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Tesla’s Master Plan, part two

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2016

Tonight, Elon Musk shared part two of Tesla’s “Master Plan” (here’s part one, from 2006). The company is going all-in on sustainable energy, building out their fleet of available vehicle types (including semi trucks and buses), and pushing towards fully self-driving cars that can be leased out to people in need of a ride.

When true self-driving is approved by regulators, it will mean that you will be able to summon your Tesla from pretty much anywhere. Once it picks you up, you will be able to sleep, read or do anything else enroute to your destination.

You will also be able to add your car to the Tesla shared fleet just by tapping a button on the Tesla phone app and have it generate income for you while you’re at work or on vacation, significantly offsetting and at times potentially exceeding the monthly loan or lease cost. This dramatically lowers the true cost of ownership to the point where almost anyone could own a Tesla. Since most cars are only in use by their owner for 5% to 10% of the day, the fundamental economic utility of a true self-driving car is likely to be several times that of a car which is not.

In cities where demand exceeds the supply of customer-owned cars, Tesla will operate its own fleet, ensuring you can always hail a ride from us no matter where you are.

Summing up: Telsa, Uber, and probably Apple all want to replace human drivers with robot chauffeurs. It’s a race between the Jetson’s future and the Terminator’s future. Fun!

We Work Remotely

A recent Saturday night in NYC

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2015

Astronaut Scott Kelly, who is spending a continuous year in space,1 tweeted out a photo by fellow ISS resident Oleg Kononenko of NYC on Saturday night.

NYC Sat Oct 2015

Of the many possibilities, I’d like to point out just three interesting things.

1. Times Square! And not just that, but the whole of central Midtown is now lit up like a Christmas tree from 34th Street to Central Park.

2. The bright spot of light in the upper right corner of the image above is Citi Field. The photo must have been taken during Game 1 of the NLCS between the Mets and the Cubs. The Mets won that game 4-2. #LGM!

3. You’ll notice that the streetlights in much of the city are orange. But in the bottom right corner, in Brooklyn, you can see the future. NYC is currently replacing all of the orange-glowing sodium vapor streetlights with blue-glowing LED lights that are longer lasting and more energy efficient. But they are also brighter and some are already complaining about the harsh blue light.

The new LEDs may be environmentally sensitive, but they are also optically harsh.

“The old lights made everybody look bad,” said Christopher Stoddard, an architect, who lives at the corner of Fuller Place. “But these are so cold and blue, it’s like ‘Night of the Living Dead’ out there.”

“We’re all for saving energy,” his wife, Aida Stoddard, also an architect, said, “but the city can do so much better.”

A few blocks away, Rose Gallitelli taped up black garbage bags on her bedroom windows so that she could sleep. “They’re the heavy-duty kind,” she said.

The lighting refit is scheduled to be completed in two years. The city will look different when it’s done, in real life, on Instagram, and in film. (via @ginatrapani)

Update: Photographer Pari Dukovic has a shot of one of the old sodium vapor street lamps in the New Yorker this week.

  1. Scott also recently broke the American record for the most days spent in space. Today marks his 386th day in space.

Scenes from Fukushima, four years later

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 28, 2015

Podniesinski Fukushima

Photographer Arkadiusz Podniesiński recently took a trip to Japan to the area affected by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. He toured towns closed due to high radiation levels, talked to former residents, and observed clean-up efforts in some of the less affected areas.

When entering the zone, the first thing that one notices is the huge scale of decontamination work. Twenty thousand workers are painstakingly cleaning every piece of soil. They are removing the top, most contaminated layer of soil and putting it into sacks, to be taken to one of several thousand dump sites. The sacks are everywhere. They are becoming a permanent part of the Fukushima landscape.

The contamination work does not stop at removal of contaminated soil. Towns and villages are being cleaned as well, methodically, street by street and house by house. The walls and roofs of all the buildings are sprayed and scrubbed. The scale of the undertaking and the speed of work have to be admired. One can see that the workers are keen for the cleaning of the houses to be completed and the residents to return as soon as possible.

Podniesinski Fukushima

Podniesinski Fukushima

(thx, james)

Project Sunroof

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 18, 2015

Google’s latest project is called Project Sunroof. Sunroof utilizes Google Earth data to estimate the solar energy potential of buildings.

Enter Project Sunroof, my recent 20% project. Project Sunroof is a new online tool we’re testing to help homeowners explore whether they should go solar. Available in the San Francisco Bay Area, Fresno (in central California), and the Boston area for now, the tool uses high-resolution aerial mapping (the same used by Google Earth) to help you calculate your roof’s solar energy potential, without having to climb up any ladders.

If you’re in one of our test regions, simply enter your address and Project Sunroof will crunch the numbers. It first figures out how much sunlight hits your rooftop throughout the year, taking into account factors like roof orientation, shade from trees and nearby buildings, and local weather patterns. You can also enter your typical electric bill amount to customize the results. The tool then combines all this information to estimate the amount you could potentially save with solar panels, and it can help connect you with local solar providers.

Google still has 20% time?

GravityLight

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 04, 2015

GravityLight is an electric light that draws its power from gravity. You lift up a weight attached to the light and as it falls, it generates enough power to light the light for 20 minutes.

GravityLight is installed to provide a 6ft/1.8m drop of a 12kg weight. This weight is lifted and on release starts falling very slowly (about 1mm/second).

