Sunday, August 10, 2008

Energy Storage Options Growing

One of the problems with renewable energy sources such as waves, wind and solar is that they aren't constantly producing energy. The seas may be calm, the wind may not blow and the sun isn't always shining. We need to be able to store energy when it is being produced to use later when it isn't.

The New York Times is reporting on two new scientific advancements that have the potential to transform our energy storage and usage options. The advances apply to the process of converting electricity into hydrogen for storage and then converting the hydrogen back to electricity when needed

First is a new process that relies on the chemistry behind photosynthesis to produce hydrogen from water at ambient temperatures and pressures. Traditionally, the production of hydrogen involves high temp/pressure systems, which makes them expensive to run and more difficult to operate.

The second exciting news involves a new porous polymer material that replaces the platinum traditionally used in fuel cells that turn hydrogen into electricity. Platinum is the expensive component of current fuel cells, so this has the potential to drastically reduce prices.

Combine the two and you have a system to easily and cheaply turn electricity from renewable sources into hydrogen for storage and then back to electricity when needed.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Danish Island Becomes Energy Self-Sufficient in 8 Years

In the span of 8 short years, Samsø, a Danish island in the North Sea, has become entirely energy self-sufficient, by using a combination of wind energy, solar and other renewables. The transformation began in 1997 when the island won a grant to explore energy alternatives.

In the nineties, the island of 4,300 people imported all their energy, mostly in oil tankers, and paid little attention to where it came from. In a fascinating article in The New Yorker magazine, Elizabeth Kolbert reports that:

“Then, quite deliberately, the residents of the island set about changing this. They formed energy coöperatives and organized seminars on wind power. They removed their furnaces and replaced them with heat pumps. By 2001, fossil-fuel use on Samsø had been cut in half. By 2003, instead of importing electricity, the island was exporting it, and by 2005 it was producing from renewable sources more energy than it was using.”

This is a remarkable story of community. What was the process that transformed Samsø? Years of talking, educating and persuading, and the following:
  • A leader who is motivated and knows the social relationships in the community
  • Visits to every local meeting, no matter how small or on what issue, to discuss the project
  • Willingness to make the project something that is fun and competitive with other communities (bringing free beer helps)
  • Enlisting the support of the island’s opinion leaders
This is particularly relevant today, in light of Al Gore's call for American energy independence within ten years. The naysayers immediately declared the time-frame ridiculous and completely undoable. Samsø, proves them wrong. Think about it for one moment. A 50% reduction in fossil fuel use in just 5 years. What a different country -- and world -- we would be living in if we could achieve half of that.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Green Your Bulbs

Over at Lighter Footsteps, they have a great post about compact fluorescent bulbs. The talk about selecting the right bulb, where CFLs are appropriate and where they don't work so well (mostly in places that are cold, which we don't need to worry much about here in Houston), and how to dispose of them.

If you are new to CFLs, or just want to learn a few more things, head on over. I learned that CFLs are sensitive to vibration, so may not be a good choice for ceiling fans. Who knew?

VW's 235 MPG Bobsled

Volkswagen is moving closer to production of their 235 mpg diesel-electric hybrid with a release date of 2010.

The car seats two people, tandem style. At 11.4 feet long, 4.1 feet wide and 3.3 feet tall, it will send you bobsledding down the highway. With a carbon fiber body, airbags and crunch zones, VW claims the car is as safe as a GT racing car. Aerodynamics and a very light weight help to achieve the remarkable mileage. The concept car only weighs in at 640 pounds. At that, it would only take a couple of guys to pick this up and toss it in the back of their pick-up. Wonder if it comes with a titanium bicycle lock?

Personally, given the large number of SUV's on Houston's roadways, it could be a little disconcerting to be tooling around in something so small. On the other hand, how much longer can people afford to put gas in all those Hummers? So there is probably about to be lots of space freeing up on our highways. Most of my driving is done on local streets anyway, and this would be great for tooling around on errands and such.

The biggest drawback? The $31,000 to $47,000 estimated price tag. Ouch.

Cheap Solar For Your Window Panes

A new company created by scientists working at MIT is working to commercialize a new solar dye technology that turns ordinary windows into solar concentrators. Basically, low-cost readily available dyes are painted on glass or plastic panes. Some of the light is absorbed and redirected through the pane to the edges, where solar cells turn the light into electricity. The focused light increases by 40 times the electrical power obtained from each solar cell.

This works on the same principle as solar concentrator that rely on mirrors or magnifying glass to concentrate a large amout of light on a small area, which decreases the need for expensive solar cells.

There area a number of exciting things about his new technology:
Unlike traditional solar collectors, these flat panels require no sunlight tracking abilities to keep the light focused
Cheap materials. The dyes used are already common dyes used in auto paints
Avoids what some see as unsightly rooftop solar panels, which are banned by many homeowner associations.
Could potentially turn the facade of a large building into one large, inexpensive solar collector.

On the downside, no information on the quality of the light that passes through the window. Perhaps we will no longer need to put on rose-colored glasses. We can just pull the blinds and look out the window.

Check out this demonstration video.

WalMart Rediscovers Local Produce

While our own federal government is erecting roadblocks to local products, the world's largest retailer says it is on a mission to stock its food aisles with local produce.

WalMart is a company that I love to hate, but I've got to admit that when they throw their considerable weight behind something, they can get results. In a hurry. Now WalMart is starting to play smart with food in ways that could benefit local agriculture.

During the last two years, partnerships between local farms and WalMart have jumped 50 percent, and the company anticipates it will source about $400 million in local produce this year, making it the country's largest buyer of produce that is grown and sold within a state's borders.

Why the sudden change? Fuel prices. For instance, instead of buying peaches from just two suppliers nationwide, WalMart can buy peaches from growers in 18 different states and save 100,000 gallons of dieself fuel. 70% of the produce that WalMart buys is produced in the US. WalMart says it plans to get aggressive, encouraging states to start growing a greater variety of crops to fill those produce department bins.

Sunday, June 8, 2008


Another great article from The Economist about the elusive Negawatt, the idea of increasing available energy on the grid through conservation instead of generation. There's a new study out that shows conservation has an average ROE of 17% with a minimum of about 10%. If you look around at today's market, with such small returns on savings, that's a great return. So why don't we do more conservation? The article points out that conservation is increasingly popular with business, but not as much with invididuals and examines many of the reasons for that. Its a great, information dense article in typical Economist fashion. I'm stil digesting it all, because ultimately it left me depressed. As the article rightly points out, there are "a series of distortions and market failures that discourage investment in efficiency."

Aye, there's the rub. As I see it, basically we have a system where companies make money by selling energy but don't suffer the financial consequences (climate change) from their activities.

We need to change the system. I'm learning more about carbon tax proposals, and am leaning in that direction. But something needs to be done.

I wish I was more optimistic that it would.

Photo: Amazing and borrowed from The Economist article