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“As he stepped onto the cottage deck, Brock’s jaw dropped and he very nearly let go of his coffee mug, dumbfounded by the stunning beauty of the morning unfolding in front of him.
“He and his family had arrived late the night before, with the drone unloading them on the damp grass of a winding path through a dense black forest. They had marvelled briefly at the starlit night sky, but could only make out bits of the lake in the darkness. They were all exhausted after traveling all day, and turned their attention to moving things inside, assigning bedrooms and conking out.
“It was July and hot, but the nighttime temperature in this part of Canada was surprisingly tolerable. Screen windows were open, some circulating fans turned gently in each room, and the air conditioner was off. Still, Brock had tossed and turned. At 5:30 a.m., he heard gurgling in the kitchen. Thanks to thoughtful hosts, the sweet aroma of Liberica coffee beans soon wafted into their bedroom. Paige was fast asleep, so he slipped out of bed and tiptoed into the kitchen.
“Now he was alone outside, listening to the melancholy bays of a loon family and staring at a deep indigo lake that stretched miles into the distance, with forested islands peeking around each other at him. The water was as smooth as a mirror, with a couple of starry-eyed lovers in gliding kayaks and a few geese contributing the only ripples in the peaceful stillness. A regal mist rolled imperceptibly out of one of the inlets, illuminated by the slanting golds and yellows of the rising sun.
“As an engineer, Brock Donavan would not describe the sun as rising. He was still a child when his father explained that it was more accurate to say that the earth was rotating toward the sun. And although they were rational scientists in this way, they could be sentimental, and Brock’s eyes welled a little while thinking about his late father and drinking in the scenery on this morning; because today was not just any day.
“It was Brock’s 40th birthday, and he was reminded of his time at Cornell, when his dad would meet him at the Boatyard Grill and they would eat mushroom omelets next to Lake Cayuga, and talk about the future. His father had said more than once: ‘By the time you’re 40, the world might be a very different place.’
“He had been right. It was now 2035, America had been a nervous wreck from a dozen years of upheaval, and Brock was turning 40. So much had happened that had profoundly changed the country, and the world of engineering. The switch to electric cars and renewable power had been faster than expected, despite endless bickering in the political sphere. Green buildings and industry were taking longer.
“Methane reduction programs had succeeded in capping thousands of oil wells, securing landfill sites and supporting modified agricultural practices.
“Although the world had quickly wound down methane and the burning of fossil fuels, their use had been at an all-time high during the first 20 years of the century, which created something the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) called ‘committed warming.’ Temperatures were still increasing, wildfires still breaking records and massive storms were a constant threat everywhere. But some trendlines were showing improvement, and scientists were more hopeful.
“Paige had booked this cottage vacation and, as usual, she had found a gem. As he leaned on the deck railing with his coffee cup, the beauty of the quiet morning brought a greater calm than he had felt for years. It seemed like in the past decade he had been alternately hurtling forward, then lurching backward, like a lost spaceship without a control system.”
Microgrids, Virtual Power Plants and Desalinization
“After graduation, Brock had accepted an offer from National Electric in Boston, where his father, Edwin Donavan, worked on wind turbines and on modernizing heat pump technology. Brock developed an advanced smart home system there, but the construction industry wasn’t ready for it until some years later when mass marketing ramped up for Google Nest, Amazon Alexa and Apple Siri.
“Still, he attracted the attention of the big brains at Tulka, a disruptive electric car/electric home/renewables battery company. They asked him to work on the company’s DC-coupled microgrid and virtual power plant concepts, so Brock moved to San Diego.
“When he arrived, the office that had been assigned to him was already occupied by a wickedly smart and attractive electrical engineer named Paige Brinkeley, who, like Brock, was born and raised in Chicago.
“‘I thought this was my new office,’ Brock said.
“‘Oh? So did I. What do you do?’ Paige asked.
“‘I guess I’m here to do my little bit to help save the planet.’
“‘Is that so? Well, I think I’ve started without you.’
“Human Resources had messed up and hired them both for the same job. But the company was growing so fast that the problem was resolved quickly by keeping them both and asking them to work on microgrids together. They did so immediately, and they also fell in love, got married and soon had a son they named Atom.
“The COVID-19 pandemic coincided with their parental leave. One night when Paige was pregnant, she had a craving for a Chicago-style hot dog. Brock arranged to have a ketchup-free package from Portillo’s delivered to San Diego by overnight courier. Paige called him her ‘planet-saving magic man.’