This movement powers a drive sprocket, which rotates very slowly with high torque (force). A polymer geartrain running through the product turns this input into a high speed, low torque output that drives a DC generator at thousands of rotations per minute.

This generates just under a tenth of a watt, a deciwatt, to power an onboard LED and ancillary devices. Given the ever-increasing efficiency of LEDs, this produces a light over 5 times brighter (lux) than a typical open-wick kerosene lamp.

Once the weighted bag reaches the floor, which depends on how high it was installed, it is simply lifted to repeat the process.

(via @craigmod)

“Where are the solar powered cars?” and other questions about Mad Max: Fury Road

posted by Jason Kottke   May 29, 2015

I saw Mad Max: Fury Road yesterday (enjoyed it) but have a few questions.

1. With gasoline in such short supply, I’m surprised the various groups in the movie didn’t take more advantage of solar power to generate energy for electric vehicles and such. Sunshine is obviously abundant in post-apocalyptic Australia and from the looks of what was scavenged from before the nuclear war and the ingenuity on display in getting what they found to function, they should have been able to find even rudimentary solar cells and get them to work.

2. Speaking of energy scarcity, I wonder if the troop-pumping-up and opponent-intimidating function of the flamethrowing guitar player was worth all of the fuel spewed out of the end of his instrument and energy consumed by the incredible number of speakers on his rig.

3. The roads in the movie were in remarkable shape, aside from the swampland. Who was responsible for their upkeep? Even dirt roads need maintenance or they develop potholes and washboarding. And for what reason were they kept in such good condition outside of the Citadel/Gas Town/Bullet Farm area? Aside from Furiosa’s Rig, the chase party, and two smallish motorcycle gangs, I saw no other vehicular traffic on the roads…and who would have been semi-regularly traveling out past the canyon anyway? To where? For what?

4. What was the political and economic arrangement between the Citadel, Gas Town, and the Bullet Farm? Did the Citadel trade their water and crops for gas and bullets? Or was Immortan Joe, as the defender of the lone source of abundant fresh water in the region, the defacto leader of all three groups? The People Eater and Bullet Farmer certainly came a’running when Joe needed help retrieving his wives. There were obviously other sources of water in the region — how else did the biker gangs survive? — so you’d think that Gas Town and the Bullet Farm could have teamed up to squeeze Joe into giving them a better deal or even overthrowing him. Point is, there seemed to be a surprising lack of political friction between the three groups, which seems odd in an environment of scarcity.

5. Surely land was plentiful enough that large solar stills could have generated enough fresh water for people to live on without having to rely on the Citadel for it.

Update: Reddit has a go at answering some of these questions. (via @pavel_lishin)

The Hidden Effects of Cheap Oil

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 31, 2015

Today’s drop in crude-oil prices, which began in the summer of 2014, may be as disruptive as the quadrupling of oil prices that created the oil shock of 1974.

For most of us, lower oil prices simply translate as better prices at the gas pump. But the value of oil has big consequences around the world. From Moisés Naím in The Atlantic: The Hidden Effects of Cheap Oil.

Cutaway illustrations of nuclear reactors

posted by Jason Kottke   May 01, 2014

Worlds Reactors 02

Worlds Reactors 01

Worlds Reactors 03

From the collection of The University of New Mexico, a big collection of cutaway diagrams of nuclear reactors.

Clean coal?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 25, 2014

You have solar on your roof, a hybrid in your garage, and wind, water, nuclear, and natural gas all being pushed by various companies and interest groups. But, now, and for the foreseeable future, you’ve also got coal. And lots of it. Wired’s Charles C. Mann lays it out:

A lump of coal is a thoroughly ubiquitous 21st-century artifact, as much an emblem of our time as the iPhone. Today coal produces more than 40 percent of the world’s electricity, a foundation of modern life. And that percentage is going up.

That reality is bad news for the environment and climate change, and it leaves us with a big question: How do we minimize the damage?

Volcano-powered energy source

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 30, 2014

A geothermal engineering project in Iceland drilled 1.3 miles into the Earth and unexpectedly hit a pocket of magma. Instead of capping the hole, as was done in a similar instance previously, they decided to see if they could harness the energy of the magma.

“Drilling into magma is a very rare occurrence, and this is only the second known instance anywhere in the world,” Elders said. The IDDP and Iceland’s National Power Company, which operates the Krafla geothermal power plant nearby, decided to make a substantial investment to investigate the hole further.

This meant cementing a steel casing into the well, leaving a perforated section at the bottom closest to the magma. Heat was allowed to slowly build in the borehole, and eventually superheated steam flowed up through the well for the next two years.

Elders said that the success of the drilling was “amazing, to say the least”, adding: “This could lead to a revolution in the energy efficiency of high-temperature geothermal projects in the future.”

The well funnelled superheated, high-pressure steam for months at temperatures of over 450°C — a world record. In comparison, geothermal resources in the UK rarely reach higher than around 60-80°C.

Exercises in unnecessary censorship

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 28, 2013

Building on yesterday’s “The dirty BLEEP,” here are a few more great moments in the artful use of censorship (or its illusion):

Also, besides using the appearance of censorship to remix existing text, audio, and video like “Unnecessary Censorship” does or fully scripting the bleep ahead of time like Arrested Development or South Park do, there’s been a real rise in a mode that’s in between, something that’s deliberate but has the feel of being off-the-cuff. This is probably best exemplified by The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Check out Ashton Kutcher’s “surprise” experience on Colbert:

Here the tension isn’t just between what you’ve heard and what you know was said, but also between the live experience and that of broadcast. It used to be that if you heard a bleep of an event that was recorded live, someone had gone off the rails, like Madonna on the David Letterman show.

