Sunday, July 11, 2010

Why Oil Will Be With Us for a Long Time

In a remote village beyond an unnamed hill, where the last road ended miles ago, a man picks up an earthenware bowl. He pours some refined oil into it – maybe vegetable oil, maybe palm oil. Into the oil he inserts a cotton wick, then puts a match to the wick.

That lamp will shine all night long.

That villager could never have gotten the same result with solar or wind – not yet, anyway. Until we find a source of energy that combines the convenience, cost and potency of oil, we'll never give up on the black gold.

Yes, I understand oil has its drawbacks. But society has decided that oil's pros outweigh its cons. The scales will continue to tip that way for quite some time.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Using Solar and Nuclear Energy Won't Cut Our Oil Bill

A few days ago I heard a radio talk-show host say we should cut our dependence on foreign oil by using more wind, solar and nuclear power. While this is a popular notion, increasing our use of these sources will do extremely little to reduce our oil consumption.

Reason: Oil-fueled power plants generate less than 1% of U.S. electricity. Most of our power is produced from domestic fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in the 12 months ending March 2010, about 45% of our electricity came from coal, 23% from natural gas, 20% from nuclear plants, and 7% from hydroelectric sources.

Renewable sources like wind, solar, biomass and others contributed nearly 4% of our power.

So where does the oil we drill or import go?

Once again, the EIA to the rescue. In March 2010, finished gasoline accounted for 46% of our oil usage. The rest is used in the manufacture of diesel oil, jet fuel, heating fuel, asphalt, plastics, etc., etc.

Which means if we want to reduce our dependence on oil, we need to severely curtail our use of gasoline-powered cars.

Fuel cells, anyone?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Some Chevrolet Volt Owners May Get 240-volt Charging Stations

When the Chevrolet Volt goes on sale later this year as a 2011 model, about 4,400 owners will be eligible for free 240-volt charging stations. The stations will be funded by federal stimulus money through a program administered by the U.S. Department of Energy.

240-volt charging stations recharge the car in about 4 hours. Standard household 120-volt outlets take about twice as long to recharge the Volt.

The Chevrolet Volt can travel 40 miles on electrical power alone. When the electricity runs out, an onboard generator powered by gasoline recharges the batteries and keeps the car running for, as GM says, "hundreds of miles."

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Clean Energy R&D Funds Should Be Tripled in U.S.

When the CEOs of 7 companies like GE and Microsoft talk with one voice, people should listen.

The American Innovation Energy Council, a council of corporate leaders, urged Congress and President Obama to triple funding for clean-energy related R&D from $5 billion to $16 billion per year.

As reported in the Times, GE's CEO Jeff Immelt said, "The world is not going to wait for the United States to lead. This is about innovation; this is about competition; this is about energy security."

We're not leading — that's a given. But not only are we not following, we're looking in the opposite direction.

Or is it that our only hope of being competitive is waiting for Chinese goods to become more expensive?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Solar-Powered Plane "Solar Impulse" Makes Impressive Debut Flight

On April 7, 2010, the 3,500-pound solar powered airplane "Solar Impulse" took off from a Swiss military airport near the town of Payerne and flew for 90 minutes.

In the history of solar powered flight, this is a highly significant achievement.

12,000 solar cells, 880 pounds of lithium batteries and 4 electric motors of 10 hp each got the plane off the ground and kept it aloft at an altitude of nearly a mile. The solar powered plane took off at just 30 mph, reaching an average cruising speed of 44 mph.

Watch a video of the maiden flight:

And if you think the plane looks too skinny and delicate to inspire confidence about its ability to carry passengers and cargo, remember that the Wright brothers' Flyer looked puny too. But it spawned leviathans like the Antonov An-225 and the Airbus A380.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Why Government's Response to Oil Spill Is Different From Other Disasters

When a bridge falls down or a natural disaster strikes, the federal government knows what to do. It has the knowledge and resources to help. It can send food, water, tents, trailers, first aid, sandbags. It can deploy crews to rebuild roads and structures. It can coordinate efforts from private relief agencies.

But when it comes to plugging an oil spill in 5,000 feet of water, the government can't do much. It doesn't have the know-how or technology to fix the problem.

Frustrating as it may be, the solution lies with the oil and oil services companies themselves. They have the knowledge, the experience, the equipment.

If this were, say, a bridge that was slowly buckling for a month, the government would be able to halt the crumbling. It has engineers who could do this in their sleep.

But a specialized field like deep-sea oil drilling? Almost all the engineers with the relevant qualifications are working in industry — not in the government.

Which is as it should be. We can't expect governments to spend time and money developing in-house expertise in every technology. That's the domain of the private sector. This distribution of skills between the public and private sectors leads to efficient allocation of the nation's wealth and resources.