“The company said they would have to work on separate projects, but as discussions proceeded it was decided that Brock and Paige would form their own firm, PAB Engineering, and Tulka would become a client. They had already eliminated most of the obstacles with microgrid and virtual power plant programming, so Brock was assigned to Tulka’s all new desalination/sodium battery plant.
“Paige soon landed top New York architecture firms as clients because she had become interested in planning how to scale clean energy in large buildings, working with the state and some of New York City’s biggest developers.
“The desalination/sodium battery project was born after Brock attended a speech by Tulka’s CEO in which he said they could vertically integrate and save 30 percent on costs by using table salt to extract lithium from ore. It was a eureka moment for Brock because a few days earlier, one of Tulka’s battery gurus in Nova Scotia had told him that the demand for electric cars was growing far too quickly for lithium resources to keep up, and sodium batteries would be the likely alternative for many vehicles.
“Meanwhile, a key challenge for desalination was dumping brine back into the ocean. California had recently rejected a new plant design because of this, and Brock felt the plan also could have taken greater advantage of solar power, compressed air for storage, and some efficient modern turbines he’d been studying. The desalination plant he envisioned could be zero carbon, and could dramatically reduce its impact on the marine ecosystem, while efficiently producing by-products and sodium batteries.
“When Atom was 5, Brock came home from a Las Vegas convention and said to Paige that he wanted to talk. He rolled out a poster sized map of the world. He took four poker chips out of his pocket and gave two of them to Paige. They each threw their two chips onto the map. Brock drew lines between them which intersected at Bali.
“‘We’re going to Bali for a week,’ Brock said.
“‘We can’t. We’ve got too much work,’ Paige said. ‘And what about Atom?’
“‘I’ll call my folks. They can take him.’
“Paige didn’t protest for much longer. They flew to Ngurah Rai International the next morning. They gave each other massages in Bali’s hot springs. Paige called Brock her ‘mental health medicine man.’”
Climate Change Consequences
“At first, Paige had worked on applying Passive House principles to existing affordable housing projects in New York, after being inspired by architect Chris Benedict. This meant minimal disruption for tenants who could mostly remain in place during building envelope retrofits.
“Air-source heat pumps, heat pump water heaters and energy recovery ventilators were installed on rooftops in small insulated mechanical enclosures. New ductwork ran down the exterior of some buildings, protected by a special insulated cladding system. Cooktops were replaced with induction units. In-unit ventless heat pump clothes dryers also were added.
“Later, she worked on new construction, sometimes choosing variable refrigerant flow heat pump systems and geothermal. Geothermal had become a proven solution for multifamily projects of hundreds of units in New York and Toronto, and eventually Paige was able to find contractors who could add it as a retrofit.
“Some moved small drilling rigs made by a Chicago firm into underground parking lots. Others drilled boreholes at a slight angle so that they were actually beneath existing buildings.
“By the time his green desalination/battery factory was designed and built, Brock had created a plan to adapt abandoned gas pipelines for carrying desalinated water to some of the interior agriculture regions that had been decimated by drought and the demise of the Colorado River.
“Indoor agriculture structures had sprung up in many of these areas to help better control sunlight, temperature and humidity, while reducing inputs. Tulka’s other designers were advancing plans for a string of plants in California, other states and countries, all using Brock’s model, with some that would pipe water to the worst-hit wildfire regions.
“It had not been smooth sailing. While people were still dying from COVID-19, intense weather events began multiplying so fast that dangerous weather soon became one continuous new normal, disrupting PAB projects and playing havoc with client priorities. Climate denial disappeared as countries struggled to control fires, adapt to droughts, and invest in flood/storm protection and emergency infrastructure.
“Drought and wildfire continued in the western and southern states, while the East Coast and Midwest suffered from record devastation and floods caused by tropical storms and hurricanes. In the late 2020s, three pandemics killed
15 million Americans. One was said to have been brought
by heat-induced insect anomalies in the south.
“Food shortages caused by war, droughts, storms, panic buying and export restrictions led to citizen riots in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Egypt, Haiti, Lebanon, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. A global recession in late 2023 and 2024 increased desperation, poverty and inequity, and swelled the ranks of armed extremists.
“In the United States, many police forces felt empathy for these groups and turned a blind eye, even as they committed more outrageous acts of terror and racism each year. The combination of street violence, pandemics and dangerous weather kept people at home — and the economic downturn dragged on.”