Now, TV mostly just lets anything and everything rip for the people in the room, knowing it will amp up the energy in the crowd, but can be bleeped for broadcast later. Then sometimes (like with The Daily Show or Chappelle’s Show on DVD or Netflix), you can catch the uncensored cut at home.

So we get the live, the censored, and the edited-but-encensored experiences, and we’re always mentally bouncing between all three. We know it’s not really spontaneous, but knowing is part of what lets us in on the joke, even though we can’t be in the room.

In living memory

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 28, 2013

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The full title is important because the right words are important.

It’s important because the Great March itself was a compromise, an evolution of the movement A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters had forged decades before. During the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, Randolph and other civil rights leaders worked to force the government to desegregate the army and provide more economic opportunities to black Americans. The March was a dream, but it was also a threat. Before 1963, each time the March was about to happen, the government made concessions and it would be called off.

Randolph was 74 when the March finally materialized, with him as its titular head. He was the only figure with the credibility to unify northern labor leaders and southern pastors: radical enough for the relative radicals — the radical radicals saw the March as a distracting sideshow or were directly asked not to participate — and institutional enough for the wary moderates.

Bayard Rustin was Randolph’s lieutenant and did the bulk of the work organizing the March. Rustin was gay, and had been a Communist. He couldn’t be the event’s public face.

Everything that happened at the March, from the arrival of more than 100,000 people straight through all the speeches, all the songs, all the signs painted, all of the 80,000 cheese sandwiches made, distributed, and eaten — each and every one of those moments — happened in one day. Television stations were able to carry the event live. It was a tremendous feat of planning and organization. No one but Bayard Rustin and his dedicated staff could have pulled it off.

John Lewis was 23 years old and the March’s youngest speaker. He is the only one of that day’s speakers who is still alive. Lewis had recently been made head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (pronounced “snick”). SNCC was a relatively new, independent civil rights organization that had proven itself integrating lunch counters in Nashville, then on the Freedom Rides with CORE protesting segregated busing and bus stations throughout the south, and working with the NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Albany, Georgia.

If you’re serious about the civil rights movement, you have to learn a lot of organizations’ names and abbreviated titles. You have to learn that the leaders of these organizations rarely agreed with each other about goals, methods, or priorities. You have to know that even within each organization there were equal amounts of discipline and dissent.

They were organized not because they agreed, but because they had to be. They were disciplined because they had to be. They were allied because they had to be. It was all fragile. At any moment, it could all fall apart.

John Lewis had been part of both series of Freedom Rides and was badly beaten during the second, in Montgomery. The state highway patrol that had promised the riders protection — at the insistence of the Kennedy administration and with the reluctant assurance of Alabama’s governor, George Wallace — abandoned them to a white mob waiting at the city’s station house.

Lewis was 21 years old. His friend Jim Zwerg was also 21. Zwerg bravely walked out the door of the bus first to meet the waiting mob, where he was nearly beaten to death. He received a particularly savage beating partly because he was first and partly because he was white.

While being beaten, Zwerg recalls seeing a black man in coveralls, probably just off of work, who happened to be walking by. “‘Stop beating that kid,” the man said. “If you want to beat someone, beat me.”

“And they did,” Zwerg remembered. “He was still unconscious when I left the hospital. I don’t know if he lived or died.”

Jim Zwerg is still alive. It’s amazing any of these people are still alive.

Lewis was originally going to give a much more provocative speech at the March. The plan was to call out the supposedly liberal Kennedy administration for its lukewarm support of civil rights. (A less polite word than “lukewarm” would be “half-assed.”) On behalf of SNCC, Lewis would argue that the civil rights legislation proposed by the Kennedy administration was (in Lewis’s words) “too little and too late.”

But each of the March’s major figures, including Rustin and Dr. King, urged Lewis to moderate his speech. They had a testy but evolving relationship with the Kennedys that they didn’t want to jeopardize or aggravate. It was only A. Philip Randolph who finally swayed Lewis. Rustin went into the crowd to find Randolph, then brought the two men together.

Lewis was 51 years younger than Randolph. Lewis later said of Randolph that “if he had been born in another period, maybe of another color, he probably would have been President.” Randolph had been an actor as a young man, and his voice has that deep, archaic, clear-toned, echoing-from-infinity quality that you imagine is the voice of history itself; the voice you imagine reading the Gettysburg Address and Declaration of Independence.

Lewis and the other young leaders of SNCC were quite rightly in awe of him.

He was 75, and here we were, you know, one-third his age and, you know, he was asking us to do this for him. He said, “I waited all my life for this opportunity, please don’t ruin it.” And we felt that for him, we had to make some concession. [Courtland Cox]

The day’s speeches were already underway. This all happened in one day. Lewis was sixth on the program. So Cox and Lewis and James Forman went to the Lincoln Memorial — no bullshit, they went and sat together at the foot of the Lincoln fucking Memorial — and rewrote Lewis’s speech. It’s still pretty fierce.

