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kottke.org posts about energy

How Iceland Draws Geothermal Energy from the Earth

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 17, 2021

In this short video from TED-Ed, we learn how Iceland extracts nearly emissions-free geothermal energy from the Earth (hint: volcanoes) but also how harnessing geothermal energy with heat pumps is something that can be done around the world. (via the kid should see this)

Nuclear Powered Game Boy

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2021

Using a small quantity of tritium (a radioactive isotope of hydrogen) and a pair of solar panels, Ian Charnas built a nuclear powered portable game system (a knock-off Game Boy) that is capable of playing Tetris. The tritium puts out an incredibly small amount of energy, so the system uses tiny but incredibly efficient batteries that were able to power the game for an hour after charging for two months.

If you’re interested, Charnas is raffling the nuclear game system to benefit Chernobyl Children International. (via @pomeranian99)

“Renewable Energy Is Suddenly Startlingly Cheap”

posted by Jason Kottke   May 13, 2021

Writing in the New Yorker and citing a report by Carbon Tracker Initiative, Bill McKibben provides some hope that we can address the climate crisis.

Titled “The Sky’s the Limit,” it begins by declaring that “solar and wind potential is far higher than that of fossil fuels and can meet global energy demand many times over.” Taken by itself, that’s not a very bold claim: scientists have long noted that the sun directs more energy to the Earth in an hour than humans use in a year. But, until very recently, it was too expensive to capture that power. That’s what has shifted — and so quickly and so dramatically that most of the world’s politicians are now living on a different planet than the one we actually inhabit. On the actual Earth, circa 2021, the report reads, “with current technology and in a subset of available locations we can capture at least 6,700 PWh p.a. [petawatt-hours per year] from solar and wind, which is more than 100 times global energy demand.” And this will not require covering the globe with solar arrays: “The land required for solar panels alone to provide all global energy is 450,000 km2, 0.3% of the global land area of 149 million km2. That is less than the land required for fossil fuels today, which in the US alone is 126,000 km2, 1.3% of the country.” These are the kinds of numbers that reshape your understanding of the future.

But world governments will need to invest in renewable energy sooner rather than later and fossil fuel companies will fight tooth and nail to slow the transition to renewables. If they win in slow-walking the response to the climate crisis, as McKibben puts it, “no one will have an ice cap in the Arctic, either, and everyone who lives near a coast will be figuring out where on earth to go”.

Using Nuclear Energy to Stop Climate Change

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 13, 2021

This new video from Kurzgesagt takes a look at the possible role of nuclear energy in helping to curb the effects of our climate emergency.

Do we need nuclear energy to stop climate change? More and more voices from science, environmental activists and the press have been saying so in recent years — but this comes as a shock to those who are fighting against nuclear energy and the problems that come with it. So who is right? Well — it is complicated.

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow wrote about climate change activists who are embracing nuclear energy for the New Yorker back in February.

In the course of years, Hoff grew increasingly comfortable at the plant. She switched roles, working in the control room and then as a procedure writer, and got to know the workforce — mostly older, avuncular men. She began to believe that nuclear power was a safe, potent source of clean energy with numerous advantages over other sources. For instance, nuclear reactors generate huge amounts of energy on a small footprint: Diablo Canyon, which accounts for roughly nine per cent of the electricity produced in California, occupies fewer than six hundred acres. It can generate energy at all hours and, unlike solar and wind power, does not depend on particular weather conditions to operate. Hoff was especially struck by the fact that nuclear-power generation does not emit carbon dioxide or the other air pollutants associated with fossil fuels. Eventually, she began to think that fears of nuclear energy were not just misguided but dangerous. Her job no longer seemed to be in tension with her environmentalist views. Instead, it felt like an expression of her deepest values.

For more reading on the topic, check out Kurzgesagt’s list of source materials used to make their video.

The Rapidly Falling Cost of Solar Energy Visualized

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2020

Check out this graph from Our World in Data of the price of electricity from new power plants. In 2009, solar was the most expensive energy source and in 2019 it’s the cheapest.

graph showing the plunging cost of solar energy

Electricity from utility-scale solar photovoltaics cost $359 per MWh in 2009. Within just one decade the price declined by 89% and the relative price flipped: the electricity price that you need to charge to break even with the new average coal plant is now much higher than what you can offer your customers when you build a wind or solar plant.

