April 30, 2013
Bet you didn’t know that Texas has more solar energy workers than ranchers and California has more of them than actors, and that more people now work in the solar industry in the U.S. than in coal mines.
Or that in March, for the first time ever, 100 percent of the energy added to the U.S. power grid was solar.
Okay, so now you know all that, but I’m guessing you’re no more aquiver over solar energy than you were five minutes ago. That’s the way it is in America these days. Most people think solar is a good thing, but how jazzed can you get about putting panels on a roof.
Bertrand Piccard understands this. Which is why later this week, weather permitting, he will take off from Moffett Field near San Francisco and begin a flight across the U.S. in a plane entirely dependent on the sun. Called Solar Impulse, it will move at a snail’s pace compared to commercial jets–top speed will be under 50 miles per hour–and will stop in several cities before it ends its journey in New York in late June or early July.
But the point isn’t to to mimic a plane in a hurry, crossing the country on thousands of gallons of jet fuel. The point is to show what’s possible without it.
To do this, Piccard and his partner, André Borschberg, have created one of the strangest flying machines ever–a plane with the wingspan of a jumbo jet, but one that weighs about a ton less than an SUV. Its power is generated by nearly 12,000 silicon solar cells over the main wing and the horizontal stabilizer that charge lithium-polymer battery packs contained in the four gondolas under the wing. The batteries in total weigh almost 900 pounds–that’s about one quarter of the plane’s weight–and they’re capable of storing enough energy to allow the plane to fly at night.
Piloting the Solar Impulse is neither comfortable nor without a good deal of risk. Only one pilot can be in the cockpit–a second adds too much weight–and the engines are vulnerable to wind, rain, fog and heavy clouds. But Piccard is, by blood, an inveterate risk-taker. In 1999, he co-piloted the first gas-powered balloon to travel non-stop around the world. In 1960, his father, Jacques, was one of the two men aboard the bathysphere lowered into the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans. In 1931, his grandfather, Auguste, was the first balloonist to enter the Earth’s stratosphere.
It was near the end of his own record-setting balloon trip that Bertrand Piccard was inspired to find a way to fly without needing to rely on fuel. He almost ran out of propane while crossing the Atlantic. He and Borschberg spent years planning, designing and finding investors–that was no small challenge–but they persevered and, in 2010, the Solar Impulse made the first solar-powered night flight over Switzerland. Last year it completed the first solar intercontinental flight, from Europe to Africa.
The ultimate goal–after the flight across America–is to fly a solar plane non-stop around the world. That’s tentatively scheduled for 2015, but it will require a bigger plane than the Impulse. Since they estimate that it will take three days to fly over the Atlantic and five to cross the Pacific, Piccard and Borschberg have been making other alterations, too–the larger version will have an autopilot, more efficient electric motors and a body made of even lighter carbon fiber. It also will have a seat that reclines and yes, a toilet.
There certainly are easier ways to go around the world, but Piccard sees his mission as stretching our imaginations about the sun’s potential. “Very often, when we speak of protection of the environment, it’s boring,” he said during a recent interview with Popular Science. “It’s about less mobility, less comfort, less growth.”
Instead, he wants to show that clean energy can just as easily be about being a pioneer.
Here comes the sun
Here’s other recent developments related to solar power:
- It’s always good to save some for later: A team of researchers at Stanford University has devised a partially liquid battery that could lead to the development of inexpensive batteries which can store energy created by solar panels and wind turbines. One of the challenges of both sun and wind power is to be able to store energy efficiently so it’s available when the sun’s not shining and the wind’s not blowing.
- Forget the undercoating, we’ll throw in solar panels: BMW, which will begin selling its first electric cars later this year, says it will offer buyers the opportunity to get a solar-powered home charging system designed to be installed in their garages.
- Go ahead and fold. Avoid spindling and mutilation: A Milwaukee middle school teacher-turned-inventor has created a small, foldable solar array that can charge an iPhone in two hours. Joshua Zimmerman turned what had been a hobby into a company named Brown Dog Gadgets and he’s already raised more than $150,000 on Kickstarter to get his business off the ground.
- And you thought your shirt was cool: An Indian scientist has designed a shirt containing solar cells that power small fans to keep the wearer cool. The shirt would also be able to store enough juice to charge cell phones and tablets.
- Charge of the light brigade: Since you never know when you need a lantern, there’s now a solar powered bottle cap that lights up your water bottle. Its four bright, white LED lights can turn your beat up water bottle into a shiny beacon.
