Archive for the ‘energy’ category

For A Good Time On The ‘Tubes Boing Boing Edition/Self Aggrandizement Alert

September 19, 2012

Late in getting this note up, but at 5 p.m. EDT this afternoon — less than an hour from now — I’ll be talking with Maggie Koerth-Baker on my monthly gig at Virtually Speaking Science.  That link takes you to the audio stream (and later the podcast, also available on iTunes) and this one will bring you to the spot in Second Life where you can heckle us in the “live”(ish) studio audience.

Maggie, as many of you may know, is the science editor at Boing Boing, and hence the ringleader and major producer of much that is wonderful in web-based science news, analysis and the odd oddity as well. She’s also just started a gig as a monthly technology-and-its-culture columnist for the New York Times Magazine. Her first column picked up on a subject near and dear to this blog’s community — what makes it possible for facts to matter in a political conversation.

We’ll spend part of the hour talking about her next column, on the concept of technological momentum, or why some seemingly great ideas do or don’t make it in the real world.  We may also get to some of the issues in science writing on the web raised by some of the troubling events of the last few months — think Jonah Lehrer, for one example, and the hype that overwhelmed much of the real science in the ENCODE story for another.  But the major topic will be energy, drawing on Maggie’s  wonderful book from earlier this year, Before the Lights Go Out — which is simply the sanest popular work on energy and paths to a non-disastrous future that  I’ve seen in many months of Sundays.

I’ll leave it there to give this post a chance to catch eyeballs before we go live.  Stop by if you’ve inclination and a moment.

Image:  Vincent van Gogh, Vegetable gardens and the Moulin de Blute-Fin on Montmartre, 1887.

Because, Because…Soshalism, That’s Why!

June 26, 2011

Not much blogging to come (will anyone be able to tell the difference?–ed.) this week, as I’m writing this from Doha, Qatar, where the biennial World Conference of Science Journalists is about to begin.

But as my body adjusts to the eight hour time difference, I chanced across this piece in The New York Times, which captures in the story of one small household appliance why American Exceptionalism may kill us all yet:

One high-definition DVR and one high-definition cable box use an average of 446 kilowatt hours a year, about 10 percent more than a 21-cubic-foot energy-efficient refrigerator, a recent study found.

These set-top boxes are energy hogs mostly because their drives, tuners and other components are generally running full tilt, or nearly so, 24 hours a day, even when not in active use. The recent study, by the Natural Resources Defense Council, concluded that the boxes consumed $3 billion in electricity per year in the United States — and that 66 percent of that power is wasted when no one is watching and shows are not being recorded. That is more power than the state of Maryland uses over 12 months.

That set-up:  the HD box and recorder, can add ten bucks or more per month to a household electricity bill, but the drain isn’t obvious, because the damn things are always on.

__

It was said of Pythagoras that he was the only man who could hear the music of the spheres; the rest of us were so accustomed to it, having been cradled in such harmony from womb to grave…and so it is with that 60 cycle hum, or its metaphoric equivalent.  We can’t monitor that whose absence we’ve never known.

What’s truly galling, though, is that there is no technical reason either to spend that money, or to burn the fuel — much of it coal — to make the power required:

The perpetually “powered on” state is largely a function of design and programming choices made by electronics companies and cable and Internet providers, which are related to the way cable networks function in the United States. Fixes exist, but they are not currently being mandated or deployed in the United States, critics say.

Not our fault, says Big Cable:

“The issue of having more efficient equipment is of interest to us,” said Justin Venech, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable. But, he added, “when we purchase the equipment, functionality and cost are the primary considerations.”

Which is to say the old brush off.  You know, “You’ve got a problem, which means I’ve got a problem. You.”*

Except, you know, reality:

But energy efficiency experts say that technical fixes could eliminate or minimize the waiting time and inconvenience, some at little expense. Low-energy European systems reboot from deep sleep in one to two minutes.

Alan Meier, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said of the industry in the United States, “I don’t want to use the word ‘lazy,’ but they have had different priorities, and saving energy is not one of them.”

It’s hard to deny that charge, given this:

But as of Sept. 1, typical electricity consumption of Energy Star qualified products would drop to 97 kilowatt hours a year from an average of 138; and then by the middle of 2013, they must drop again to 29 kilowatt hours a year. Companies have fought the placement of the “Energy Star” seal on products and the new ambitious requirements, which may still be modified before enacted.

