Tag Archives: energy

November 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by no foreign policy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfident leaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
  • We should probably be sounding the alarm just as urgently, if not more urgently, on biodiversity as we are on global warming. But while the case against global warming is so simple most children can grasp it, the case against biodiversity loss is more difficult to articulate.
  • A theory of mass extinctions of the past is that they have been caused by massive volcanic eruptions burning off underground fossil fuels on a massive scale. Only, not quite at the rate we are doing it now. Rapid collapse of ice cliffs is another thing that might get us.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • You can get an actuarial estimate of your life span online. You can also search your local library catalog automatically whenever you consider buying a book online. Libraries in small, medium, and large towns all over the U.S. appear to be included. Only, not my library. Boo, Philadelphia Free Library.
  • “Transportation as a service” may cause the collapse of the oil industry. Along similar but more mainstream lines, NACTO has released a “Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism“, which is my most popular post at the moment I am writing this.
  • It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.

 

October 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Donald Trump’s proposed tax policies are based on numbers he just makes up. This is not a matter of differences of political opinion, it is a matter of made-up numbers that can be compared to actual measured numbers taken from reality. Large swaths of the public seem unaware or unconcerned about this difference. large enough swaths of the public are concerned enough, however, that we are accepting of a situation where the (very recently retired members of the) military appears to be taking a very active role in executive branch decision making.
  • U.S. diplomats in Cuba are being subjected to some kind of directional noise weapon, and nobody knows who is doing it or why.
  • It is possible that a catastrophic loss of insects is occurring and that it may lead to ecological collapse. Also, there is new evidence that pollution is harming human health and even the global economy more than previously thought.

Most hopeful stories:

  • The U.S. Democratic party could consider embracing an anti-monopoly platform. Spun the right way, this would be a pro-business policy in the sense of creating a level playing field for businesses of all sizes to compete and innovate, rather than a system that is unfairly skewed in favor of big business at the expense of small business, workers, and consumers.
  • Evaporation theoretically could be harnessed to produce enormous amounts of energy for human use.
  • Supersonic (civilian) travel is almost back.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • A lot of the recyclables picked up at curbside in the U.S. are shipped to China for use as raw materials for manufactured goods that will be exported back to the U.S.
  • Even if autonomous trucks are not ready for tricky urban situations, they could be autonomous on the highway with a small number of remote-control drivers guiding a large number of tricks through tricky urban maneuvers, not unlike the way ports or trainyards are run now. There is also new thinking on how to transition highways gradually through a mix of human and computer-controlled vehicles, and eventually to full computer control. New research shows that even a small number of autonomous vehicles mixed in with human drivers will be safer for everyone. While some reports predict autonomous taxis will be available in the 2020s, Google says that number is more like 2017.
  • I mused about what it would take for a metropolitan area in the U.S. to achieve statehood. It seems like a tough uphill climb but I can imagine it having benefits not just for the metro area but for the economy and country as a whole.

I’ve been reading a little about Socrates lately. There was a debate in ancient Athens, during its radical experiments with direct democracy and free speech, that a smooth-talking rhetorical style could tend to carry the day over solidly argued logic and facts. So these concerns are not new, and there probably was no golden age when groups of Americans or other human beings were a lot better at logic-based decision making than we are now. Still, what is frustrating is that any individual human being clearly is capable of logic-based decision making, and yet we are repeatedly swayed and misled by faulty logic in groups.

The insect thing is really wild. I just spent three weeks in tropical Asia and was struck by how un-buggy it was compared to past trips. Which probably has absolutely nothing to do with the peer-reviewed journal article mentioned above. My garden in Philadelphia actually was quite buggy this summer, somewhat ironically with the striped mosquito varieties that have drained significant quantities of my blood on past trips to tropical Asia.

evaporation energy

There is a lot of energy in evaporation, and there are technologies that theoretically could harvest it for human use.

About 50% of the solar energy absorbed at the Earth’s surface drives evaporation, fueling the water cycle that affects various renewable energy resources, such as wind and hydropower. Recent advances demonstrate our nascent ability to convert evaporation energy into work, yet there is little understanding about the potential of this resource. Here we study the energy available from natural evaporation to predict the potential of this ubiquitous resource. We find that natural evaporation from open water surfaces could provide power densities comparable to current wind and solar technologies while cutting evaporative water losses by nearly half. We estimate up to 325 GW of power is potentially available in the United States. Strikingly, water’s large heat capacity is sufficient to control power output by storing excess energy when demand is low, thus reducing intermittency and improving reliability. Our findings motivate the improvement of materials and devices that convert energy from evaporation.