Video bonus: Take a peek at the Solar Impulse during its test flight over San Francisco last week.
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April 5, 2013
Bet you didn’t know that last year a record amount of wind power was installed around the planet. The U.S. set a record, too, and, once again, became the world leader in adding new wind power, pushing China into second place for the year.
You’re not alone in being clueless about this. So was I. After all, this is a subject that gets about as much attention as 17-year-cicadas in a off year. What generally passes for energy coverage in the U.S. these days is the relentless cycle of gas-prices-up, gas-prices-down stories and the occasional foray into the natural-gas-fracking-is-a-blessing-or-is-it-a-curse? debate.
Okay, so wind power had a very good year in 2012. But that doesn’t mean that it’s gone mainstream. Hardly. It accounts for only 4 percent of the energy produced in the U.S. Plus, a big reason for the spike last year was that companies scrambled to finish projects before a federal tax credit expired at the end of December. (It was renewed as part of the end of the year tax deal, but only for one more year.)
Truth is, wind power still has some familiar challenges, such as the wind’s refusal to blow 24/7 and the not insubstantial death toll inflicted on bird and bat populations by twirling turbine blades–estimated to be hundreds of thousands killed a year. (Although that pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions that die from flying into buildings.)
And it has some new ones–”wind turbine syndrome,” for instance. That’s the name that’s been given to the ill effects that some people who live near wind farms have complained about–headaches, dizziness, ear pain, difficulty sleeping. NPR ran a story on it just the other day.
But many scientists and public health experts think the ailment is more psychosomatic than physiological. In fact, a recent study in Australia found that the syndrome was much more prevalent in communities where anti-wind farm groups spread warnings about negative health effects. In short, the research concluded, people were more likely to feel sick if they were told turbines could make them sick.
Lose the spin
That said, the industry could probably use a different approach to capturing the wind, something that didn’t involve huge spinning blades. Which explains why there’s so much interest in an innovation developed at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. It’s a wind turbine that not only has no blades, it has no moving parts, meaning little wear and tear.
It works like this. Instead of generating electrical energy from the mechanical energy of the rotating blades, this device, called a Ewicon (short for Electostatic Wind Energy Converter) skips the whole mechanical energy part.
It comprises a steel frame holding horizontal rows of insulated tubes, each of which has several electrodes and nozzles. The nozzles release positively charged water droplets and they are drawn to the negatively-charged electrodes. But when the wind blows, it creates resistance and that generates energy.
Only a few prototypes have been built so far, but the inventors, Johan Smit and Dhiradi Djairam, think that if their design takes off, it could be a boon to wind power in cities, where massive turbines aren’t an option.
Still another approach is what is known as Windstalk. Again no blades, but in this case, energy is generated by a small forest of more than a thousand narrow, 180-foot-tall poles packed tightly together. Within each hollow, carbon fiber pole, which narrows from base to tip, is a stack of small ceramic disks and between the disks are electrodes.
These discs and electrodes are connected to a cable which runs up the pole. When wind causes the ‘stalks’ to sway, the discs compress, generating a current.
The windstalks have been proposed as one of the sources of energy in Masdar City, the world’s first carbon-neutral and car-free city, being built near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
Catching the breeze
Here are five other recent wind power stories. Chances are you haven’t heard them either.
1) And the wind…cries…chowda: It’s been 10 years in the works, but Cape Wind, the first offshore wind farm in the U.S., took a big step forward last month when the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ signed a $2 billion agreement with the project’s developers. The plan is to build 130 turbines, each with blades 50 yards long, in Nantucket Sound off the coast of Cape Cod. If it stays on schedule–construction is supposed to begin late this year–Cape Wind could be lighting 100,000 to 200,000 homes by 2015.
2) That “beyond petroleum” thing…just kidding: It wasn’t all that long ago that British Petroleum changed its name to BP and then CEO John Browne made it clear that it stood for “beyond petroleum” and that the company was fully committed to begin shifting to renewable energy. But that was before that messy spill in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago, the one that may cost BP as much as $42 billion. Earlier this week, the company announced that it plans to sell its wind energy interests in the U.S. It has investments in 16 wind farms in nine different states and hopes to earn as much as $3 billion by putting them on the market.
3) That’s because back East anything that big has a video screen: A study done by researchers at Purdue University found that a lot of people in Indiana actually like having wind farms in their communities. More than 80 percent of the people surveyed said they supported wind turbines, even in counties where local governments had opposed them. Some said wind farms gave rural areas a certain charm and one person noted that when friends visited from the East Coast, they couldn’t stop staring at them.
