Saturday, August 8, 2009

In Quest for Efficiency and Conservation,

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., has sent spacecraft to the farthest reaches of the solar system. Its latest mission is a bit closer to home: helping Los Angeles save water and energy while cutting the sprawling metropolis’s greenhouse gas emissions.

As part of a partnership with the city of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the propulsion lab will repurpose technology developed to explore the cosmos and monitor Earth’s environment.

“We have people trying to understand what challenges the Los Angeles basin is facing and how some of these technologies and missions being developed by NASA can be relevant,” said Charles Elachi, the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in an interview Tuesday.

Foremost among those challenges is water.

The Los Angeles basin is essentially a desert and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s 3.8 million customers depend on water piped in from the Sierra Nevada, the Owens Valley and the Colorado River. Mr. Elachi said the propulsion lab is investigating the development of satellite imaging technology that could be deployed to predict the depth of the Sierra snowpack up to a year in advance.

“Instead of people walking around and measuring the snowpack with sticks as they do now, if you could measure it from space and know ahead of time you have limited water resources you could better manage that resource,” Mr. Elachi said. The technology could also be used to monitor water levels in aquifers, he said.

To control dust storms on Owens Lake, left dry by Los Angeles’s diversion of water from the Owens River in 1913, the city is building a system to flood 14 square miles of the lake bed with a shallow sheet of water. That will consume significant amounts of water. so the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is exploring the use of remote sensing technology to determine the moisture content of the lakebed, as a way of avoiding wasted water.

The Los Angeles Department of Power and Water depends on out-of-state coal-fired power plants for half of its electricity. The city has pledged to wean itself from coal by 2020, in part, by dramatically increasing its supply of renewable energy.

The Jet Propulsion Lab could use its satellite-imaging technology to identify rooftops suitable for solar panels and to calculate Los Angeles’s capacity for generating photovoltaic energy, according to Mr. Elachi.

“The whole idea is that a lot of technology has been developed for space and airborne activity, he said, “and now we’re looking at how do we bring that technology to energy, water and natural hazards and incorporate it into the city’s decision making.”

Los Angeles isn’t the only beneficiary of NASA’s earthbound focus: Mr. Elachi said Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists have been meeting with state officials about using sensor technology to keep tabs on the Sacramento Delta’s weakening levees.

“We think from space or from aircraft we can measure displacement down to a fraction of an inch,” Mr. Elachi said, “to see which areas are actually moving slowly over a period of years.”

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