Mr. Wilson recalled that when he was on the California Energy Commission, he asked box makers why the hard drives were on all the time, using so much power. The answer: “Nobody asked us to use less.”

But of course, it isn’t just bad software and slothful, oligolopolist greedoid big Cable that’s to blame.  There is a pattern of trading energy efficiency — conservation — for other pleasures.  The internal combustion engine of 2011 is a vastly more efficient machine that that of the 1973 oil crisis — but the power numbers for just about every car have shot up relative to comparable categories of automobile from thirty and forty years ago, wiping out much of the efficiency gain.

Here, we like having zero time-lag when we wish to couch-potato.   While we enjoy the latest episode of whatever, we are heading for real trouble with our energy sector.  Global climate change is some ways — well, not the least of it — but the effect that we’ll notice second or third, well after we’re wondering why it costs so much to live like an American.

There is a response, of course.  We could try real conservation — actually building energy efficient structures and tools and transportation systems, which, if implemented — with tech that exists right now — would represent a meaningful step towards an energy demand that an alternative energy mix (that would for decades + still include stuff we burn) could plausibly meet.  It would indeed mean changes in habits and cultural practices — and those are very hard to achieve, I know.  But consider the alternative.

If we don’t, then when the rest of the world — and our kids — ask us what the hell  happened, we’ll have to tell them we were too anxious to start watching Survivor to stop and think.

*H/t science writer Jon Cohen, for reminding me of that old gem.

Image:  Jan Breughel the Elder, Landscape with Windmills, 1607

DFH’s Say No Blood For Oil

March 10, 2011

That would be DFH’s like Assistant Secretary of Defense Sharon Burke.

Just to take a break from Wisconsin perfidy, consider Burke, whose brief is “operational energy plans and programs,” making the connection between death and dinosaur wine in a speech at Harvard last week:

Though the official price of a gallon of fuel within the military is set at $3.03, Burke said that the actual cost of fuel delivered, depending on the difficulty transporting it and protection needs, can be as high as $50 a gallon.

Burke told a story of tent usage in Iraq. One large tent used as a gymnasium required six generators to power the air conditioning, and even then the temperature was only lowered to 90 degrees. The problem, of course, was that a tent isn’t insulated well, so much of the cooling was lost to the desert.

“People were dying so we can vent our air conditioning to the desert,” Burke said.

Some key factoids from Burke’s speech:

The average U.S. soldier on a 72-hour patrol carries between 10 and 20 pounds of batteries.

There are seven kinds of batteries that power flashlights, GPS devices, night-vision gear, and other equipment considered essential for the modern soldier. Including spares, a soldier lugs 70 batteries, along with the devices themselves, weapons, food, water, and other necessities.

“We’re seeing pack weights of 130 pounds these days,” said Sharon Burke, assistant secretary of defense for operational energy plans and programs. “You can’t carry 130 pounds without turning up with injuries.”

The idea that our soldiers can’t fight (or can’t fight as easily and with as much stamina as they need) because of all the tools they must needs carry is a very scary one indeed — but that’s a topic for another day.  In the meantime, back to that blood for oil problem:

The soldiers’ battery burden is just the tip of the military’s energy problem, Burke said. Heavily armored vehicles get just 4 miles per gallon. Air conditioners, computers, and other equipment at forward operating bases are powered by inefficient generators, at an enormous cost in fuel, requiring constant resupply. Delivering the fuel to where it is needed requires soldiers to protect the ferrying convoys, and costs both money and lives.

Hence Burke’s job: to find and support efforts like this one:

In Afghanistan, a company of soldiers is testing energy-saving technology in a frontline situation, relying on solar panels on tents, solar-powered lights, and stand-alone solar panels to recharge batteries — together cutting the company’s generator fuel consumption from 20 to 2.5 gallons a day. That drop means fewer fuel convoys which, in that part of Afghanistan, are almost certain to be attacked.

This, of course, runs directly counter to what Real Americans know about energy.  Part of the GOP conspiracy to accelerate the decline and fall of the United States includes a state-by-state level assault on alternatives to fossil fuels.