It’s hard to overstate what a rare achievement these rapid price changes represent. Imagine if some other good had fallen in price as rapidly as renewable electricity: Imagine you’d found a great place to live back in 2009 and at the time you thought it’d be worth paying $3590 in rent for it. If housing had then seen the price decline that we’ve seen for solar it would have meant that by 2019 you’d pay just $400 for the same place.

The rest of the page is worth a read as well. One reason why the cost of solar is falling so quickly is that the technology is following a similar exponential curve to computer chips, which provide more speed and power every year for less money, an observation called Wright’s Law:

If you want to know what the future looks like one of the most useful questions to ask is which technologies follow Wright’s Law and which do not.

Most technologies obviously do not follow Wright’s Law — the prices of bicycles, fridges, or coal power plants do not decline exponentially as we produce more of them. But those which do follow Wright’s Law — like computers, solar PV, and batteries — are the ones to look out for. They might initially only be found in very niche applications, but a few decades later they are everywhere.

If you are unaware that technology follows Wright’s Law you can get your predictions very wrong. At the dawn of the computer age in 1943 IBM president Thomas Watson famously said “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” At the price point of computers at the time that was perhaps perfectly true, but what he didn’t foresee was how rapidly the price of computers would fall. From its initial niche when there was perhaps truly only demand for five computers they expanded to more and more applications and the virtuous cycle meant that the price of computers declined further and further. The exponential progress of computers expanded their use from a tiny niche to the defining technology of our time.

Solar modules are on the same trajectory, as we’ve seen before. At the price of solar modules in the 1950s it would have sounded quite reasonable to say, “I think there is a world market for maybe five solar modules.” But as a prediction for the future this statement too would have been ridiculously wrong.

Radioactive Diamond Batteries That Last for Thousands of Years

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 01, 2020

A pair of researchers from the University of Bristol have formed a company called Arkenlight to try to make diamond batteries out of nuclear waste that can potentially power devices for thousands of years. The betavoltaic batteries work by releasing beta radiation, which excites semiconductor material to produce electricity. These types of batteries don’t put out much power — they can’t replace your iPhone battery for example — but they do their thing for a loooong time.

Arkenlight is focused on creating batteries that have a diamond-like structure out of irradiated graphite, which is quite common.

But that’s where a radioactive isotope called carbon-14 may be able to help. Best known for its role in radiocarbon dating, which allows archaeologists to estimate the age of ancient artifacts, it can provide a boost to nuclear batteries because it can function both as a radioactive source and a semiconductor. It also has a half-life of 5,700 years, which means a carbon-14 nuclear battery could, in principle, power an electronic device for longer than humans have had written language.

I mean, it’s little more than a theory at this point so maybe it won’t be feasible after all, but what a brilliant idea: combining the radioactive source and the semiconductor (thereby upping the efficiency) and using nuclear waste to build the whole thing. Science at its most poetically useful. (via geoff manaugh)

The Trinity Cube

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2020

Paglan Trinity Cube

Paglan Trinity Cube

When the world’s first atomic weapon exploded in New Mexico in July 1945, the energy from the blast formed a new mineral called trinitite from the desert sand. For his 2015 Trinity Cube project, artist Trevor Paglen took irradiated glass gathered from the area around where the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster occurred in 2011 and combined it with trinitite to form a blue cube. He then installed the cube in the Fukushima Exclusion Zone to continue to be irradiated.

The artwork will be viewable by the public when the Exclusion Zone opens again, anytime between 3 and 30,000 years from the present.

Un-recyclable wind turbine blades sent to landfills

posted by Patrick Tanguay   Feb 06, 2020

Wind turbine blades in laydown yard Pasco, 2009

Two steps forward one step back? Not thinking about second-order consequences? The type of thing the face-palm emoji was invented for? Call it what you will but, as more and more of energy generation switches to renewables, some of the equipment, in this case wind turbines, is already aging and old parts piling on. The problem here is what happens to the blades doesn’t seem to have been thought through.

