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Taking Action: Automatic Mercury Reductions

When it comes to air pollution, the spotlight often focuses on greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. But there’s another critical part of the problem: mercury. Power plants that burn coal to make energy emit mercury into the atmosphere. This mercury is eventually deposited onto the surface of the Great Lakes when it rains or snows. It gets even worse—mercury builds up in living organisms—the amount in fish is much higher than in the water they live in. The build-up of this mercury threatens the health of our Great Lakes ecosystem and the region’s residents.

For many years, mercury concentrations in the Great Lakes declined – until the 1990s when the U.S. EPA observed a rise in mercury in fish. In many areas throughout the Great Lakes, mercury concentrations now exceed safe levels for both humans and the environment. It’s a region that has felt the effects of mercury contamination more than any other in the country. This means that our Great Lakes ecosystems are at risk, and that risk is growing every day.

Reversing the upward trend in mercury concentrations requires collaborative efforts to reduce emissions, protecting human health and environmental integrity. This, in turn, means using cleaner energy sources that emit less or no mercury. But changes to the energy infrastructure are expensive, and they take time. We need cost-effective deployable solutions that can help us make progress today.

A Partnership to Slash Mercury Emissions with New Ideas

Electricity is supplied by a power grid that connects many users to many different power plants. The source of the electricity feeding the grid is constantly changing. Consumers generally have limited visibility into the source of their electricity—whether it comes from clean sources (like solar) or dirty sources (like coal). If there was only a way to understand the type of energy supplying the grid, we could adjust our electrical consumption to minimize the use of dirty sources.

The Great Lakes Protection Fund supported work led by WattTime – teaming with academic, nonprofit, business, and utility partners – to solve this very problem. WattTime, an environmental tech nonprofit, developed a technology to predict what type of energy was feeding new demand on the electrical grid in real-time and then automatically adjust energy usage to times when cleaner energy sources supply the grid. All that is needed is internet connectivity.

What’s exciting is that this solution is not disruptive or invasive to daily life. It is all automated and happening without you knowing it. Devices, not people, do the work. Electric vehicles, thermostats, water heaters, batteries, and many other electronics you use daily are flexible about when they use grid electricity. This technology—software that drives conservation—enabled by WattTime allows individuals to effortlessly use more clean energy to power their homes and lives.

“What this team has done is breathtaking,” said David Rankin, Executive Director of the Great Lakes Protection Fund, an early investor in the work. “They have cracked a very tough problem using very complex programming and created a very simple solution: a self-driving system that pushes demand away from more pollution power and toward cleaner power. And does so automatically. The results are fewer emissions and more customers. The net result is that the Great Lakes see less mercury, and the planet sees less carbon.”

Small Shifts with a Big Impact

When many consumers across the region make small changes to energy consumption, the impact on our ecosystem can be significant. The team’s goal was to make automated clean energy accessible to all. They demonstrated that smart devices — those connected to the internet — are more popular with consumers if they can automate environmental benefits. The team also showed that this approach could be effectively deployed in large-scale commercial buildings to reduce the building’s environmental footprint. By demonstrating its appeal and functionality, the team effectively created a market for their solution, leading to its growing adoption across the Great Lakes basin and beyond.

The strategy this team pioneered is a transformative solution for mercury pollution. Consumption of electricity is the number one driver of mercury emissions. And smart devices account for a rapidly growing share of all electricity consumption — particularly among the devices that use the most electricity, like air conditioners and electric vehicles. WattTime estimates based on U.S. Department of Energy data suggest that, in the long run, smart devices will ultimately account for approximately 85% of electricity use.

As more energy-using devices are given the ability to reduce the emissions they cause, individual impacts aggregate into significant pollution reduction and also accelerate the transition to renewable energy sources.

The consumer preferences for environmental solutions, which this work harnesses, have helped companies build pollution reduction features into their products. Global device companies are noticing that their customers want to be a part of the solution to climate and pollution. So far, WattTime received requests from device manufacturers to sign up more than 3 billion devices on this technology — 20% of all smart devices in the world. So far, the first 500 million have already been activated.

“The thing about software to reduce emissions is that it’s nearly free and can scale much faster than many environmental fixes. But before working with GLPF, most smart device companies were waiting to adopt this emissions-reducing technology until and unless some government mandate required them to do so. But support from GLPF across two projects helped us demonstrate that reducing mercury pollution benefits smart device companies’ bottom line, and now we are seeing rapid, widespread voluntary action,” said Gavin McCormick, WattTime’s executive director.

By providing real-time data on the environmental footprint of electricity consumption and the ability to automate changes to consumption in response to this data, individuals and organizations can now minimize their environmental impact and support renewable energy sources automatically. Through groundbreaking technology, collaboration, and a shared commitment to environmental stewardship, this partnership puts the Great Lakes on a much-needed mercury diet to pave the way for a cleaner, healthier future.

For more information on what we do at Great Lakes Protection Fund, visit our website. If you’d like to discuss a project idea, email us at startaconversation@glpf.org.