Lubin.

Lubin told Equilibrium that investors see solar as beating out traditional energy sources and even large-scale solar and wind — creating an investment cycle that increases solar panels’ availability and affordability.

Investors see an opportunity: Lubin runs the renewable energy mergers and acquisitions program at Chicago-based investment bank Lincoln International, helping solar companies get private equity investments.

  • Last month Lubin helped Utah-based rooftop solar installer ION Solar secure an investment from Blackstone Credit and Energy Impact Partners, according to a statement from his bank.  Lubin said ION represents an emerging “middle market of solar companies” doing rooftop installations. 
  • These are from $50 million to $1 billion per year in revenue — companies in the sweet spot for big investment deals, and that “didn’t exist before probably three or four years ago,” Lubin added. 

Some of the rooftop advantages: Rooftop panels are appealing to investors because they require no additional investment or infrastructure, Lubin said.

Utility-scale solar or wind, by contrast, requires investors to “install a whole bunch more new substations into our additional grid infrastructure for a lot more costs,” he explained. 

He also noted that there’s much more diversity in the size of rooftop companies, offering more affordable options for consumers.

STATE-BY-STATE AFFORDABILITY

With home energy costs rising, and the break-even point for rooftop solar at between 11 to 12 cents per kilowatt hour, Lubin argues solar panels now make financial sense across much of the U.S.

The U.S. average is 13 cents per kilowatt hour, and even the least expensive regions have averages within the break-even zone above 11 cents, according to the Energy Information Agency (EIA).

States where solar makes the most sense: In California — where on average, a homeowner is paying 25 cents per kilowatt hour in electricity bills — “of course it makes sense to put up solar,” Lubin said.  

  • New England is also particularly ripe. Its energy costs average a whopping 24 cents a kilowatt hour, based on EIA data. 
  • In Hawaii, with the EIA charting average costs at 38 cents per kilowatt hour, residents are paying almost three times the solar break-even price.

The widespread convergence of rising electricity prices and falling solar installation costs has helped convince big investors to pour more money into the sector, Lubin said.

Changing perceptions: Solar suffered for decades from the perception — among both buyers and investors — that it could only succeed if homeowners “get enough of a rebate or enough of a tax credit,” Lubin said. 

And the perception that rooftop solar is a fragile business, dependent on easily-revoked local incentives, also made it very difficult for installation companies to secure the loans or investment necessary to grow, he noted.

Those views have shifted: ”Investors are now able to look at it and say, ‘OK, this is a sustainable business model,’ and that’s when you start to see the capital flow in,” Lubin said. 

Wednesday Worries

Forever chemicals in children’s toys, more heart attack deaths for black and poor people and wind power’s expansion means more danger for migratory birds. 

Some eco-friendly children’s products contain toxic ‘forever chemicals’: study 

Black, low-income patients don’t benefit from lower rates of heart attack death  

  • Black and low-income patients are continuing to die at the same rates after heart attacks — even as the population at large sees their 10-year survival rates climb, according to a study in JAMA Cardiology. 

Danger at the intersection of migration paths and wind power 

  • Ideal spots for wind energy tend to correspond with ideal pathways for migratory birds — with often deadly results, particularly as they descend into the “rotor-swept zone” to rest for the night, according to a study in Conservation Letters. 

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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