Tens of thousands of aging blades are coming down from steel towers around the world and most have nowhere to go but landfills. In the U.S. alone, about 8,000 will be removed in each of the next four years. Europe, which has been dealing with the problem longer, has about 3,800 coming down annually through at least 2022, according to BloombergNEF. It’s going to get worse: Most were built more than a decade ago, when installations were less than a fifth of what they are now.

So where do they go? Landfills.

Built to withstand hurricane-force winds, the blades can’t easily be crushed, recycled or repurposed. That’s created an urgent search for alternatives in places that lack wide-open prairies. In the U.S., they go to the handful of landfills that accept them, in Lake Mills, Iowa; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Casper, where they will be interred in stacks that reach 30 feet under.

Image: Not a landfill from the linked article but rather wind turbine blades in a laydown yard in Pasco, Washington in 2009.

The Berlin Wall of Light

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 12, 2019

Berlin Wall Lights

This photo of Berlin, Germany at night was taken in 2012 from the International Space Station. Almost 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, you can still see the division from space because of the colors of the different street lights used in the East and West.

Daniela Augenstine, of the city’s street furniture department, says: “In the eastern part there are sodium-vapour lamps with a yellower colour. And in the western parts there are fluorescent lamps — mercury arc lamps and gas lamps — which all produce a whiter colour.” The western Federal Republic of Germany long favoured non-sodium lamps on the grounds of cost, maintenance and carbon emissions, she says.

A night photo of Berlin from 2016 confirms that street light replacement is happening in the city, albeit slowly.

See also a photo of NYC from 2015 taken from the ISS, which shows the replacement of the city’s sodium vapor street lights with blue-glowing LEDs.

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 Steep Drop in Britain’s Coal Usage

posted by Jason Kottke   May 28, 2019

In Britain, the birthplace of the industrial revolution, no coal has been used to produce power for the last 11 days. This is an arresting chart of how quickly the country’s reliance on coal has been reduced:

Britain Coal

Britain is setting new records for going without coal-powered energy. In the latest milestone, it has gone for more than eight days without using coal to generate electricity — the longest such period since 1882.

The coal-free run comes just two years after the National Grid first ran without coal power for 24 hours.

Phasing out the heavily polluting fuel is a key step in the transition towards a net-zero carbon economy and essential to averting catastrophic climate change.

Britain still derives ~50% of its power from natural gas, but this is a very hopeful chart. “Gradually then suddenly” works against us in dealing with climate change but it also could work in our favor.

Using a crane and concrete blocks to store energy for later retrieval

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 21, 2018

A Swiss company has designed a system for storing energy in concrete blocks. The blocks are lifted by a crane when surplus energy is available (say, when the Sun is shining or the wind blowing) and then, when energy is needed later, allowed to fall, turning turbines to generate electricity.

The innovation in Energy Vault’s plant is not the hardware. Cranes and motors have been around for decades, and companies like ABB and Siemens have optimized them for maximum efficiency. The round-trip efficiency of the system, which is the amount of energy recovered for every unit of energy used to lift the blocks, is about 85% — comparable to lithium-ion batteries which offer up to 90%.

Pedretti’s main work as the chief technology officer has been figuring out how to design software to automate contextually relevant operations, like hooking and unhooking concrete blocks, and to counteract pendulum-like movements during the lifting and lowering of those blocks.

The storage of energy in this way isn’t new…the ARES project uses hills and heavy trains to accomplish the same thing.

It’s a wonderfully simple idea, a 19th century solution for a 21st century problem, with some help from the abundant natural resource that is gravity. When the local utility’s got surplus electricity, it powers up the electric motors that drag 9,600 tons of rock- and concrete-filled railcars up a 2,000-foot hill. When it’s got a deficit, 9,600 tons of railcar rumble down, and those motors generate electricity via regenerative braking — the same way your Prius does. Effectively, all the energy used to move the train up the hill is stored, and recouped when it comes back down.

There’s something really interesting about big kinetic machines operating as though they were computers, autonomous black boxes where data flows in and out that can operate anywhere with a bit of flat ground.

