Stories tagged energy

Wind catcher: New wind turbines are getting taller and slower in order to generate more electricity.
Wind catcher: New wind turbines are getting taller and slower in order to generate more electricity.Courtesy JMT
The way technology usually works, things get smaller and faster to be more efficient. That's not the case with wind turbines. Read this interesting piece on how new innovations are making wind turbines taller (reaching up into the sky the length of a football field), the blades are getting longer and are moving slower. All of this is actually generating more electricity.


With the exception of the Family Christmas Flu of 2002, I haven’t stopped to appreciate the toilet much in my life. However, Dr. Richard Alley’s presentation at the Science Museum of Minnesota on October 6th really made me think about toilets – and the waste we flush – like I never had before.
Authentic chamber pot: Nothing pretty about it
Authentic chamber pot: Nothing pretty about itCourtesy Evelyn Simak

Today, we can’t imagine living without toilets or indoor plumbing, especially in populated areas for extended periods of time. Gone are the days of the chamber pot, the daily hurling of human waste from your window into the street below, and the pervasive stench that resulted.

It’s really incredible to think about how society went from chamber pots to toilets. I mean, there is a HUGE amount of technology development, public policy, and civil engineering involved in the invention, installation, and maintenance of plumbing infrastructure. (You never thought about it either, did you?) You have to invent the plumbing fixtures, convince the government and the public that it’s a necessity, perfect the manufacturing process, install miles of underground pipes, build collection and treatment plants, and continually upkeep the entire system.

The daunting obstacles must have made indoor plumbing seem virtually impossible back in the day, but we did it anyway, which raises two really great questions: How and why?

How we made the switch from chamber pots to toilets is less important than why we made the switch because we probably wouldn’t have bothered to figured out how if we didn’t have a dang good reason why to put in all the effort. Like grandma says, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Authentic toilet: Something pretty about it.
Authentic toilet: Something pretty about it.Courtesy 13th Street Studio

We put in the effort to move towards toilets because we realized we couldn’t keep living with chamber pots. Chamber pots were unsightly, smelly, and really bad for public health. After we became convinced of the necessity of toilets, we figured out how to do it and we even put up with the disruption their adoption created. A few generations later and we can’t imagine living any other way.

Dr. Alley says we’re now on the cusp of our own epic Chamber-Pot-to-Toilet story.

Today, we can’t imagine living without fossil fuels as an energy source, but our grandchildren might not be able to imagine what it’s like living without renewable energy. Chamber pots and excrement are like fossil fuels and pollution: unsightly, smelly, and bad for public health. Hopefully, like with toilets, we’ll eventually realize we can’t keep living in our own filth and we’ll find a way to widely adopt renewable energy to replace fossil fuels.

According to Dr. Alley’s presentation, we already have the technology to capture enough renewable energy to cover the world’s current energy usage (15.7 terawatts) with some to spare, and the amount of renewable energy available for capture in the future is simply staggering. That means we should also be able to serve populations that do not currently have energy access and provide energy for our future's growing global population – all sustainably! Sure the technology development, public policy, and civil engineering involved in switching to a new energy system is daunting, but it can't be much longer until we realize it's a necessity worth the effort.

You can watch segments of Earth: The Operator’s Manual online (including Dr. Alley's 30 second introduction of himself, check out 1:23-1:53) and even read the annotated script. Segment 9 of Chapter 3 (beginning at page 98 of the annotated script), Towards a Sustainable Future, covers the details of which renewable energy sources we could use to create a global sustainable energy portfolio.

OK, it's Monday, not Friday, but last week's Science Friday video is too cool to skip. Without further ado... Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday
"Maxwell von Stein, a 22-year-old graduate of The Cooper Union, built bicycle that uses a flywheel to store energy. Instead of braking, Max can transfer energy from the wheel to the flywheel, which spins between the crossbars. The flywheel stores the kinetic energy until Max wants a boost, then he can transfer the energy back to the wheel using a shifter on the handlebars."