To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we must say that “patience” is a dirty and nasty word. We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually. We want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence…

The revolution is a serious one. Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the streets and put it into the courts. Listen, Mr. Kennedy. Listen, Mr. Congressman. Listen, fellow citizens. The black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won’t be a “cooling-off” period…

We must say, “Wake up, America. Wake up! For we cannot stop, and we will not be patient.”

I was amazed recently to discover that Reverend Doctor Joseph E. Lowery, one of the co-founders of SCLC, is still alive at 91. He has three videos of interviews up at “His Dream, Our Stories,” a site devoted to the March. Lowery was a pastor in Mobile and helped lead the bus boycott in Montgomery — which, people forget, went on for over a year after Rosa Parks’ arrest. Later, Lowery, along with John Lewis, Hosea Williams, Martin Luther King Jr., and others, led the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. Ten years after Emmett Till’s murder and the Montgomery bus boycott, two years after the March on Washington, and a year after the Civil Rights Act, the Selma marchers were attacked by Alabama state and local police for asserting their right to vote.

In 2008, Lowery gave the benediction for Barack Obama’s first Inauguration. He is still alive. He is 91 years old.

The March all happened in one day; the Movement happened over years and years and years.

Rosa Parks was 42 when the Montgomery bus boycott began. She was 50 at the time of the March, where she was honored along with other important women of the Civil Rights Movement — Little Rock’s Daisy Bates, SNCC’s Diane Nash Bevel, Gloria Richardson of Cambridge, Maryland, and Mrs. Herbert Lee. The women’s many accomplishments and contributions were noted in a speech by Myrlie Evers-Williams, then listed as Mrs. Medgar Evers.

Parks was older than Lowery, who was 34 when the boycott began. Martin Luther King Jr. was 26, not much older than Lewis was when he was called to lead SNCC and speak in Washington. At the March, King was 34. Within five years, he would be dead. A. Philip Randolph would live to be 90 years old, just a little younger than Lowery is now. He outlived King by more than ten years.

We’ve lost so much. We’ve forgotten so much. We’ve asked so few to stand in for so many. We’re doing it still.

Copyright lawyer Josh Schiller recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, “Why you won’t see or hear the ‘I have a dream’ speech,” examining how the King estate’s vigorous defense of his speech’s copyright has prevented its popular reproduction.

One place you can both see and hear King’s speech is on PBS’s Eyes on the Prize website. Eyes on the Prize is a landmark documentary on the entire modern civil rights movement, from Emmett Till’s murder through the 1980s, when it first appeared. Its producers know more than a thing or two about the thorniest issues of copyright: the documentary’s rebroadcast and distribution were held up for years while rights were cleared for its music, photographs, and videos. (Eventually, some of the original media was replaced.) I’m pretty sure they’ve done their work and paid the right licensing fees to get King’s speech on the website.

Watch Dr King’s speech. It’s not the entire thing, and it’s a crummy little QuickTime video. But it includes footage of the marchers arriving, A. Philip Randolph’s introduction, and footage of President Kennedy meeting with the March’s leaders, plus Walter Cronkite’s contemporary commentary.

Remember this is history, which means we are still within it, even when those for whom it has been living memory leave us. Remember that it is the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Remember how fragile it all was. Remember A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, Joseph E. Lowery and Jim Zwerg. Remember the man in coveralls, remembered by no one but the stranger whose life he saved.

Remember Martin Luther King, Jr., that thickly-built, still-young man, rooting his feet in our history and turning himself into a column of pure energy, like a beacon through time and space, a light so bright we can’t look at him directly, but have to turn away and look only at his half-remembered shape, still impressed on us when we close our eyes. Remember that day, when he all-too-briefly became a single still point with the granted power to bend straight the crooked lines of history.

Remember that fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, A. Philip Randolph was organizing the Shakespearean Society in Harlem. Fifty years after that, he was meeting a President who now owed him more than he probably ever knew. Fifty years is a long time and yet not so very long. If so much can be done in just one day, how much more could we do, now that we know we have another fifty years?

Colorized King, Randolph, Kennedy et al.jpgImage colorized by Mads Madsen for NPR.

The dirty BLEEP: things you can’t say / things left unsaid

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 27, 2013

Maria Bustillos’ “Curses! The birth of the bleep and modern American censorship” has a blacked-out subhed. Mouse over the black virtual ink and you see “Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits,” George Carlin’s original list of Seven Dirty Words that can’t be said on radio or television.

How’d we get here? Supposedly it was because of a nursery rhyme vaguely referencing contraception read live on a Newark radio station by actress Olga Petrova: “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, She had so many children because she didn’t know what to do.” The rhyme wasn’t censored, but engineers later built a switch to turn on music in case anyone recording went blue.

In the US, the government owns the airwaves and regulates their content, and bases its criteria for obscenity in part on past court cases regulating print.

In order to be considered obscenity, the material in question must pass a three-pronged test: first, it has to “appeal to the prurient interest,” or be be liable to turn the average person on sexually; secondly, it must describe sexual conduct “in a patently offensive way;” and finally, “the material taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” The last is how both Ulysses and Lolita slide out of being considered “obscene.”

But in addition to obscenity, the FCC also has rules governing “indecency” and “profanity”; all three are technically distinct in the same way that a moron is different from an imbecile, which in turn is different from an idiot. And most of the censorship action happens within TV or radio networks’ standards and practices departments anyways.

Once the bleep is introduced, however, it takes on its own meaning. It’s a kind of zero-sign that artists can use deliberately for effect.