How to harvest nearly infinite energy from a spinning black hole

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 23, 2018

Well, this is a thing I didn’t know about black holes before watching this video. Because some black holes spin, it’s possible to harvest massive amounts of energy from them, even when all other energy sources in the far far future are gone. This process was first proposed by Roger Penrose in a 1971 paper.

The Penrose process (also called Penrose mechanism) is a process theorised by Roger Penrose wherein energy can be extracted from a rotating black hole. That extraction is made possible because the rotational energy of the black hole is located not inside the event horizon of the black hole, but on the outside of it in a region of the Kerr spacetime called the ergosphere, a region in which a particle is necessarily propelled in locomotive concurrence with the rotating spacetime. All objects in the ergosphere become dragged by a rotating spacetime. In the process, a lump of matter enters into the ergosphere of the black hole, and once it enters the ergosphere, it is forcibly split into two parts. For example, the matter might be made of two parts that separate by firing an explosive or rocket which pushes its halves apart. The momentum of the two pieces of matter when they separate can be arranged so that one piece escapes from the black hole (it “escapes to infinity”), whilst the other falls past the event horizon into the black hole. With careful arrangement, the escaping piece of matter can be made to have greater mass-energy than the original piece of matter, and the infalling piece has negative mass-energy.

This same effect can also be used in conjunction with a massive mirror to superradiate electromagnetic energy: you shoot light into a spinning black hole surrounded by mirrors, the light is repeatedly sped up by the ergosphere as it bounces off the mirror, and then you harvest the super-energetic light. After the significant startup costs, it’s basically an infinite source of free energy.

I recommend that you read The Wizard and the Prophet

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2018

The Wizard And The Prophet

A couple of weeks ago, I finished Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet. Normally I shy away from terms like “must-read” or “important” when talking about books, but I’m making an exception for this one. The Wizard and the Prophet is an important book, and I urge you to read it. (The chapter on climate change, including its fascinating history, is alone worth the effort.)

Mann is the author of 1491 and 1493 (both excellent, particularly 1491, which is one of my favorite nonfiction books ever) and I’ve been thinking of this one as the natural third part of a trilogy — it easily could have been called 2092. The Wizard and the Prophet is about two “dueling visions” of how humanity can provide food, energy, housing, and the pursuit of happiness to an estimated population of 10 billion in 2050 and beyond. According to Mann, this struggle is exemplified by two men: William Vogt and Norman Bourlag. The book, in a nutshell:

Vogt, born in 1902, laid out the basic ideas for the modern environmental movement. In particular, he founded what the Hampshire College demographer Betsy Hartmann has called “apocalyptic environmentalism” — the belief that unless humankind drastically reduces consumption its growing numbers and appetite will overwhelm the planet’s ecosystems. In best-selling books and powerful speeches, Vogt argued that affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem. Our prosperity is temporary, he said, because it is based on taking more from Earth than it can give. If we continue, the unavoidable result will be devastation on a global scale, perhaps including our extinction. Cut back! Cut back! was his mantra. Otherwise everyone will lose!

Borlaug, born twelve years later, has become the emblem of what has been termed “techno-optimism” or “cornucopianism” — the view that science and technology, properly applied, can help us produce our way out of our predicament. Exemplifying this idea, Borlaug was the primary figure in the research that in the 1960s created the “Green Revolution,” the combination of high-yielding crop varieties and agronomic techniques that raised grain harvests around the world, helping to avert tens of millions of deaths from hunger. To Borlaug, affluence was not the problem but the solution. Only by getting richer, smarter, and more knowledgeable can humankind create the science that will resolve our environmental dilemmas. Innovate! Innovate! was Borlaug’s cry. Only in that way can everyone win!

Or put more succinctly:

Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.

To combat climate change, should we stop flying (as meteorologist Eric Holthaus has urged) & switch to renewable energy or should we capture carbon from coal plants & build nuclear power plants? GMO crops or community-based organic farming? How can 10 billion people be happy and prosperous without ruining the planet?

I came to this book with an open mind, and came away far more informed about the debate but even more unsure about the way forward. The book offers no easy answers — it’s difficult to tell where Mann himself stands on the wizard/prophet continuum (although I would suspect more wizard than prophet, which is likely my leaning as well) — but it does ask many of the right questions. Wizards can order the book from Amazon while Prophets should seek it out at their local bookstore or library.