This is interesting. Cutting evaporation losses in half could be a good thing in some situations, like reservoirs and swimming pools in arid regions. Cut too much evaporation elsewhere, and you could imagine a science fiction scenario where you have a full reservoir but nearby ecosystems or farmland turn into deserts. Or you end up pumping that reservoir and using it for irrigation using the energy you have harvested, in the end using technology to efficiently recreate the hydrologic cycle and ecosystem services nature used to provide for free.

September 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Fueled by supercharged sea temperatures, the 2017 hurricane season was a terrible, terrible season for hurricanes devastating coastal regions of the United States. One reason is that these storms not only were powerful and hit densely populated areas, but they set records for rapid intensification. Beyond all the human suffering, one thing I find disturbing is that I feel desensitized at this point when I think back to how I felt after Hurricane Katrina. The first major city destroyed is a shock, but later you get numb to it if you are not actually there. Then finally, a remote island territory is all but wiped out in what should be shocking fashion, and the public and government response is decidedly muted. This is what the age of climate change and weapons proliferation might be like, a long, slow process of shifting baselines where the unthinkable becomes thinkable over time.
  • In a story that U.S. media didn’t seem to pick up, China seemed to make a statement in its  official state-run media that it would defend North Korea in case of an unprovoked attack by the U.S. and its allies. John Bolton  and Lindsey Graham made comments suggesting they think any number of Korean dead would be a price worth paying for an unprovoked U.S. attack. The Trump administration is openly using Nazi propaganda.
  • During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. After the Cold War finally ended, Mikhail Gorbachev made some good suggestions for how to achieve a lasting peace. They were ignored. We may be witnessing the decline of the American Empire as a result.

Most hopeful stories:

  • It’s possible that a universal basic income could save the U.S. government money by replacing less efficient assistance programs.
  • There are also workable proposals for a U.S. single-payer health insurance program, although this one would somewhat obviously mean the government spending more money, which it would have to collect in taxes. People would come out ahead financially if the taxes were less than the premiums they are paying now, which doesn’t seem that hard, but of course this is politically tough given the incredibly effective propaganda the finance industry has used to kill the idea for the last 50 years.
  • Utility-scale solar energy cost dropped 30% in one year.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • The FDA has approved formal trials of Ecstasy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • I learned that the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook named “ten key emerging technology trends”: The Internet of Things, Big data analytics, Artificial intelligence, Neurotechnologies, Nano/microsatellites, Nanomaterials, Additive manufacturing / 3D printing, Advanced energy storage technologies, Synthetic biology, Blockchain
  • In automation news, Tesla is testing automated truck platoons. And there’s a site that will try to predict whether robots will take your job.

utility-scale solar cost dropped 30% in one year

According to Inhabitat:

In a recently published report, the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratories documented that the cost of utility-scale solar, generated from large plants rather than residential rooftops, has decreased by 30 percent within the past year…

Although China has frequently been cited by the US President as a dangerous competitor, the solar renaissance in the United States has been made possible because of the pioneering work in solar energy being done in the People’s Republic. More solar modules are being produced in China than there is demand, which has enabled US importers to purchase this technology at low prices. As a result, the average price per watt is now only $1.03 for fixed-tilt systems and $1.11 for those that move to track the sun’s movement.

solar phone chargers

I love the idea of charging my phone and other small devices with solar power. So, here is a Wirecutter article on doing that. One thing I learned is that you generally want to pair your solar panel with a battery so you can charge the battery during the day, then charge your phone all night. Otherwise you would have to leave your phone sitting near the charger for several hours during the day, which is probably exactly when you want to be using your phone for other things.

