Tag Archives: energy

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.

June 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • The Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • Water-related hazards including flood, drought, and disease have significant effects on economic growth.
  • There were 910 deaths from drug overdose in Philadelphia last year. Interestingly, I started writing a post thinking I might compare that to car accidents, and ended up concluding that the lack of a functioning health care system might be our #1 problem in the U.S.

Most hopeful stories:

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

  • Tile is a sort of wireless keychain that can help you find your keys, wallet, and those other pesky things you are always misplacing (or your significant other is moving, but won’t admit it).
  • Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • Traditional car companies are actually leading the pack in self-driving car development, by some measures.

automation in the coal industry

The simplistic image of “coal jobs” meaning miners toiling underground is no longer accurate given the increasing automation of the coal industry, according to Bloomberg.

Coal miners no longer swing a pickax or wield a shovel. While coal companies are hiring again, executives are starting to search for workers who can crunch gigabytes of data or use a joystick to maneuver mining vehicles hundreds of miles away…

“Whether coal comes back or not is not necessarily directly related to jobs,” Heath Lovell, a spokesman for coal producer Alliance Resource Partners LP, said in an interview on NPR’s “On Point.” “We should be becoming more and more efficient, which would mean we could produce the same amount of coal with less employees…”

One irony for the industry now is that in some areas the coal companies say they can’t find the high-skilled workers they need. In West Virginia, companies are resorting to offering signing bonuses and fully paid healthcare to poach experienced shift foremen, mechanics and electricians from rivals. Many of those workers left the coal industry during the last decade’s collapse and found more stable employment in other sectors. They aren’t anxious to switch back.