Further reading: an interview with Mann in Grist; Can Planet Earth Feed 10 Billion People?, an Atlantic article by Mann; The Edge of the Petri Dish, a piece by Mann in The Breakthrough; State of the Species, a 2012 piece by Mann that was an early attempt at W vs P; and The Wizard and the Prophet: On Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari.

An Atlas for the End of the World

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 28, 2017

Atlas End World

The Atlas for the End of the World is a project started by Penn architect Richard Weller to highlight the effects of human civilization and urbanization on our planet’s biodiversity.

Coming almost 450 years after the world’s first Atlas, this Atlas for the End of the World audits the status of land use and urbanization in the most critically endangered bioregions on Earth. It does so, firstly, by measuring the quantity of protected area across the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots in comparison to United Nation’s 2020 targets; and secondly, by identifying where future urban growth in these territories is on a collision course with endangered species.

There’s lots to see at the site: world and regional maps, data visualizations, key statistical data, photos of plants and animals that have been modified by humans, as well as several essays on a variety of topics.

And here’s a fun map: countries with national biodiversity strategies and action plans in place. Take a wild guess which country is one of the very few without such a plan in place!

The 100 best solutions to reverse climate change, ranked

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 08, 2017

Climate Change Solutions

Environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken has edited a book called Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming which lists “the 100 most substantive solutions to reverse global warming, based on meticulous research by leading scientists and policymakers around the world”.

In the face of widespread fear and apathy, an international coalition of researchers, professionals, and scientists have come together to offer a set of realistic and bold solutions to climate change. One hundred techniques and practices are described here-some are well known; some you may have never heard of. They range from clean energy to educating girls in lower-income countries to land use practices that pull carbon out of the air. The solutions exist, are economically viable, and communities throughout the world are currently enacting them with skill and determination. If deployed collectively on a global scale over the next thirty years, they represent a credible path forward, not just to slow the earth’s warming but to reach drawdown, that point in time when greenhouse gases in the atmosphere peak and begin to decline.

On the website for the book, you can browse the solutions in a ranked list. Here are the 10 best solutions (with the total atmospheric reduction in CO2-equivalent emissions in gigatons in parentheses):

1. Refrigerant Management (89.74)
2. Wind Turbines, Onshore (84.60)
3. Reduced Food Waste (70.53)
4. Plant-Rich Diet (66.11)
5. Tropical Forests (61.23)
6. Educating Girls (59.60)
7. Family Planning (59.60)
8. Solar Farms (36.90)
9. Silvopasture (31.19)
10. Rooftop Solar (24.60)

Refrigerant management is about replacing hydro-fluorocarbon coolants with alternatives because HFCs have “1,000 to 9,000 times greater capacity to warm the atmosphere than carbon dioxide”. As a planet, we should be hitting those top 7 solutions hard, particularly when it comes to food. If you look at the top 30 items on the list, 40% of them are related to food.

If, somehow, we could get to a place where we are talking about dealing with climate change not as “saving the planet” (which it isn’t) but as “improving humanity” (which it is), we might actually be able to accomplish something.

The Earth’s five energy revolutions

posted by Jason Kottke   May 22, 2017

Five Energy Expansions

Since life first formed on Earth billions of years ago, the ability of organisms to use more powerful and efficient energy sources has been key in driving the diversity and complexity of life. According to this provocative piece in Nature by Olivia Judson, the history of life on Earth can be divided into five energetic epochs characterized by the following energy sources: geochemical energy, sunlight, oxygen, flesh and fire.

The first two were present at the start, but oxygen, flesh and fire are all consequences of evolutionary events. Since no category of energy source has disappeared, this has, over time, resulted in an expanding realm of the sources of energy available to living organisms and a concomitant increase in the diversity and complexity of ecosystems. These energy expansions have also mediated the transformation of key aspects of the planetary environment, which have in turn mediated the future course of evolutionary change. Using energy as a lens thus illuminates patterns in the entwined histories of life and Earth, and may also provide a framework for considering the potential trajectories of life-planet systems elsewhere.