4) The answer, my friend, is bobbin’ in the wind: A new type of wind turbine that floats is being tested off the coast of Japan. Most turbines extend from pylons buried in the seabed, but this model, while anchored to bottom, has a hollow lower core that’s filled with seawater. And that keeps it upright. If it works, this approach could dramatically reduce costs of offshore wind farms.
5) Waste management is so 20th century: And in Italy, law enforcement authorities have seized the assets of a Sicilian businessman suspected of laundering money for the Mafia. The man under investigation, Vito Nicastri, is so big in the renewable energy business in Italy that he’s known as “Lord of the Wind.”
Video bonus: So why do wind turbines have to be so big? Here’s a nice, little video on how a wind farm off the Dutch coast works.
Video bonus bonus: And for a change of pace, here’s a tutorial on how Windstalk would work.
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January 23, 2013
During his inaugural speech Monday, President Barack Obama uttered a phrase that during last year’s presidential campaign were The-Words-That-Shall-Not-Be-Spoken.
He mentioned climate change.
In fact, President Obama didn’t just mention it, he declared that a failure to deal with climate change “would betray our children and future generations.”
But ask any Washington pundit if Congress will do anything meaningful on the subject and they’ll tell you that that’s as likely as D.C. freezing over in July.
Also this week, as it turns out, a study was released outlining the latest geoengineering idea for saving the planet in the event of an unstoppable downward spiral of the Earth’s climate.
This one would involve dumping billions of tons of dust of the mineral olivine into the oceans, a process that, in theory at least, could significantly reduce carbon dioxide levels and also slow the increasing acidification of the oceans.
But there’s a catch. Actually, there are many. For starters, the German scientists who did the study estimate that it would require an undertaking as large as the entire world’s coal industry to mine enough olivine, and then it would take at least 100 large ships working 24/7 for a year to spread enough of the mineral dust around to have an impact. Plus, all that olivine dust would undoubtedly change the biology of the oceans in ways no one can really predict.
Back to nature
Okay, back to reality. The only response to climate change that’s truly moving forward is what’s known as adaptation. Or, put more simply, preparing for the worst.
It’s not likely that there will be another Hurricane Sandy this year. Maybe not next year either. But no one running a city, particularly along a coastline, can dare to think that the next devastating superstorm won’t come along for another 50 years.
So their focus is on minimizing the damage when it does hit. And, perhaps not surprisingly, they’re increasingly looking to nature’s resiliency to help them deal with nature’s wrath.
Case in point: One proposal to reduce future flooding of Lower Manhattan is built around the idea of converting part of that section of the city into wetlands and salt marshes. That’s right, the concrete jungle, or at least the lower end of it, would get very squishy.
As architect Stephen Cassell envisions the transformation, the edge of low-lying neighborhoods, such as Battery Park, would become a patchwork of parks and marshes that could sop up future storm surges. And on the more vulnerable streets, asphalt would be replaced with porous concrete that could soak up excess water like a bed of sponges.
It’s just one of several ideas that have been floated, but its mimicking of natural wetlands has a simple, rugged appeal. As Cassell told the New York Times:
““We weren’t fully going back to nature with our plan. We thought of it more as engineered ecology. But if you look at the history of Manhattan, we have pushed nature off the island and replaced it with man-made infrastructure. What we can do is start to reintegrate things and make the city more durable.”
Know your roots
But that’s almost prosaic compared to Skygrove, the concept for a skyscraper inspired by the mangrove tree. Mangroves, which often grow in swamps or along rivers, are known for their gnarly network of roots that keep their trunks above the water.
Architects at the New York firm of HWKN copied that model for a building that could sit above rising water. Instead of having a single foundation, the Skygrove would rest on a base of “roots” extending outward like fingers spread under the water.
Each root of the building–which is meant to be a vertical office park for the City of New York–would be independent of the others and self-sufficient, able to provide its own energy. And each would be designed to survive whatever extreme weather may come its way.
To believe the designers, the Skygrove is a model for the kinds of buildings we may see more often in what they call the “newly nebulous coastal zone.”
It’s nature’s way
Here are other new inventions based on mimicking nature:
- But do not try this on trees: A London industrial designer has created a super-strong bicycle helmet by modeling it after the heads of woodpeckers.
- No word yet on how it may affect human mating: A team of researchers has found that LED lights that copy the structure of a firefly’s “lantern” are 55 percent brighter.