Like a vampire R2D2, really.: That's assuming the original R2D2 was not a vampire itself.
Like a vampire R2D2, really.: That's assuming the original R2D2 was not a vampire itself.Courtesy mechanikat
You know, Buzzketeers, that I only say these things because I care about you. Not all of you, of course—there are a few that I could really take or leave, and you know who you are—but the vast majority of you.

And it’s not that I want to deprive you of your Cake Boss. I know you love your Cake Boss, you little cake eaters, you. Really, I don’t want to deprive you of anything. I want to protect you. From vampires.

Not regular vampires, of course. They’re out there, and there’s very little I can do to help you on that front. In fact, statistics pretty much guarantee that a small portion of you will be killed by vampires (if you aren’t actually turned into one), so it’s really not worth giving the subject too much thought.

But there’s another kind of vampire out there. It lives on Cake Boss and electricity. It’s your set-top digital video recorder. Or cable box, or whatever. So I guess it could live off of shows other than Cake Boss—Ace of Cakes, D.C. Cupcakes, or Last Cake Standing, potentially—but the issue is the same: these devices are huge power sinks.

This is a phenomenon known as “phantom load,” and it’s not unique to DVR devices. Lots of electronic appliances draw a small amount of power while you’re not using them. Not a ton of power but it adds up over the months. According to some anecdotal evidence that I don’t feel like tracking down a valid citation for (so don’t use it in a class assignment, eh?), national phantom load consumes the equivalent of a nuclear power station’s output. According to other folks, phantom load is really just the distracting tip of the iceberg when it comes to our systemic inefficiency in power production and consumption.

In any case, the NYT claims that some DVR devices use more energy than a refrigerator, which is nothing to sneeze at, I guess. They don’t really have to use so much energy, but the industry is not required to make them any more efficient. So they don’t. We could perhaps push for stronger government regulations, or we could try to force them to be more efficient by only purchasing energy-saving models, but the Cake Boss lobby has us by … a sensitive area.

Plus—and tell me if I’m wrong—it seems like most people don’t have much of a choice when it comes to cable boxes and DVRs; they just get what their cable/internet provider has for them. So is this an area where government regulation is worthwhile, if consumers aren’t aware of the problem or given much of an opportunity for choice? Or is this just a distraction from more important issues? (i.e., Cake Boss.)

PS—“Phantom Cakes” is now the name of the cake-based reality show I will be producing, and if any one of you tries to weasel a Phantom Cakes onto TV before I can, I will personally kidnap your pets.


Actually, no.: Possibly not, anyway,
Actually, no.: Possibly not, anyway,Courtesy Garthhh
Don’t you hate it when someone tells you something, and you can’t tell them they’re wrong (just so you feel smarter than them, of course) because you don’t currently have any facts backing up your argument that they’re dumb, and maybe not a good person?

I hate that. I mean, I don’t even want to come up with an alternative argument in those situations—I just want the other person to know that they’re wrong. Again.

Example: You’re running your mouth around the fossil-fuels-aren’t-sustainable track, when someone says, “No, you’re right. They aren’t.” That, naturally, is a good start for a response, but then they go on to say, “And that’s why we have to get on the nuclear energy train, and we have to get on it hard. Done correctly, nuclear energy can provide lots and lots of clean energy, without the carbon emissions you hate. And we will no longer have to rely on foreign sources of oil. And blah blah blah. Check. Mate.”

And you just stand there, flapping your mouth open and shut, but no words are coming out, because you’re all out of words. Maybe you don’t even have anything against nuclear power—you just need to prove that person wrong. Who does he think he is?!

If a similar situation were to happen, except with, say, horse racing as the subject, you’d be back in your home town, Sit Creek, even though you hated it there so much, and you split as soon as you finished high school. Too bad for you. I can’t tell you anything contradictory about horse racing.

But if a similar situation were to come up, and the topic was nuclear energy, well, you’d be in luck. See a professor from the University of Adelaide just published a paper laying out exactly why nuclear power is not the solution to our future energy woes. Lucky, lucky you.