Organisms formed on Earth and changed the planet, which led to the formation of new organisms more suited to the new environment. For instance, when a type of bacteria evolved to turn sunshine into oxygen, it completely changed the planet.

In the absence of a biotic source of oxygen, trace quantities of the gas can be generated abiotically: water molecules can be split by sunlight or radioactive decay. However, these abiotic processes are much less efficient than their biotic equivalent. Had cyanobacteria, or something like them, never evolved, oxygen would never have built up in the atmosphere of the Earth.

But build up it did. Between 2.45 and 2.32 Ga, significant quantities of oxygen began to accumulate in the air, an episode known as the Great Oxidation Event. Before the Great Oxidation, atmospheric oxygen levels were less than 10^-5 of the present atmospheric level of ~21%. By ~2 Ga, they had risen to perhaps 0.1-1% of the present atmospheric level. Although the subsequent history of oxygen is complex and many details are uncertain, Earth’s atmosphere has contained an appreciable level of the gas ever since. (Full oxygenation of the oceans, however, would not happen until around 1.8 billion years after the Great Oxidation.)

The original piece in Nature is fairly readable for a science journal, but this summary in The Atlantic is worth a look if you’re short on time or attention. (via @CharlesCMann)

The state-fueled slavery of the Alabama coal mining industry

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 23, 2017

Alabama Coal Slavery

From Ariel Aberg-Riger, a visual story for CityLab’s series on power about how, for decades, Alabama purposely imprisoned young black men on trumped-up charges in order to rent them out as de facto slaves to the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company, which grew fat on the cheap, coerced labor.

TCI, as it was known — was wildly profitable. Period accounts attribute the company’s booming success to the “sage” “energetic” “accomplished” entrepreneurial white developers of “intrepidity and public spirit” who capitalized upon the “admirable richness of the coal flora of Alabama.” But the true key to TCI’s “profits” lay in a deadly contract the company managed to negotiate with the state of Alabama in 1888.

(thx, david)

MIT Technology Review’s 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 06, 2017

From the MIT Technology Review, the 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2017:

Reversing Paralysis
Self-Driving Trucks
Paying with Your Face
Practical Quantum Computers
The 360-Degree Selfie
Hot Solar Cells
Gene Therapy 2.0
The Cell Atlas
Botnets of Things
Reinforcement Learning

The piece on Hot Solar Cells caught my eye:

Solar panels cover a growing number of rooftops, but even decades after they were first developed, the slabs of silicon remain bulky, expensive, and inefficient. Fundamental limitations prevent these conventional photovoltaics from absorbing more than a fraction of the energy in sunlight.

But a team of MIT scientists has built a different sort of solar energy device that uses inventive engineering and advances in materials science to capture far more of the sun’s energy. The trick is to first turn sunlight into heat and then convert it back into light, but now focused within the spectrum that solar cells can use. While various researchers have been working for years on so-called solar thermophotovoltaics, the MIT device is the first one to absorb more energy than its photovoltaic cell alone, demonstrating that the approach could dramatically increase efficiency.

Bill Gates starts new $1 billion clean energy fund

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2016

Bill Gates and a number of other investors are starting a billion venture fund focused on “cheap, clean, reliable energy”.

Bill Gates is leading a more than $1 billion fund focused on fighting climate change by investing in clean energy innovation.

The Microsoft co-founder and his all-star line-up of fellow investors plan to announce tomorrow the Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund, which will begin making investments next year. The BEV fund, which has a 20-year duration, aims to invest in the commercialization of new technologies that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in areas including electricity generation and storage, transportation, industrial processes, agriculture, and energy-system efficiency.

The company’s tagline is “Investing in a Carbonless Future” and their investment criteria are:

  1. CLIMATE IMPACT. We will invest in technologies that have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least half a gigaton.
  2. OTHER INVESTMENTS. We will invest in companies with real potential to attract capital from sources outside of BEV and the broader Breakthrough Energy Coalition.
  3. SCIENTIFIC POSSIBILITY. We will invest in technologies with an existing scientific proof of concept that can be meaningfully advanced.
  4. FILLING THE GAPS. We will invest in companies that need the unique attributes of BEV capital, including patience, judgment by scientific milestones, flexible investment capabilities, and a significant global network.

