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kottke.org posts about energy

“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.

World changing ideas

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 16, 2009

Here are 20 bold/crazy ideas that could save the world…most of them related to energy and climate change.

A relatively small piece of the Sahara could theoretically provide electricity for the entire planet if it were covered in solar thermal mirrors. Plus think of all those jobs to build a solar plant the size of Britain. The new transmission grid would be quite a project as well…

Update: Hmm, the site appears to be down and redirected to same squatter spam thing. I’ll put the link back up when the site (hopefully) returns.

Update: The Infrastructurist site is still down but I found the original link on the Guardian.

Incandescent bulbs not dead yet

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 09, 2009

Driven by US government efficiency standards due to take effect in 2012, innovation in incandescent light bulbs is booming.

“There’s a massive misperception that incandescents are going away quickly,” said Chris Calwell, a researcher with Ecos Consulting who studies the bulb market. “There have been more incandescent innovations in the last three years than in the last two decades.”

Google PowerMeter

posted by Jason Kottke   May 05, 2009

At the New Yorker Summit, Google’s Dan Reicher mentioned the company’s PowerMeter, an upcoming product/service that will measure household power use.

Google PowerMeter, now in prototype, will receive information from utility smart meters and energy management devices and provide anyone who signs up access to her home electricity consumption right on her iGoogle homepage. The graph below shows how someone could use this information to figure out how much energy is used by different household activites.

Felix Salmon lays out the rationale:

The behavioral sociology of measuring energy usage is simple: the more you know about how much energy you’re using, the less you use. Just getting the information cuts most people’s energy usage by somewhere between 5% and 15%, while people with high electricity bills (like me) find it much easier to isolate exactly what is causing those bills and can then work out how best to reduce them through upgrading appliances or replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs or any number of other routes to energy efficiency.

SmartSwitch

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2009

The SmartSwitch is a replacement for a standard light switch that becomes more difficult to turn on when power usage is high in the household or on the grid as a whole.

Equipped with a network connection and a brake pad, the switch provides its user with tactile feedback about the amount of energy being used either within their household or by the electrical grid as a whole. SmartSwitch doesn’t restrict the user from turning on a light, but rather it passively encourages behavior change. SmartSwitches can be programmed to respond to either personal or communal electrical usage. In a home wired with SmartSwitches, lights can become harder to turn on during hours of peak demand. The switches can also be customized to reflect household-specific energy conservation goals.

That is really clever. I want the same thing for my computer…e.g. it’s more difficult to type when I shouldn’t be using it. (via o’reilly)

Passive houses

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 29, 2008

Passive houses — homes that use “recycled heat” to heat themselves, rather than a furnace — are growing more popular in Germany and slowly spreading elsewhere in the world.

The concept of the passive house, pioneered in this city of 140,000 outside Frankfurt, approaches the challenge from a different angle. Using ultrathick insulation and complex doors and windows, the architect engineers a home encased in an airtight shell, so that barely any heat escapes and barely any cold seeps in. That means a passive house can be warmed not only by the sun, but also by the heat from appliances and even from occupants’ bodies.

Green for its own sake

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 23, 2008

Constructing new LEED-certified green buildings is all well and good, but if they’re further from your workers’ homes and you have to tear down perfectly good old buildings to do so, the hoped-for energy savings are wasted.

Embodied energy. Another term unlovely to the ear, it’s one with which preservationists need to get comfortable. In two words, it neatly encapsulates a persuasive rationale for sustaining old buildings rather than building from scratch. When people talk about energy use and buildings, they invariably mean operating energy: how much energy a building — whether new or old — will use from today forward for heating, cooling, and illumination. Starting at this point of analysis — the present — new will often trump old. But the analysis takes into account neither the energy that’s already bound up in preexisting buildings nor the energy used to construct a new green building instead of reusing an old one. “Old buildings are a fossil fuel repository,” as Jackson put it, “places where we’ve saved energy.”

If embodied energy is taken into consideration, a new building that’s replaced an older building will take up to 65 years to start saving energy…and those buildings aren’t really designed to last that long.

Wind turbines

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 22, 2008

The PopTech blog rounds up some interesting wind turbine designs. I’m particularly intrigued by the placement of turbines on or near highways. One of the knocks against wind farms is that they disrupt the natural landscape…placing wind turbines along highways would somewhat alleviate that problem. Oobject houses a collection of beautiful wind turbines.