The writers of Arrested Development are masters of this comic technique, repeatedly pushing the envelope. They snuck the word “fucking” past prime time television censors by putting half the word at the beginning of the show, and half at the end.

But it was with the aid of censor bleeping that Arrested Development reached the summit of its satiric genius. The show’s creator, Mitch Hurwitz, told Neda Ulaby of NPR, “We realized, you know, it’s more fun to not know exactly what it is that we’re saying … It becomes kind of a puzzle for people. And I think it’s about, you know, letting your imagination do the work.”

The full essay tracks the legal and cultural history of the bleep from its high-analog origins up to its culmination/obsolescence in the digital dump track. Now if a producer really wants to keep you from hearing something that might make someone uncomfortable, they just cut it right out of the audio, and you’d never know it was there.

Disclosure: I worked at The Verge and discussed this feature when it was in development. Also, freelance writer Maria Bustillos is awesome.

Alternative energy costs are dropping

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 03, 2013

Solar power is expensive, right? Actually, the high cost of alternative energy is a good example of a mesofact. As this graph shows, the cost of producing photovoltaic cells has dropped two orders of magnitude over the past 35 years, bringing costs within range of fossil fuel energy production.

Solar Costs Dropping

The underlying cause of this disruption is a phenomenon that solar’s supporters call Swanson’s law, in imitation of Moore’s law of transistor cost. Moore’s law suggests that the size of transistors (and also their cost) halves every 18 months or so. Swanson’s law, named after Richard Swanson, the founder of SunPower, a big American solar-cell manufacturer, suggests that the cost of the photovoltaic cells needed to generate solar power falls by 20% with each doubling of global manufacturing capacity. The upshot (see chart) is that the modules used to make solar-power plants now cost less than a dollar per watt of capacity. Power-station construction costs can add $4 to that, but these, too, are falling as builders work out how to do the job better. And running a solar power station is cheap because the fuel is free.

Coal-fired plants, for comparison, cost about $3 a watt to build in the United States, and natural-gas plants cost $1. But that is before the fuel to run them is bought. In sunny regions such as California, then, photovoltaic power could already compete without subsidy with the more expensive parts of the traditional power market, such as the natural-gas-fired “peaker” plants kept on stand-by to meet surges in demand. Moreover, technological developments that have been proved in the laboratory but have not yet moved into the factory mean Swanson’s law still has many years to run.

What if we never run out of fossil fuels?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 29, 2013

Writing for The Atlantic, Charles C. Mann writes about a little-exploited fossil fuel called methane hydrate (“crystalline natural gas”) that is present in the Earth’s crust in great quantities…”by some estimates, it is twice as abundant as all other fossil fuels combined”.

If methane hydrate allows much of the world to switch from oil to gas, the conversion would undermine governments that depend on oil revenues, especially petro-autocracies like Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Unless oil states are exceptionally well run, a gush of petroleum revenues can actually weaken their economies by crowding out other business. Worse, most oil nations are so corrupt that social scientists argue over whether there is an inherent bond-a “resource curse”-between big petroleum deposits and political malfeasance. It seems safe to say that few Americans would be upset if a plunge in demand eliminated these countries’ hold over the U.S. economy. But those same people might not relish the global instability — a belt of financial and political turmoil from Venezuela to Turkmenistan — that their collapse could well unleash.

On a broader level still, cheap, plentiful natural gas throws a wrench into efforts to combat climate change. Avoiding the worst effects of climate change, scientists increasingly believe, will require “a complete phase-out of carbon emissions… over 50 years,” in the words of one widely touted scientific estimate that appeared in January. A big, necessary step toward that goal is moving away from coal, still the second-most-important energy source worldwide. Natural gas burns so much cleaner than coal that converting power plants from coal to gas-a switch promoted by the deluge of gas from fracking-has already reduced U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions to their lowest levels since Newt Gingrich’s heyday.

Using compressed air as green energy storage

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 15, 2013

LightSail Energy, headed up by 25-year-old Danielle Fong, is developing technology to store energy as compressed air.

A stumbling block to increasing our reliance on electricity from cleaner energy sources such as solar panels and wind farms has always been figuring out how to efficiently store the energy for use when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. Danielle Fong could make clean energy significantly more practical on a large scale by introducing a novel way to use tanks of compressed air for energy storage. “It could radically reorient the economics of renewable energy,” she says.

The idea of using compressed air to store energy is not new. Electricity from solar panels or wind turbines can turn a motor that’s used to compress the air in a large tank, and the air pressure can then be converted into power to drive a generator when the power is needed. The problem is that during compression the air reaches temperatures of almost 1,000 ^0C. That means energy is lost in the form of heat, and storage in conventional steel vessels becomes impractical.

Fong stumbled on a possible solution while skimming through a nearly century-old book: water spray is great at cooling air. She asked, why not spray water into the air while compressing it, so that the air stays cool? To make the process practical, she developed a technique for separating the heated water from the compressed air and diverting the water into a tank, so the heat can be recaptured to minimize energy loss. The process is about as efficient as the best batteries: for every 10 kilowatt-hours of electricity that goes into the system, seven kilowatt-hours can be used when needed.

Fong sounds like an impressive person; she dropped out of middle school at 12 to attend college, graduating five years later with degrees in physics and computer science.

Thorium, a relatively safe and abundant nuclear power source?