Jeff Bezos, Mike Bloomberg, Richard Branson, Reid Hoffman, and Jack Ma are also participating in the fund.

In related-yet-unrelated news, a recent report says investment funds controlling more than $5 trillion in assets have dropped some or even all of their fossil fuel stocks.

The report, released Monday, said the new total was twice the amount measured 15 months ago — a remarkable rise for a movement that began on American college campuses in 2011. Since then, divestment has expanded to the business world and institutional world, and includes large pension funds, insurers, financial institutions and religious organizations. It has also spread around the world, with 688 institutions and nearly 60,000 individuals in 76 countries divesting themselves of shares in at least some kinds of oil, gas and coal companies, according to the report.

“It’s a stunning number,” said Ellen Dorsey, the executive director of the Wallace Global Fund, which has promoted fossil fuel divestment and clean energy investment as part of its philanthropy.

Like it or not, economics has to be a significant driver for combatting climate change. Driving public opinion against fossil fuel companies, falling prices for solar and battery energy, and clean energy investment funds: it all helps support the decisions made by the world’s forward-thinking leaders. And maybe, just maybe, if you can get the world’s leaders, the public, and the economy all pointed in the right direction, we’ve got a chance.

52 things learned in 2016

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2016

Consultant Tom Whitwell shared 52 things he learned in 2016. Here are three:

Call Me Baby is a call centre for cybercriminals who need a human voice as part of a scam. They charge $10 for each call in English, and $12 for calls in German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Polish. [Brian Krebs]

Twitter has enough money in the bank to run for 412 years with current losses. [Matt Krantz]

Intervision, the 70s Soviet answer to the Eurovision Song Contest, was judge by electricity grid voting: “those watching at home had to turn their lights on when they liked a song and off when they didn’t, with data from the electricity network then being used to allocate points.” [Nick Heady]

It was hard to whittle the list down to just three, so a bonus one:

Instead of batteries, the ARES project in Nevada uses a network of train tracks, a hillside and electric trains loaded with rocks to store wind and solar power. When there is a surplus of energy, the trains drive up the tracks. When output falls, the cars roll back down the hill, their electric motors acting as generators. [Robson Fletcher]

The Economist did a piece — “Sisyphus’s train set” — on ARES this summer.

Upgrade your life with rechargeable batteries

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 26, 2016

Rechargeable Batteries

Are you ready? Because I am about to change your life! (Ok, only a little, but still.) If you’re still using disposable batteries and wastefully throwing them away after they’re spent, I want to you stop what you’re doing and — right now!! — order a charger and enough rechargeable AA batteries & AAA batteries to power all the devices in your life.1 I did this about three years ago and haven’t looked back.

Look around you: your remotes, your wireless mouse & keyboard, and your kid’s remote control car. Close your eyes, what else? Flashlight, portable radio, clocks, smoke detectors, etc. Count all those batteries up, add a few extras so you always have charged batteries on hand, and then order that many rechargeable batteries. Battery problems solved forever.

Why do this? For starters, throwing batteries away is wasteful & harmful to the environment and recycling them is inconvenient (which means you probably won’t do it). In addition to saving the planet, you’ll also save money in the long run. While rechargeables might cost you 2-3X the price of normal AA batteries, you can reuse them hundreds of times. I’ve changed the batteries in my mouse every 2-3 months over the past 3 years and only used 2 rechargeables vs. 24 normal batteries over the same period. Even factoring in the charger cost, you’re saving money. There’s also the convenience factor. I never have to run to the store anymore when the remote batteries die — there’s always a fresh pair of batteries in the drawer or in another device I can use while the spent ones quickly recharge.

Rechargeable batteries used to suck but they don’t anymore. They ship fully charged, last a long time with good power, charge quickly, stay charged while sitting on a shelf, can be reused hundreds and even thousands of times for years, and you can charge AAs and AAAs from different brands with the same charger at the same time. So buy a charger, buy some batteries, and upgrade your life.

  1. The batteries and chargers I’ve linked to here are the Wirecutter’s recommendations. I’ve personally been using the Eneloop charger and batteries with zero complaints.

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!

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?