Against such purity of purpose, what is one to make of the reckless liberalism of that well-known hotbed of hippie fervor, the Pentagon’s inner rings?  Well — our Galtian overlords know what dangers lurk in the heart of reality’s liberal bias:

The Senate confirmed Burke to the job in June, after she came under initial fire from Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe (R) for her apparent support of a 2007 law that bars federal agencies from buying alternative fuels that have higher greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels (ClimateWire, March 25).

Props to the Obama administration and to the DOD for taking action here…and, as always….

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

Image:  Jacopo Tintoretto, Young man in a gold-decorated suit of armour, 1555-1556.

Tasty Blog Bits/What Good Young Journalists Can Do In The Right Kind of MSM

July 21, 2010

I’ve long been a fan of the High Country News, not least because they’ve given good work to some of the wonderful students at the best science writing program in the country (I’m supposed to say that, which doesn’t make it untrue).

But these lines from a post reminded me of what makes HCN such bright spot in my MSM reading these days

If natural gas was going to try and pick me up at a bar, the encounter would likely go like this:

Gas: “I’m low-carbon, cute, and widely available.”

Me: “You’re not that cute.”

That’s from a post by HCN Social Network Editor Stephanie Page Ogburn on the marvelously named The Goat Blog, and it is just a treat of journalistic writing in the context of old+new media.

Smart, funny, instantly engaging and all that you need to read on to get a nuanced reaction, backed up by actual real data, to the prospect of natural gas as a bridge fuel from the high to low carbon emission energy system I devoutly hope my son will see.

It can be done; journalism is not dead — and the seeds of its next incarnation can be found, often, far, far from the Bos-Wash corridor.

Image:  Filippo Palazzi, “Hay Car Attacked by Goats,” 1857

Live Blogging President Obama’s Energy Address At MIT

October 23, 2009

Star studded crowd.  Gov. Patrick, Sen. Kerry, and local congressman Mike Capuano are here.

12:45:  Obama takes the podium.  Wild applause.  This is Obama country.

First words:  Thank you MIT!

In joke:  “I’ll be here a while.  I understand a bunch of engineering students have put my motorcade on top of Building Ten.

Reference image:

12:49:  Politician shout outs are now over.  Now the president is touting all the lovely things being done at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).  Makes the link to the notion of Americans as innovators willing to take risks on projects that might fail — and on the US as a place willing to support such efforts.

References Lincoln’s move during the Civil War to establish Land Grant Colleges; Roosevelt’s signing of the GI bill; after Sputnik, US invests in space technology….

So, the claim is being made that we have always been about innovation; that ambition is “in our DNA” — a phrase I understand and loathe.

But now — the economic challenges are huge.  “Economy in which we all share opportunity is one in which we all share crisis.” Said in context of globalized economy.

Says:  Energy that powers our economy also undreminse our security and threatens our planet”

12:53  Nation that gets to clean energy wins the next economic revolution “I want America to be that nation.”  (applause)

That’s why, he says, the stimulus act has more clean energy funding than ever appropriated before…summarizes what the 89 billion bucks in the stimulus packae will go to fund.

Talks about a Massachusetts project — a test facility for wind turbine blades.  It is notable that Obama so readily digs at least one layer down into the technical details; its a rhetorically powerful way to claim not just support for a good cause, but the real value of that cause, the notion that we are spending cash on things that matter.  Smart guy, I’ve heard.

Many props to Governor Patrick — local Mass politics are a subtext here.

12:59:  Pivot to the comprehensive legislation we need and discussing the implications of Kerry’s climate change bill.  Mentions cleaner fossil fuels; biofuels, nuclear, wind, waves and sun.

Saying that there is a long, planned, intelligible path from an economy powered by fossil fuel dependence/carbon pollution threats to one that is sustainable; not making the claim that we can get there in one swoop.

Talks about DOD and business leaders and others coming round to the notion that global warming and dependence on fossil fuels is a national security and economic threat…making the case for the necessity, not merely the desirability of action.

Again, it’s an interesting strategy rhetorically; it seems to me that he is working hard to box in opponents to a smaller and less defensible position.  I hope it works.

He says explicitly that the opponents are being marginalized — but that they will fight harder as we get closer to a bill.

“They will say that we are destroying our eocnomy…when it is”what we got now that’s threatening it.

“We’re going to have to work on those folks.  But there is a more dangerous myth — because we are all complicit in it.”