It's only a problem when the private sector misbehaves in a way the government can't remedy. Then all the government can do is criticize, cajole and threaten.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Area Taken Up by Wind Farms

Wind produces little of the U.S.'s power: 70,761 GWh in 2009, or 1.7% of all electricity generation. At the same time, wind farms seem to take up huge amounts of land. So I began wondering, if we were to aim for, say, making 50% of our electricity from wind, how much of our land area would that take up?

RenewableUK, a trade body for the UK wind and marine renewables industries, provides the answer. (There's no reason for me to believe that the UK's space requirements are different from ours.)

According to them,
To obtain 10% of our electricity from the wind would require ... 0.3% to 0.5% of the UK land area.
They go on to say that less than 1% of this area would be used for foundations and access roads and that the other 99% could still be used for farming. By comparison, they say, 1.5% of the UK land area is covered by roads and about 77% is used for agriculture.

Photo: National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Photographic Information Exchange.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Battery-Driven Locomotives

You knew batteries could power cars. Did you know they could also power locomotives?

Batteries can provide up to 2,000 horsepower to a locomotive. What's more, locomotives spend many minutes while dynamic braking, as opposed to cars that brake for only a few seconds at a time. The energy captured from regenerative braking can cut a locomotive's fuel use by 15%, equivalent to 25,000 – 30,000 gallons of diesel per vehicle per year, and eliminate more than 300,000 kg of CO2 emissions, equivalent to that from 2,600 cars. The reduction in NOx emissions is even more significant.

General Electric is currently modeling a sodium metal-chloride battery for use in hybrid locomotives as an alternative to the lithium and metal-hydride batteries used in cars. Key requirements for a locomotive battery are:
  • Higher energy densities
  • Ability to withstand the environment of a long-haul locomotive
  • Tolerance of cell failures in high-voltage strings, where batteries with failed cells continue to operate safely and effectively.
GE has posted a video on its site about the future of battery-powered hybrid locomotives. To see it, click here.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

DOT-EPA Fuel Economy Rules - A Summary

On April 1, 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation and EPA jointly announced new national standards for automotive fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas reductions. Here's a summary.

Vehicles Covered
Passenger cars and light trucks, model years 2012 onward.

New Standard
  • Starting with MY 2012, improve fleet-wide fuel efficiency and lower greenhouse gas emissions about 5% each year.
  • By MY 2016, fleet fuel economy should be 34.1 mpg without credits for air-conditioning improvements, as required by DOT's National Highway Transportation Safety Administration rules.
  • By MY 2016, manufacturers must achieve a combined average vehicle emission level of 250 grams of carbon dioxide per mile.
Potential Costs
Building cars and light trucks that achieve the standard will cost carmakers an extra $52 billion for MY 2012 through 2016.

Potential Savings

  • $3,000 in lower fuel costs for each buyer of a covered vehicle, over that vehicle's life.
  • Nationally, 1.8 billion barrels of oil and nearly 1 billion tons of greenhouse gases over the lives of covered vehicles.
Why the Executive Branch of the Government Loves the New Standard
  • The savings.
  • Realizing one of the Obama Administration's first major directives.
  • Clearer rules for all automakers, instead of three standards (DOT, EPA, and a state standard).
Why the Legislative Branch of the Government Isn't Too Thrilled
Some senators say the rules could hurt the economy, and want to curb EPA action.

Who Else Hates It
The American Petroleum Institute.

Who Else Loves It
Canada. On the same day as the U.S. action, Environment Canada released proposed regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from new vehicles and which would harmonize with those of the U.S. starting with MY 2011.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Earth Hour at 8:30 pm Local Time Today

Earth Hour returns at 8:30 pm (2030 hours) local time today.

Last year, nearly 1 billion people in 4,100 cities in 87 countries on 7 continents celebrated Earth Hour. Landmarks that went dark for an hour included:
  • Empire State Building
  • Brooklyn Bridge
  • Broadway Theater Marquees
  • Las Vegas Strip
  • United Nations Headquarters
  • Golden Gate Bridge
  • Seattle’s Space Needle
  • Church of Latter-Day Saints Temple
  • Gateway Arch in St. Louis
  • Great Pyramids of Giza
  • Acropolis and Parthenon in Athens
  • Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janeiro
  • St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City
  • Big Ben and Houses of Parliament in London
  • Elysee Palace and Eiffel Tower in Paris
  • Beijing’s Birds Nest and Water Cube
  • Symphony of Lights in Hong Kong
  • Sydney’s Opera House
The Earth Hour website has some cool videos. Here's a slideshow of Earth Hour 2009:

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