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2012

Peter Reinhardt writes about the energy prospects of thorium, a naturally occurring radioactive element that’s much more abundant on Earth than uranium.

The important point is that thorium is ridiculously more abundant than uranium. And abundance matters when we’re talking about providing energy to the world. In fact, there’s so much thorium on Earth that the easily extractable reserves in the United States (10% of the world’s) could supposedly power the entire United States at current energy levels for the next 10,000 years. It’s not exactly renewable, but it’s a much longer lifeline than oil. And it can be mined safely within US borders: most of the US reserves are concentrated in a 25 square-kilometer pileup of mountains straddling the border of Idaho and Montana.

(via hn)

“Made in the USA” is back, baby

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2012

Earlier this morning in a post about Apple manufacturing their products in the US, I wrote “look for this “made in the USA” thing to turn into a trend”. Well, Made in the USA is already emerging as a trend in the media. On Tuesday, Farhad Manjoo wrote about American Giant, a company who makes the world’s best hoodie entirely in the US for a decent price.

For one thing, Winthrop had figured out a way to do what most people in the apparel industry consider impossible: He’s making clothes entirely in the United States, and he’s doing so at costs that aren’t prohibitive. American Apparel does something similar, of course, but not especially profitably, and its clothes are very low quality. Winthrop, on the other hand, has found a way to make apparel that harks back to the industry’s heyday, when clothes used to be made to last. “I grew up with a sweatshirt that my father had given me from the U.S. Navy back in the ’50s, and it’s still in my closet,” he told me. “It was this fantastic, classic American-made garment — it looks better today than it did 35, 40 years ago, because like an old pair of denim, it has taken on a very personal quality over the years.”

The Atlantic has a pair of articles in their December issue, Charles Fishman’s The Insourcing Boom:

Yet this year, something curious and hopeful has begun to happen, something that cannot be explained merely by the ebbing of the Great Recession, and with it the cyclical return of recently laid-off workers. On February 10, [General Electric’s Appliance Park in Louisville, KY] opened an all-new assembly line in Building 2 — largely dormant for 14 years — to make cutting-edge, low-energy water heaters. It was the first new assembly line at Appliance Park in 55 years — and the water heaters it began making had previously been made for GE in a Chinese contract factory.

On March 20, just 39 days later, Appliance Park opened a second new assembly line, this one in Building 5, to make new high-tech French-door refrigerators. The top-end model can sense the size of the container you place beneath its purified-water spigot, and shuts the spigot off automatically when the container is full. These refrigerators are the latest versions of a style that for years has been made in Mexico.

Another assembly line is under construction in Building 3, to make a new stainless-steel dishwasher starting in early 2013. Building 1 is getting an assembly line to make the trendy front-loading washers and matching dryers Americans are enamored of; GE has never before made those in the United States. And Appliance Park already has new plastics-manufacturing facilities to make parts for these appliances, including simple items like the plastic-coated wire racks that go in the dishwashers.

and James Fallows’ Mr. China Comes to America:

What I saw at these Chinese sites was surprisingly different from what I’d seen on previous factory tours, reflecting the political, economic, technological, and especially social pressures that are roiling China now. In conjunction with significant changes in the American business and technological landscape that I recently saw in San Francisco, these changes portend better possibilities for American manufacturers and American job growth than at any other time since Rust Belt desolation and the hollowing-out of the American working class came to seem the grim inevitabilities of the globalized industrial age.

For the first time in memory, I’ve heard “product people” sound optimistic about hardware projects they want to launch and facilities they want to build not just in Asia but also in the United States. When I visited factories in the upper Midwest for magazine stories in the early 1980s, “manufacturing in America” was already becoming synonymous with “Rust Belt” and “sunset industry.” Ambitious, well-educated people who had a choice were already headed for cleaner, faster-growing possibilities — in consulting, finance, software, biotech, anything but things. At the start of the ’80s, about one American worker in five had a job in the manufacturing sector. Now it’s about one in 10.

Add to that all of the activity on Etsy and the many manufactured-goods projects on Kickstarter that are going “Made in the USA” (like Flint & Tinder underwear (buy now!)) and yeah, this is definitely a thing.

As noted by Fishman in his piece, one of the reasons US manufacturing is competitive again is the low price of natural gas. From a piece in SupplyChainDigest in October:

Several industries, noticeable chemicals and fertilizers, use lots of natural gas. Fracking and other unconventional techniques have already unlocked huge supplies of natural gas, which is why natural gas prices in the US are at historic lows and much lower than the rest of the world.

Right now, nat gas prices are under $3.00 per thousand cubic, down dramatically from about three times that in 2008 and even higher in 2006. Meanwhile, natural gas prices are about $10.00 right now in Europe and $15.00 in parts of Asia.

Much of the growing natural gas reserves come from the Marcellus shale formation that runs through Western New York and Pennsylvania, Southeast Ohio, and most of West Virginia. North Dakota in the upper Midwest also is developing into a major supplier of both oil and natural gas.

So basically, energy in the US is cheap right now and will likely remain cheap for years to come because hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking aka that thing that people say makes their water taste bad, among other issues) has unlocked vast and previously unavailable reserves of oil and natural gas that will take years to fully exploit. A recent report by the International Energy Agency suggests that the US is on track to become the world’s biggest oil producer by 2020 (passing both Saudi Arabia and Russia) and could be “all but self-sufficient” in energy by 2030.