That there is nothing we can do “it’s pessimism” …that politics are broken etc…

1:01:  That implies we can’t solve problems any more, says POTUS, and he knows that can’t be true….we’ve seen it at MIT and elsewhere…we’ve done it before (electricity) etc.

Writing teacher here.  This is an ugly phrase:  of innovators “they will lead us in the future as they have done so in the past.”

Can’t quite get my head around that one.

Ends with a pep paragraph…we can do this…we’re Americans, and we’re damn good at this kind of thing.

Last thoughts from your blogger:

He’s a good speaker, which we knew.  He’s smart as hell, which we also knew.  He’s a political process man.  This had no new initiatives or proposals in it, nor even a central, strong outline of how the specific actions discussed add up to the path to a sustainable energy future some decades out.

Rather, this speech seemed more or less to lay down a marker:  we’ve got some things going…we need now to pass the next piece of legislation — Kerry’s cap and trade plus other stuff bill is the one the President specifically referenced, along with the House bill already passed.

The praise for the various specific projects and research initiatives were designed to answer critics who say that we can’t escape fossil fuel use Most of the speech by running time was devoted to various general and specific paeans to the capacity of Americans to get this part of the job done.

Given that everybody, and especially me, are critics, here’s what I thought the speeh missed most:  I wanted to hear in this context a real and dire description of what failure here would mean, not just for the environment, but for the economy and safety of US citizens en masse and individually.

That is — I think it’s pretty well established that projecting the dire consquences of a 4 degree warming is still a hard thing to grasp (though this map is a good place to start).  But if you talk about the cost of wars, or even merely of the budget  year over year for Centcom…if you talk about clean energy jobs lost to other nations even now (see e.g. this story on the Chinese vs. American economic edge in solar energy products.)…if you talk about the lives lost here at home through the pollution being caused now by our current energy use pattern (18,o00 a year according to this report, about the same number as homicides for the last year I could pull the data quickly.  (See this CDC fact sheet and click through to the PDF  listed as the source for the summary numbers.)…if you go after the harm we suffer now through our dependence on our current energy mix, then the urgency for change and the willingness to assume risk in the service of that change will go up.

To be fair:  he did very clearly make the case that powerful interests in this area, like DOD, understand the implications of inaction and now favor significant energy policy change.  But he didn’t bring the reasons why home and down to the you and me level as sharply as I would have liked.

President Obama has the best pulpit in the world to preach this.  He has the right temperament too, by which I mean not his famous cool, but his genuine optimism, his sense that no problem is too hard for us to tackle.  That side of him was on display in full measure today, and I liked it.  But I think he needs to light more of a fire under us (sorry) on the other side, to remind us the most dangerous option we have right now is to stand pat.

And that’s my $.02

Stimulate This: Build the Grid First

November 24, 2008

As everyone in range of youtube now knows, President Elect Obama* is committed to spending what it takes to revive the American economy.  A very welcome development, after months of spending what it takes to transfer risk from the rich to the rest of us.  But still, such ambition does beg a question:  stimulate what?

My basic approach to this question is the obvious one:  pouring money into an economy works to stimulate activity, but it works best if you spend the money on things that have the capacity to evoke more economic activity in their turn.

That is — while there is a new new deal urgency to provide relief to those suffering the worst in this economic downturn (i.e., the jobless and the foreclosed), there is a ceiling to the broader economic impact that such relief can provide.  Take a look at this excellent post by Eric over at The Edge of the American West in which a fisking of John Maynard Keynes’ letter to Roosevelt in 1938 underscores what was understood  then (and still holds true) about the limits of relief as anti-recession policy.  (See also this for an analysis that extends into the role of WW II spending on recovery.)

So if you really want to promote long term economic growth from within a depression/recession, you have to buy some tickets in the game.**  Or, to put it more formally, you have to use the power of government spending to build capital that will in turn prove to be economically useful over a much longer time-frame than the immediate quarter or even year in which the Treasury prints the necessary cash (debt) to round out all those zeroes being talked about in Washington right now.

From where I sit (staring out over the MIT campus), that means spending on projects rich in science and technology — or at least ones that foster the uses of what science and technology produce: ideas and physical things that contribute to human well-being.

So what I’d like to do here is to begin a discussion, if possible, of what we should do with the stimulus process that could be informed by what science and engineering approaches suggest are the best long term investments in the country’s economy.