It’s not nuclear energy in general that the prof has a problem with, it’s that nuclear energy can’t be scaled up to replace fossil fuels (which will indeed need to be replaced eventually.) Doing so would be too expensive, require too many resources, and involve too much danger.

Today, we’re using about 15 terawatts of power around the world each year. That’s not just for electricity, it’s also for heat and transportation fuels and all that. But, at some point, we may be using electricity for those things as well.

Of those 15 terawatts, we generate about 375 gigawatts in nuclear plants—that’s just 2.5% of our global energy consumption. (Wikipedia puts the figure at 6%, but maybe that’s delivered energy, or something. Let’s leave it be for now.)

By this scientist’s estimates, we’d need 15,000 nuclear reactors going at once to produce 15 terawatts of power (and this is assuming that our power consumption doesn’t go up. Which it for sure will.). Given a nuclear power station’s lifetime of about 50 years, to maintain 15,000 working power stations, we’d need to commission a new plant and decommission an old one every day. And, currently, it tales 6-12 years to build a plant, and 20 or so years to decommission one. This would be very difficult and expensive to coordinate.

And it would take a lot of land—all those plants in the process of being built, run, and decommissioned would need about 8 square miles of land. That land would have to be near a large body of water, but also away from large population centers. Tricky.

And, says professor, at the rate we’re currently consuming uranium (our favorite nuclear fuel), it will only last for 80 years. Scaled up to 15 terawatts production, it would last for 5 years. We could potentially start extracting uranium from seawater, a source that could last for thousands of years, but that would be an expensive and energy intensive process itself.

And what of the spent fuel? We still don’t know what to do with it, and all that additional nuclear material (both fuel and waste) would almost certainly increase the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world.

At any rate, the list goes on, long enough to allow you to shove the argument back into the hot, reeking mouth of whoever was sassing you in the first place. They might bring up technological advances (which the researcher sort of accounts for) or how people are always saying that energy sources, be they nuclear or renewable, aren’t globally scalable, or that presuming that we would use a single sort of energy production for everybody in the world, everywhere in the world, is probably silly … but they’ll probably be feeling so nonplussed in their oafishness that you will have plenty of time to make your escape and set yourself up in another conversation with a much easier opponent, like a child, or a table.

Good luck.


It's a world leader in clean energy investment and clean coal research and development. Last year, it manufactured a third of the world's solar panels and wind turbines, and it's luring companies from all over the world to build factories there. It has recently made huge investments in clean energy education. But it's not America.

The green tide: Is green the new red?
The green tide: Is green the new red?Courtesy Jude Freeman

The country I'm describing is China. That's right--the world's newly-dubbed largest net emitter of greenhouse gasses. It isn't bound by reduction requirements under the Kyoto protocol, and its use of fossil fuels is powering a growing and booming economy. And yet, the Chinese are courting US companies with financial incentives to build clean tech factories and research centers in China. They're working to corner clean tech markets in California and South Africa. In fact, over the last three years, China has gone from controlling 2% of California's solar market to a whopping 46%--ousting its American competitors. And that's not all--the country has become a proving ground for clean coal with the guidance of US companies and researchers.

Oh, the terror: handouts from the Sun.
Oh, the terror: handouts from the Sun.Courtesy BrokenSphere

These companies hope to learn from their experiences testing clean coal tech in China, and bring that knowledge back to the US to transform our own polluting coal plants into next-generation powerhouses. So what's in it for the Chinese? They're quickly gaining lead on the cutting edge in green technology, making room for growth in the energy sector without increasing pollution or relying on foreign imports, and reaping economic benefits--and they foresee substantial economic benefits in the future, when they could be the major supplier of green technology and research to the world.

Given the US's slowing progress on clean technologies, what do you think this will mean for our future? Should we be trying to get on top of green tech research and development? Or is it best left to others? Or are those even the right questions--will we have the best success when we pool resources with other countries?


Cold fusion in Italy?: Suvvia, vedi di non dire sciocchezze!
Cold fusion in Italy?: Suvvia, vedi di non dire sciocchezze!Courtesy NASA
Thems is what we calls "scare quotes" in the title of this post. (And thems in the last sentence is regular quotes.) Grammar is everywhere and nowhere!