By about 2020, the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer and put North America as a whole on track to become a net exporter of oil as soon as 2030, according to a report from the International Energy Agency.

The change would dramatically alter the face of global oil markets, placing the U.S., which currently imports about 45 percent of the oil it uses and about 20 percent of its total energy needs, in a position of unexpected power. The nation likely will become “all but self-sufficient” in energy by 2030, representing “a dramatic reversal of the trend seen in most other energy-importing countries,” the IEA survey says.

So yay for “Made in the USA” but all this cheap energy could wreak havoc on the environment, hinder development of greener alternatives to fossil fuels (the only way green will win is to compete on price), and “artificially” prop up a US economy that otherwise might be stagnating. (thx, @rfburton, @JordanRVance, @technorav)

670 million people in India without electricity

posted by Aaron Cohen   Jul 31, 2012

On Monday and Tuesday, two separate major power outages left half of India without electricity. By Tuesday afternoon, different reports had power mostly back in many of the affected areas. 670 million people is over twice the population of the United States, and I don’t want to imagine the shitstorm unleashed if there ever was a double US power outage.

A lack of coal and a lack of monsoon rains are two of the reasons being blamed for the blackout. Along with the increase in power needed for irrigation, India’s hydroelectric capacity has dropped about 20% because of the delayed rains.

Indeed, the New York Times points to a dearth in imported coal as one of the possible causes for triggering the massive blackout. Another potential force that is driving energy demand and limiting supply is this year’s monsoon, the annual rainy season that supplies three-quarter’s of the country’s water. Or, rather, that this year’s monsoon never happened. The lack of monsoon rains, says Reuters, has caused energy demand to climb as farmers in northwestern India’s heavily producing agricultural regions leaned more heavily on irrigation to water their fields.

Aerial photo tour of the Alberta oil sands

posted by Jason Kottke   May 21, 2012

Since the companies mining the oil from the sands of Alberta wouldn’t provide access to their operations to a reporter, he rented a plane and took a bunch of photos.

Alberta Oil Sands

As Stewart said, “Better than I thought”.

Offshore energy

posted by Tim Carmody   May 02, 2011

There’s a serious proposal to build an undersea electrical grid as part of the infrastructure for future offshore wind turbines. David Roberts writes about its importance:

Offshore wind power has significant advantages over the onshore variety. Uninterrupted by changes in terrain, the wind at sea blows steadier and stronger. Installing turbines far enough from shore that they’re invisible except on the very clearest days lessens the possibility of not-in-my-backyard resistance. The challenge is getting the electricity back to land, to the people who will use it…

The Atlantic Wind Connection (AWC) would provide multiple transmission hubs for future wind farms, making the waters off the mid-Atlantic coast an attractive and economical place for developers to set up turbines. The AWC’s lines could transmit as much as six gigawatts of low-carbon power from turbines back to the coast—the equivalent capacity of 10 average coal-fired power plants.

There’s a particular stretch of seabed, a flat shelf between the north Jersey and southern Virginia, that’s geologically and geographically perfect for this. That’s where they’re setting up shop. Power-hungry Google is helping foot the bill.

(via Grist.)

All about nuclear meltdowns

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 14, 2011

I haven’t been keeping up with the Japan nuclear power plant situation as much as I want, but I wanted to pass along a few interesting articles. Over at Boing Boing, Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote a widely linked piece about how nuclear power plants work:

For the vast majority of people, nuclear power is a black box technology. Radioactive stuff goes in. Electricity (and nuclear waste) comes out. Somewhere in there, we’re aware that explosions and meltdowns can happen. Ninety-nine percent of the time, that set of information is enough to get by on. But, then, an emergency like this happens and, suddenly, keeping up-to-date on the news feels like you’ve walked in on the middle of a movie. Nobody pauses to catch you up on all the stuff you missed.

As I write this, it’s still not clear how bad, or how big, the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant will be. I don’t know enough to speculate on that. I’m not sure anyone does. But I can give you a clearer picture of what’s inside the black box. That way, whatever happens at Fukushima, you’ll understand why it’s happening, and what it means.

MrReid, a physics teacher, writes about the situation at Fukushima:

Even with the release of steam, the pressure and temperature inside Unit 1 continued to increase. The high temperatures inside the reactor caused the protective zirconium cladding on the uranium fuel rods to react with steam inside the reactor to form zirconium oxide and hydrogen. This hydrogen leaked into the building that surrounded the reactor and ignited, damaging the surrounding building but without damaging the reactor vessel itself. Because the reactor vessel has not been compromised, the release of radiation should be minimal. It appears that a very similar situation has occurred at Unit 3 and that hydrogen is again responsible for the explosion seen there.

And this piece is a more meta take on the situation, What the Media Doesn’t Get About Meltdowns.

Of immediate concern is the prospect of a so-called “meltdown” at one or more of the Japanese reactors. But part of the problem in understanding the potential dangers is continued indiscriminate use, by experts and the media, of this inherently frightening term without explanation or perspective. There are varying degrees of melting or meltdown of the nuclear fuel rods in a given reactor; but there are also multiple safety systems, or containment barriers, in a given plant’s design that are intended to keep radioactive materials from escaping into the general environment in the event of a partial or complete meltdown of the reactor core. Finally, there are the steps taken by a plant’s operators to try to bring the nuclear emergency under control before these containment barriers are breached.