July 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new cancer treatment genetically modifies a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.
  • Shareholders of big fossil fuel companies are starting to force some action on climate change business risk disclosure.
  • Richard Florida offers five ideas for solving poverty and what is wrong with cities: taxing land based on its improved value, massive investment in public transportation and public education, ending the mortgage interest tax deduction, and guaranteed minimum income.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Technology is marching on, whether or not the economy and human species are. The new thing with satellites is to have lots of small, cheap ones instead of a few big, expensive ones. Even if the coal industry were to make a comeback, today’s coal jobs are going to data analysts, remote control machine operators, mechanical and electrical engineers, not guys underground with pickaxes and headlamps. But the coal can be produced with a lot less human effort (i.e. jobs) than it used to be. Iris scans like in Minority Report are now a thing.
  • Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • Isaac Asimov says truly creative people (1) are weird and (2) generally work alone.

Some combination of the Trump news, the things I see every day on the streets of Philadelphia, and events affecting friends and family led me to question this month whether the United States is really a society in decline. Actually, I don’t question that, I think the answer is yes. But the more important question is whether it is a temporary or permanent decline, and what it means for the rest of the globe. I am leaning slightly toward permanent, but maybe I will feel better next month, we’ll see. Maybe I need to get out of this country for a little while. Last time I did that I felt that the social glue holding Americans together is actually pretty strong compared to most other places, even if our government and its approach to other governments have become largely dysfunctional. We need to get through the next couple years without a nuclear detonation, hope the current vacuum of leadership leads some quality leaders to emerge, and hope things have nowhere to go but up. There, I talked myself off the ledge!

 

Volvo

According to Fast Company, Volvo is planning a move to 100% hybrid and electric cars.

Between 2019 and 2021, Volvo will launch five 100% electric cars–three Volvo models and two under Polestar, its premium brand. The rest of its new models will be either hybrid plug-ins or hybrids that generate power from braking.

The company is moving towards electrification more quickly than it initially thought was possible. In 2015, when Volvo first announced a plan for electrification, the company’s senior vice president of research and development said that the Volvo would focus on hybrids and that it would take time for fully electric cars to be viable.

But battery costs have plunged, falling almost 80% between 2010 and 2016, and are likely to fall further. Charging infrastructure is spreading. New regulations, like an EU law that limits CO2 emissions for cars, and France’s newly announced phase-out of internal combustion engines by 2040, mean that traditional technology has to change. And customer demand is increasing.

Electric cars don’t solve all the problems cars cause of course, such as urban sprawl, pedestrian deaths, obesity, and wasted time. But they solve the air pollution problem (locally, at least, and regionally if there is also a shift to cleaner power plants) and the problem of producing, refining, transporting and storing large quantities of toxic and carcinogenic gasoline and diesel fuel.

climate change and shareholder revolts for big oil

According to Bloomberg, the board at Exxon just lost a fairly key shareholder vote on revealing business risks due to climate change. Part of the story is that large institutional shareholders like venture capital funds are concerned about these risks. These aren’t good guys acting out of purely ethical concerns of course – they are concerned about risks to the profits they are expecting.

Growth in support was driven by unprecedented majority votes for shareholder proposals asking Exxon Mobil Corp., Occidental Petroleum Corp. and electric utility PPL Corp. to report on the long-term business impacts of climate change. This proxy season marked the first time that kind of proposal has passed over board opposition. It also marked the first time BlackRock Inc. and likely more of the companies’ largest shareholders voted in its favor.

“When a company as prominent as Exxon Mobil loses a vote,” the board or corporate governance team may change its negotiating stance in the future so that it doesn’t happen again, James Copland, a senior fellow and director of legal policy at the Manhattan Institute, told Bloomberg BNA…

Even though the proposals aren’t binding, boards that fail to respond to climate concerns could be held accountable come director election time. That’s already happened at Exxon Mobil, where BlackRock voted against the re-election of two directors after repeated requests to meet with the board to better understand its oversight of climate risk and other issues were rebuffed.

We are starting to see amoral, conservative actors in the finance and insurance industries demand action to mitigate climate risk. The good news is markets will respond and action will be taken. The bad news is amoral investors and markets tend to react to big and short term risks, and by the time the risks are big and short term, the best chances to take meaningful mitigation action may have passed.

fan buying guide

Let’s face it, cheap fans are annoying. Normally you get a new fan when you a desperate for one – either an old one broke, your air conditioning is on the fritz, or you have company coming and need to cover an additional room. You stop by your local drug store, hardware store, or big box monstrosity and pick up whatever they happen to have. No matter how cheap, it almost always does the job of making air move. But your cheap new fan is loud, rattly, and just all-around annoying. There are some better models out there, and if you have just a few days to plan ahead you can order one of them.