Anyway, a couple of Italian researchers claimed last week to have a working cold fusion device. By fusing hydrogen and nickel, they say their machine is producing copper and about 30 times the energy they put into it.

Fusion is the process of mashing two atoms together to get a heavier atom and lots of energy. This process happens all the time... in the extreme heat and pressure of the sun and other stars. Here on Earth, the amount of energy extracted from a fusion reaction wouldn't be worth the energy it'd take to replicate the conditions of a star (to get the fusion going), unless we can figure out how to start a fusion reaction at near-room temperatures. So this new discovery is awesome, right?!

Yeah, well, probably not. It would be awesome, except lots of people have tried to produce cold fusion, even some claimed that they had produced cold fusion, and it has never ever worked out. And, in this case, other scientists reviewing their research say it looks like junk, the Italian scientists can't explain why their reaction works, and while they have demonstrated their device, they won't do so in a closed-loop system (where all the inputs and outputs can be accounted for.)

Nonetheless, they're saying that their fusion device will go into production by the end of this year. The world, I'm sure, will happily eat crow if these guys have solved humanity's energy problems, but until then we remain skeptical.

You know you want to know!

First, check out the Household Flux Calculator, and discover your flux score. With your curiosity piqued, keep going and find out how your household activities influence the cycles of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus.

Although households are known to influence the energy budgets of cities and countries, few studies have looked at their contribution to environmental pollution. The University's Twin Cities Household Ecosystem Project involves a survey of 3,100 urban and suburban households in Ramsey and Anoka counties and their household emissions. The study centers on a range of behaviors, including household energy use, food choices, vehicle use, air travel habits, pet ownership and lawn care practices. University scientists Lawrence Baker, Sarah Hobbie and Kristen Nelson will discuss the surprising results of this groundbreaking research.

And, yes, they'll answer the question, if you ask them nicely.

Households and Urban Pollution
Tuesday, January 18, 7 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m.
Bryant-Lake Bowl, Minneapolis
Cost: $5-$12. Tickets available at the door and online at Bryant-Lake Bowl.
Call 612-825-8949 for reservations.


What what?
What what?Courtesy Public Domain
For those of you who want to choose the most environmentally friendly shaving solution, Slate's Green Lantern just did a column about the carbon footprints of different shaving options. Disposable or electric? Which is "greener"?

As with everything else in the future (where we live), even this little question is complicated. But the author seems to do a pretty good job unpacking it—you have to consider energy used in the process, whether for hot water or to run a small electric motor, as well as manufacturing costs and each product's useful lifetime.

The long and the short of it, depending on your shaving habits, is that electric razors are ultimately more energy efficient than plastic disposables. But just barely. According to the Green Lantern's calculations, you save about 15 pounds of carbon dioxide by using an electric shaver. And, as the author puts it, you would have to shave with a disposable razor for more than 350 years to equal the amount of greenhouse gases produced by one cow in a single year. (I don't think a cow produces 5200 pounds of greenhouse gas a year by itself. That figure might be taking in to consideration the gases produced by growing feed and processing the animal as well, or it might account for the greater potency of methane—which cows produce—as a greenhouse gas over carbon dioxide.)

In any case, this assumes that you shave your face at all. You might wear a beard, or you might be what I like to call "a female." Or you might take advantage of one of the many other shaving options: some men use old-fashion safety razors and straight razors; Crocodile Dundee finishes his shaves with a bowie knife; I cover my face in high-proof grain alcohol and set it ablaze (it's invigorating, but I can't maintain eyelashes well this way); I have friends who let cats lick away their stubble.

So this isn't the be-all-end-all. But it's like David Schwimmer says.

An underwater turbine farm producing enough electricity to power 250,000 homes could one day be installed in the Mississippi. Though the project faces some funding and development challenges, the technology has real promise for a river delta starved of sediments. What if dams could be removed and replaced with freestanding turbines?