Turbine-free wind power

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 20, 2011

Turbines are expensive to build, noisy, big, and they kill birds. Perhaps these pad panels would be better suited to generating electricity from the wind.

The wind panels are the brainchild of Francis Moon, a professor of mechanical engineering at Cornell University. He created a panel of 25 pads that oscillate in the wind, much the way leaves vibrate when a gust of air sifts through a tree. The pads attach to piezoelectric materials that produce electricity from each vibration.

Lots of big machines to make a tiny Sun

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 18, 2010

The Big Picture has a selection of photos of the National Ignition Facility which I’ve written about previously.

“Creating a miniature star on Earth” is the goal of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), home to the world’s largest and highest-energy laser in Livermore, California. On September 29th, 2010, the NIF completed its first integrated ignition experiment, where it focused its 192 lasers on a small cylinder housing a tiny frozen capsule containing hydrogen fuel, briefly bombarding it with 1 megajoule of laser energy. The experiment was the latest in a series of tests leading to a hoped-for “ignition”, where the nuclei of the atoms of the fuel inside the target capsule are made to fuse together releasing tremendous energy — potentially more energy than was put in to start the initial reaction, becoming a valuable power source.

The NIF and the LHC are this generation’s Apollo program.

Floating nuclear power stations

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 23, 2010

Russia is building eight floating nuclear power stations for deployment in the Arctic Ocean to support their efforts to drill for oil near the North Pole.

He says each power station, costing $400m, can supply electricity and heating for communities of up to 45,000 people and can stay on location for 12 years before needing to be serviced back in St Petersburg.

And while initially they will be positioned next to Arctic bases along the North coast, there are plans for floating nuclear power stations to be taken out to sea near large gas rigs.

“We can guarantee the safety of our units one hundred per cent, all risks are absolutely ruled out,” says Mr Zavyalov.

Yeah, what could possibly go wrong? (via @polarben)

Efficient air conditioning

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 13, 2010

Engineers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado have devised an air conditioning unit that could use up to 90% less energy than a conventional unit.

The new, patented system abandons the power-hungry compressor-driven refrigeration process used in many domestic (and virtually all commercial) air conditioners in favor of a couple of high-efficiency pumps and fans. But it also uses water for evaporative cooling — a concept familiar to many people living in the arid West who have roof-mounted “swamp coolers.” Swamp coolers work well when the outside air is dry, as evaporating water carries away heat, cooling and moistening the air that is re-circulated into the house.

Thermographic mapping

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 12, 2010

I’m hoping this will be a new option on Google Maps alongside “satellite” soon: thermographic view. It’s basically a heat map of all the buildings on a map…pop in your address and see how energy efficient your roof is. Belgium only. Unfortunately…unless you live in Belgium. (via infosthetics)

Making a tiny star on Earth?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 18, 2010

Not content with movie stars, California wants its own actual stellar object. The LIFE project at the NIF (National Ignition Facility) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory aims to create a tiny star with intense laser power. How intense? The facility increases the power of the laser beam a quadrillion times before it reaches its target:

The National Ignition Facility, located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is the world’s largest laser system… 192 huge laser beams in a massive building, all focused down at the last moment at a 2 millimeter ball containing frozen hydrogen gas. The goal is to achieve fusion… getting more energy out than was used to create it. It’s never been done before under controlled conditions, just in nuclear weapons and in stars. We expect to do it within the next 2-3 years. The purpose is threefold: to create an almost limitless supply of safe, carbon-free, proliferation-free electricity; examine new regimes of astrophysics as well as basic science; and study the inner-workings of the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons to ensure they remain safe, secure and reliable without the need for underground testing.

Wow. The fusion will produce high-energy neutrons, which will bombard a material capable of converting their energy into heat, which in turn will make steam and eventually electricity. But it gets even better:

In addition, the LIFE engine design can be “charged” with fission fuel. The resulting fission reactions will produce additional energy that can be harvested for electricity production. Moreover, by using depleted uranium or spent nuclear fuel from existing nuclear power plants in the blanket, a LIFE engine will be capable of burning the by-products of the current nuclear fuel cycle. Because the fusion neutrons are produced independently of the fission process, the fission fuel could be used without reprocessing. In this way, LIFE may be able to consume nuclear waste as fuel, mitigate against further nuclear proliferation, and provide long-term sustainability of carbon-free energy. A LIFE engine, via pure fusion or through the combination of fusion and fission, will generate the steady heat required to drive turbines for generating from 1,000 to 2,500 MW of safe, environmentally attractive electric power 24 hours a day for decades.

Also, free unicorns for everyone!

The Bloom box

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2010

I’m happy to be wrong about this but it sounds far-fetched and cold fusion-y:

The Bloom box is a new kind of fuel cell that produces electricity by combining oxygen in the air with any fuel source, such as natural gas, bio-gas, and solar energy. Sridhar said the chemical reaction is efficient and clean, creating energy without burning or combustion. He said that two Bloom boxes - each the size of a grapefruit - could wirelessly power a US home, fully replacing the power grid; one box could power a European home, and two or three Asian homes could share a single box.

But the article says that several commercial Bloom boxes are already in use at Google, eBay, FedEx, and Wal-Mart and VC John Doerr and Colin Powell are on board, so who knows? (via @daveg)

Our power hungry electronics

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 23, 2009

If all the gaming consoles in the US formed their own city, that city would use as much power as San Diego, the 9th-largest city in the country.