Gallons per mile

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 15, 2008

Replacing a car that gets horrible gas mileage with one that gets good gas mileage is preferable to replacing a car that gets good gas mileage with one that gets excellent gas mileage. To that end, kottke.org contributor Cliff Kuang says to the car companies: forget about 100-mpg cars and focus on small, achievable increases in MPG ratings.

My concern is a rhetorical one: What happens when advancements in cars are eternally linked — through marketing and special prizes — with big innovations, rather than tangible results right now? Fuel efficiency gets its urgency sapped: Someone’s working on it, with results TBD. Wait and see.

Oldest lightbulb

posted by Jason Kottke   May 09, 2008

A lightbulb in a firehouse in California has been burning more or less continuously since 1901. You can check on the light’s status on its WWW home page. (thx, john)

How nine cities from around the world

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 12, 2008

How nine cities from around the world are cutting their energy usage.

For cities, the motivation is twofold. All the hand-wringing over climate change has prompted more cities to do their part to contain greenhouse-gas emissions that most scientists believe are causing global warming. In the U.S., more than 700 mayors have signed an agreement to try to follow the Kyoto Protocol’s goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions — even though the Senate has rejected the treaty.

The other major motivation for cities: energy costs, which have more than doubled since 2000. Strapped for cash, municipalities are scrambling to save as much money on energy use as they can.

Map of the world where the size

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2007

Map of the world where the size of the countries correspond to how much oil they have. On this map, the Middle East is just The Middle.

The US Air Force Research Lab has

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 18, 2007

The US Air Force Research Lab has come up with an idea for refueling tiny spy planes on long missions: recharging its electric motor by stealing energy while hanging from power lines.

It could even temporarily change its shape to look more like innocuous piece of trash hanging from the cable.

Thunder! Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah,

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2007

Thunder! Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah! Con Edison is cutting their last direct current line in NYC, ending 125 years of continuous service that started when Thomas Edison set up shop in 1882 and signaling the final triumph of alternating current in the AC/DC wars. (Lesson: Nikola Tesla always wins in the end.)

The last snip of Con Ed’s direct current system will take place at 10 East 40th Street, near the Mid-Manhattan Library. That building, like the thousands of other direct current users that have been transitioned over the last several years, now has a converter installed on the premises that can take alternating electricity from the Con Ed power grid and adapt it on premises. Until now, Con Edison had been converting alternating to direct current for the customers who needed it — old buildings on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side that used direct current for their elevators for example.

This post about the carbon footprint of

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 12, 2007

This post about the carbon footprint of wine contains an interesting map at the bottom. It’s a map of the US with a line splitting the country in two. West of the line, it is more carbon efficient to drink Napa wine while to the east of the line it is more carbon efficient to drink French Bordeaux. You can almost see the coastline of the eastern and Gulf states struggling westward against the trucking route from California. The Vinicultural Divide?

Stopping underground coal fires would significantly reduce

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 24, 2007

Stopping underground coal fires would significantly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere.

Underground coal fires in China alone produce as much carbon dioxide annually as all the cars and light trucks in the United States.

A coal fire near Centralia, PA has been burning continuously since 1962 and prompted the permanent evacuation of the townspeople.

Determining the amount of energy it takes

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 07, 2007

Determining the amount of energy it takes to bring food from farm to table is difficult, but it looks as though shipping in food from afar is, in some cases, more energy efficient than food produced locally and that the transport energy might not matter as much in comparision to the amount of energy it takes to grow the food in the first place. “And it turns out our own part in the chain is often the most damaging, since when we drive to the supermarket, we might come back with only a few of bags of food in the car boot. Such a trip is far less fuel efficient than the one taken by that same food on its way to the supermarket in a truck packed with the assistance of load-optimisation software, which determines how to stack cargo so that barely an inch of empty space is left in the back of the vehicle.”

The Senate voted to increase fuel mileage

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 22, 2007

The Senate voted to increase fuel mileage requirements on cars sold in the US. “If the Senate bill becomes law, car manufacturers would have to increase the average mileage of new cars and light trucks to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, compared with roughly 25 miles per gallon today.” According to CNN, SUVs are included under the requirement…it’s about fricking time that loophole was closed.