- Okay, let’s clear the air: A Copenhagen chemist has invented an air-cleaning device that mimics the process through which the Earth’s atmosphere cleans itself. In response to sunlight, polluting gases rising into the sky form particles when they come across compounds such as ozone. And those newly formed particles are washed out of the atmosphere by rain. The invention, which removes industrial pollutants from the air, is now being tested at a Danish plant.
- But do they ever tell dogs “You’ll just feel a little stick?”: One day we could have less painful hypodermic needles thanks to a group of scientists who studied porcupine quills. They determined that the backwards-facing barbs on a quill help it enter skin easily and then stay in place. The researchers learned this by measuring how much force it took to push in and pull out porcupine quills jabbed into pig skin and raw chicken meat.
- Mussels and bodybuilding: A team of researchers from Penn State and the University of Texas, Arlington believe that a version of the powerful adhesive that allows mussels to stick stubbornly to underwater surfaces can be used in operating rooms to close and heal wounds.
Video bonus: An idea whose time, sadly, has come: robot cockroaches. It will creep you out.
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November 16, 2012
While it’s still not possible to definitively predict the course a nasty storm will take, we can say with absolute certainty that once it does arrive, two things will happen.
First, we will be treated to the last remaining example of slapstick on TV–weather reporters trying to remain upright in a gale. And second, we’ll see footage of a convoy of utility vehicles headed to the scene of the storm, the cavalry as bucket trucks.
The former is always loony, the latter usually reassuring. Yet there’s something oddly low tech about waiting for help from people driving hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles. Yes, our power grid has been described as a “model of 20th century engineering,” but what has it done to impress us lately?
Sadly, not much.
In fairness, no amount of innovation could have prevented the havoc created by Superstorm Sandy, when more than than 8.5 million homes and businesses lost power. But this is an industry for which, until very recently, the only way an electric company would find out about an outage was when a customer called it in. Not quite cutting edge.
Given the likelihood that more frequent extreme weather will bring more blackouts–the number of major outages in the U.S. has already doubled in past 10 years–power companies know they need to go about their business in different ways, that they need systems that can predict problems and respond automatically.
And it’s not as simple as burying all power lines. That’s really not a very good option in many places, particularly cities, where the cost, according to the Energy Information Administration, could be more than $2 million per mile–almost six times what overhead lines cost. Plus, repair costs can be higher for underground lines and, of course, they’re more vulnerable to flooding.
So what’s the solution? Well, as they say in the relationship business, it’s complicated. But it undoubtedly will involve making power systems much smarter and also using, in a much more strategic way, the enormous amount of data becoming available on how consumers consume and how grids perform.
Here are five examples of companies and governments exploring new ways to keep the lights on.
1) Is your grid smarter than a fifth grader? With a boost of more than $100 million in federal stimulus money, the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee converted its power grid into what’s known as a “self-healing network,” which uses high-speed fiber optic lines to report what’s happening on the system. About 1,200 new “smart switches” track what’s going on with the power lines and make adjustments, if necessary.
Say a falling tree takes out a line. The nearest switch would cut off power to that immediate area and reroute it around the problem. Which means fewer homes and businesses would be affected.
That’s just how it played out during a big windstorm in the city last summer. About 35,000 homes went dark, but city officials say that without the smart switches, another 45,000 houses and businesses would have joined them. The city’s utility estimates that the new system saved it $1.4 million during that one storm alone.
2) Your lights may go out. Oh, and it’s 73 degrees: To get better real-time data on how weather affects its grid, San Diego Gas & Electric Company built 140 little weather stations throughout its network.
They provide up-to-date readings on the temperature, humidity and wind speed and direction, and pay particular attention to any signs of wildfires that could bring down the network.
3) Where you go off the grid to stay on the grid: Next year, Connecticut will become the first state to help its cities and towns start building their own “microgrids.” These will be small, self-sustaining islands of power that run on state-of-the-art fuel cells.
The idea is that these systems, able to disconnect from the main grid, will be capable of providing electricity to police and fire departments, hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores, college campuses, shelters and other key businesses, even if the rest of the city loses juice.
4) Welcome to Texas, where even Big Data is bigger: By the end of the year, Oncor, the utility serving most of north Texas, will have installed more than 3 million smart meters in homes and businesses. When you consider that each of them sends data to Oncor every 15 minutes–in the old days the utility took a reading just once a month–well, that’s a whole lot of data. Add in all the grid sensors along the system’s 118,000 miles of power lines and that’s more data than…well, that’s a whole lot of data.
So Oncor has partnered with IBM, the King of Big Data, to install software that will make sense of the all that information and, in the process, allow the company to detect outages much more quickly.