Life in the Fast Lane
“Still, Paige and Brock had been enthusiastic, motivated, driven by their modern technology projects, and were crazy busy. Life in the fast lane. Atom was having a birthday, too; next month, he would be 10. Already. Where had the time gone? Apart from the Bali timeout, there had been too few of these family vacations.
“Brock hadn’t spent enough time with Atom, and there were some cracks showing in his relationship with Paige. As he watched a fisherman row a wooden boat across the bay, he wondered if perhaps it was time to slow down. It felt like this perfect morning was the first moment he’d had to catch his breath since he left Cornell.
“But peace might be short-lived. The offers were rolling in. PAB had enjoyed a record of success despite working on innovative projects that were constantly questioned by new technology naysayers and bureaucrats distracted by natural disasters and political violence.
“Paige had become more interested in battery recycling and was being courted by two groups of investors seeking competent project designers. Some governments wanted her to help with expansion of heat recovery from municipal sewage, which had still not been adopted much, despite saving so much energy and cost.
“But she didn’t think it was challenging enough and also noted that the overbuild of utility renewables, microgrids and storage was displacing everything at grid level.
“After winning some awards for his desalination/battery plant, Brock was presented with a proposal to help ramp up green cement, which was now being made as a by-product of steel recycling in electric arc furnaces powered by renewable energy.
“Lime flux was used in arc furnaces to recycle steel until it was discovered that it had a similar chemical composition to waste cement paste produced when used concrete is crushed and the sand and aggregate removed. The lime flux was replaced with the used cement and they found they could separate the resulting hot liquid slag that floats on the surface of molten steel, and cool it to form a powder. The powder was then mixed with gypsum and cast into cement samples that were similar to Portland cement.
“Could PAB design six large plants that would produce cement as a by-product of steel recycling? This would close a huge loop, creating zero-emission steel and zero-emission cement.
“Also on the table was a plan that involved digitally printed prefab building modules with integrated solar — another technology that had made deep inroads into construction in several sectors and was finally ready for the next level. Due to compelling economics, few industry leaders doubted that it would come to dominate the way human structures were built, but a significant segment felt that it would not necessarily make the world a better place.
“A well-capitalized company called TMT had used artificial intelligence to develop an aggressive strategy for rapid expansion. It made an offer that would require full-time attention for both Paige and Brock.
“Brock’s first reaction was that it would be great to finally get back to working on the same project with his wife. They had always made each other better. But Paige felt the TMT program was ambitious and too commercial for PAB. They would need to put together a big team in a hurry. That could be messy, risky and stressful.”
“Paige came out onto the deck asking, ‘Whaddyathink?’
“‘Absolutely incredible. Thank you for handling this.’ Brock put his arm around her as they took in the scenery together. ‘I’ve been having a bit of a moment here.’
“‘Happy birthday, big fella,’ Paige said. ‘We have a canoe, fishing rods. There’s a completely wild forest over that way.’
“‘I feel like we’re at the end of something. Maybe starting a new chapter,’ he mused.
“‘I think I’ve started without you,’ she said, and they both smiled, remembering their first encounter years earlier in San Diego.
“‘I started before both of you. Let’s live here,’ Atom said, appearing at the other end of the cottage deck. He held up a wiggling pike that seemed bigger than he was. ‘Look what I caught. Dad, take our picture. I want to put him back in the lake.’
“‘Wow, how did you do that?’ Paige asked while they did the photo and took the fish back to the shore.
“‘Mr. Henry helped me,’ Atom said.
“‘Who is Mr. Henry?’ Brock asked.
“‘He lives next door; he takes care of all the cottages,’ Atom said. ‘He gave me these worms and showed me the best place to cast out. I want to move here. You can swim in the lake and there are animals in the woods.’
“‘We have clean lakes and animals in New York,’ Paige said.
“‘They don’t shoot them here,’ Atom replied. ‘And I’m not sweating all the time.’
“‘The IPCC came out this morning,’ Paige said. ‘And there’s some good news.’
“‘What does it say?’ Brock asked.
“‘It says we did it, we actually did it! Oceanic thermal readings are finally stabilizing.’ She brushed away a tear and hugged them both.
“‘What does it mean, Dad?’
“Brock held his son’s face in his hands and said: ‘What it means, Atom, is that by the time you’re 40 like me, the world might be a very different place.’ Brock turned toward the cottage. ‘Now let’s go have breakfast. I’m making a mushroom omelet.’