Best of the West: Cybersecurity awareness month; Regional Innovation Engines; Geothermal lease sale; AI-powered climate control; Prehistoric plants

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Oct. 7, 2023. (Photos courtesy of Song_about_summer and Wendy Hodgson/Annals of Botany).

Since 2004, the President and Congress have declared October as Cybersecurity Awareness Month. In recognition of the 20th anniversary, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency launched a new awareness program entitled Secure Our World. It promotes behavioral change for individuals, families, and small to medium-sized businesses by focusing on the four critical actions: using strong passwords, enabling multi-factor authentication, recognizing and reporting phishing, and updating software. 

While these simple steps can make us, “significantly safer online,” according to CSIA, the key to bolstering the nation’s cybersecurity is developing a more robust cybersecurity workforce.

According to different accounts, there are somewhere between 650,000 and 750,000 unfilled cybersecurity jobs nationwide (and 3.5 million worldwide). 

In the 2023 State Edtech Trends Reportcybersecurity was the primary concern of K-12 school administrators across the nation for the second consecutive year.

Completed by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) and Whiteboard Advisors, the report surveyed state-level information technology directors, superintendents, chiefs of staff, and other leaders from 45 states, Washington, D.C., and Guam. Twenty-four percent of state leaders surveyed for this year’s report listed cybersecurity as their top priority, up from 17 percent last year, while 20 percent listed Internet access (equity) and 19 percent listed technology for instruction.

A survey conducted by the U.S. Small Business Administration revealed that 88 percent of small-business owners believed their operations were vulnerable to cyberattacks. However, many of these businesses face significant barriers, such as budget constraints, time limitations, or a lack of knowledge about cybersecurity best practices.

To address this issue, western states have partnered with private companies and academic institutions to increase access to cybersecurity education programs and job training.

The Wyoming Small Business Development Center Network and CyberWyoming were selected as one of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Cybersecurity for Small Business Pilot Program grants. The $1 million grant will empower small businesses across Wyoming to bolster their cybersecurity infrastructure and defend against emerging cyber threats.

To help develop similar programs on Tribal lands, the CISA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced the opening of the application process for $18.2 million available through the Tribal Cybersecurity Grant Program to help tribal governments address cybersecurity risks and threats., which is funded in part by CISA, announced that it's expanding Project REACH to help K-12 schools launch and maintain cybersecurity offerings like classes or afterschool cyber clubs that connect them with cyber and computer science degree programs at minority-serving institutions.

Year one saw the program connect 13 historically Black colleges and universities with local high schools. Project REACH has since expanded to add three Hispanic-serving institutions, and is in discussions with several tribal schools that are prospective participants. This past summer also saw 14 summer camps held for high schoolers, in nine states.

The University of Oregon recently announced that it will offer a cybersecurity major as part of its computer science program to help the state and local companies fill the workforce gap. “ The good news is, if you get that degree jobs are waiting for you," University of Oregon professor and head of the Computer Science Department Reza Rejaie, said.

The University of Texas at San Antonio recently received a five-year, $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create a multidisciplinary center fostering education and research at the intersection of cybersecurity and cloud computing. The Center for Security and Privacy Enhanced Cloud Computing (C-SPECC) will act as a pipeline to create well-trained professionals in the industry and strengthen San Antonio as a cybersecurity hub. 

The University of Kansas recently launched a program to offer a Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity Engineering. While other degree programs train students to implement cyber protections, graduates of KU’s engineering-based program will be creating the actual protections themselves.

Innovation Engines: The U.S. National Science Foundation announced 16 finalists for the first-ever NSF Regional Innovation Engines competition, spanning a range of key technology areas and societal and economic challenges.

One of the finalists represents a partnership between Wyoming and Colorado known as the Rocky Mountain Innovation Initiative. Spearheaded by Innosphere Ventures, the partnership looks to transform the region into a leader in the development and commercialization of climate-resilient and sustainable technologies to monitor, mitigate, and adapt to climate impacts. They are expected to have direct applications to water resource management, agriculture technology, and extreme weather, including wildfires and flooding. 

Other finalists include a study of advanced agriculture adapted for resiliency and maximized security at North Dakota State University; a study of the economic and pollical impacts of aerospace at the New Mexico Trade Alliance; and a study of water sustainability practices at Arizona State University. 

NSF anticipates announcing the NSF Engines awards this winter, with each awardee initially receiving about $15 million for the first two years. Each NSF Engine could receive up to $160 million over 10 years.

Geothermal Lease Sale: The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced that it will hold a competitive geothermal lease sale on Tuesday, November 14, 2023, offering 45 parcels totaling about 135,067acres across Churchill, Esmeralda, Elko, Eureka, Humboldt, Lander, Lyon, Mineral, Nye, Pershing, White Pine, and Washoe counties in Nevada.

“Nevada has some of the best geothermal resources in the country, and BLM is proud to offer additional public land for responsible geothermal development in the state,” said Justin Abernathy, BLM Nevada Deputy State Director of Energy and Minerals. “BLM has undertaken a rigorous environmental review of these parcels, including receiving input from the public, and we’re confident these are appropriate locations for the development of new clean energy for the benefit of current and future generations.”

Learn more about efforts to accelerate geothermal energy use by listening to the latest episode of WGA's Out West podcast with Colorado Governor Jared Polis. 

AI-Powered Climate Control: Several start-ups have recently announced artificial intelligence programs to help cut waste energy from buildings. Take, for instance, Oregon–based Community Energy Labs (CEL), which launched pilot programs in California, Oregon, and Washington state using ​“model-predictive control” to optimize climate control systems at elementary schools. CEL’s system cut 24 percent of total peak power and 30 percent of HVAC peak power. It also shifted 16% of the cooling load from an on-peak price period to a low price period. Those savings yielded a payback on the cost of installation in less than two months, according to pilot data.

Prehistoric Plants: A new paper in the Annals of Botany revealed that researchers have found unaltered agave plant species in Arizona that were cultivated by several early cultures in the Southwest between 300 and 1500 CE. These remnant clones present a rare opportunity to examine plant species that are virtually unchanged since they were last cultivated prehistorically. This is particularly true of plants that occupy hot, dry environments, where climate change has rendered such plants more attractive for agricultural development.

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