5) A tweet in the dark: Finally, it should probably come as no surprise that now one of the more effective ways for utility companies to track outages is through Facebook and Twitter.
So in January, GE will make available new software called Grid IQ Insight and one of its features is the ability to superimpose social media data–namely tweets and Facebook posts–over a power company’s network. So utilities won’t have to wait for customers to call in blackouts; they’ll just see their tweets pop up on a map.
Video bonus: So, what is a smart grid, any how? Scientific American lays it all out for you.
Video bonus bonus: And I ask again: What is it about hurricanes that makes people act stupid?
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November 2, 2012
Talk about being prescient.
Not quite two months ago Mireya Navarro wrote the following in the New York Times:
“With a 520-mile-long coast lined largely by teeming roads and fragile infrastructure, New York City is gingerly facing up to the intertwined threats posed by rising seas and ever-more-severe storm flooding.”
She also noted that critics say “New York is moving too slowly to address the potential for flooding that could paralyze transportation, cripple the low-lying financial district and temporarily drive hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.”
Actually, Navarro was not quite as oracular as it might seem. Scientists at Stony Brook University, working together as the ominously-named Storm Surge Research Group, have been beating this drum for years, warning that New York City becomes more vulnerable with each passing year as ocean levels rise. And last year, a New York State report estimated that a bad coastal storm could flood the subways and cost up to $58 billion in economic damage and revenue lost.
Even the city’s Museum of Modern Art has raised the spectre of a shrinking New York, with a 2010 exhibit titled “Rising Currents.” It included one architect’s vision of a Lower Manhattan defined by “a network of walkways that allow people to walk among the marsh and tall grass.”
Don’t speak of this
The idea of building a series of sea gates along Manhattan that could be closed during a major storm has been much discussed, but so far hasn’t moved much past the talking stage. For starters, there’s the potential cost, estimated at $10 billion, probably more. Also, it hasn’t helped that climate change has become the Lord Voldemort of political issues–you know, the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named guy.
Which helps explain why New York is hardly alone among American cities when it comes to being skittish about investing heavily in climate change protection, which, by the way, is now referred to as “resiliency planning.” In fact, according to a recent study at MIT, only 59 percent of U.S. cities are engaged in such planning, as opposed to 86 percent of cities in Australia and New Zealand, 84 percent in Europe and 80 percent in Africa.
Luckily, most American cities aren’t as close to the brink as New York when it comes to the impact of extreme weather. So they’ve been able to get by with adaptation more incremental than transformative.
But at least some cities are starting to make resiliency planning a core part of their 21st century agenda. Chicago, for instance, has for several years now, been repaving its almost 2,000 miles of alleys with permeable concrete, a surface that allows storm water to seep through into the soil below instead of streaming into an overwhelmed sewer system or flowing as polluted runoff into streams and rivers. And that water in the ground beneath the concrete also keeps the aIleys cooler during the blisteringly hot summers Chicago has suffered though in recent years. Soon the city will start using the porous pavement in bike lanes.
Chicago’s also become a leader in the development of green roofs--rooftops covered with grass, flowers and decorative bushes that not only cut a building’s air conditioning costs, but also reduce the amount of rainwater that pours down gutters and into the sewers.
Other cities, such as Philadelphia, Nashville and Houston, have become much more aggressive about planting trees in environmentally sensitive areas to help them counter the impact of storms capable of unloading several inches of rain in a day.
Will that be enough? Maybe not. But one of the lessons from Sandy is that cities, in particular, no longer have the luxury of waiting for scientific certainty in linking extreme weather to climate change.
As Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton, told the Huffington Post:
“Whether or not there was a climate change component to this storm, it teaches us a lot of things, including how behind the 8-ball we are in being able to handle big events of the type that we believe — that scientists think — are going to get more frequent and intense in the future. So whether this one was 5 percent due to climate change or 1 percent or 10 percent — it’s interesting, it matters to a certain extent, but it’s not the whole story by any means.”
Jennifer Morgan, the director of the climate and energy program with the World Resources Institute, put it another way: “While it’s important to understand the scientific evidence underpinning these events, waiting for certainty that a particular storm or other event is caused by climate change is courting disaster. You don’t wait for 100 percent certainty that your house will burn down before you take out fire insurance.”
Slideshow bonus: With New York and Miami at the top of the list, here are the 17 U.S. cities most at risk from rising seas.
Video bonus: Watch time lapse video of Superstorm Sandy pummeling New York and Lower Manhattan going dark.
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