A couple of suggestions to get us going, then:

For one, there is just a broad based investment in the American research establishment.  It makes little sense to try and pick winners in the next great idea competition; the trick is to fund as many of the best people as you can find and let them come up with ideas that enhance human well-being (and thus produce a lot of economic activity in their wake).

That’s the thinking behind this post (and this follow-up) in which I made a pitch for a major investment in human capital:  paying for the education and early research careers of a much larger pool of young scientists and engineers than we now support.

It’s a good idea in just about any economic climate, and would have some stimulus effect — but in all honesty it falls between the relief and stimulus poles of any future plan.  The need to support young scientists is becoming acute as universities both public and private confront the joys of endowments and state/federal budgets that are under the pressures we all know.  Also, though we will see economic and cultural benefits from the discoveries to be thus enabled, the time frame is a little loose.

For a more concrete idea, try this:  early action on one thing the Obama team has already said it wants:  a new “smart” power grid.

The new grid is a prime example of the sort of stimulus I think we need because, first, it will pay for itself over a reasonable amortization period, given the potential improvement over current losses in the power distribution system.

But more than that, the new grid is crucial because it enables much else that we want to do for economic, environmental, and national security reasons.  We need a dramatically enhanced power transmission system to handle the particular demands on the transport of electricity from the proposed increase in renewable generating capacity in the wind/solar belts of the largely underpopulated middle and southwestern desert portions of the country.

Those places are a long way away from most of the major population centers that will use the power thus generated, which means we need as efficient a grid as possible.  But the issue is more pressing than that.  An industry study [link to PDF] suggests that wind/solar power being less controllable and more irregular than conventional plants, puts unusual demands on a grid.  The one we have now won’t hack it, and it will prove to be a significant design and construction plan to get one in place that can.  See this NYTimes piece for a first cut through the reasons why.

All of which means that funding now for a new grid meets two goals:  immediate classical Keynsian stimulus, with jobs created right here right now, and long term capital investment of the sort that only government can undertake. Think of this as 21st century analogue to the construction of the interstate highway system, without many of the ecological side effects.  A win-win in other words.

(FWIW, as a more direct heir to the road building of both the thirties and the fifties,  I’d love to see an investment in high speed passenger rail that would eliminate the need for air travel on any journey of less than 300 or so miles around the major hubs — the same basic arguments apply, but because the benefits are felt most immediately in regions rather than nationwide, a harder sell).

So over to you, dear readers:  what else should our better part of trillion bucks of new government capital spending buy?

*I still love writing tht.

**The reference is to this old joke.

***Faraday is here both for his contributions (enormous) to the creation of the electric economy and for his yet to be topped line on the reason to support scientific research.  Asked by Prime Minister William Gladstone of what use was electricity, he replied, “Why, sir, there is every possibility that you will soon be able to tax it!”

Image:  Alexander Blaikle, “Michael Faraday*** delivering a Christmas Lecture at the Royal Institution,” c. 1856.

Program Notes: Technology Review/Former Student Props edition

October 26, 2008

A little suggested reading, combined with some love for recent graduates of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing — the little corner of the Institute which it is now my honor to direct.

First up, the cover story in the current Technology Review, “Sun + Water = Fuel” by Kevin Bullis, who completedthe grad program in 2005.  It tells the story of a discovery by MIT chemist Daniel Nocera, who has found a catalyst that may (note the conditional) make it possible to separate oxygen out of water at a cost that would make that energy source competitive or better with fossil fuels.

I had thought to blog this finding when the press release hit my inbox, but now I don’t have to.  Kevin has done an excellent bit of reporting, explains what’s going on clearly, and writes it up with, I think, the correct balance of optimism and the always needed skepticism in the face of technological predictions.  (See the comment thread on this article for an illustration of the line Kevin tried to walk.)   He’s a writer to watch — graceful and stylish, with a true love of tech.

Then there’s this story, “The Flaw at the Heart of the Internet.”  Erica Naone is another one of our stars.  She graduated from our program in 2007.  This story is chilling in its account of the near miss in which Dan Kaminsky identified a significant vulnerability in the way the web matches more or less plain  language names, the DNS monikers like “inversesquare.wordpress.com” with the numerical addresses by which the internet itself identiies for the locations thus named.  That flaw would allow attackers to hijack DNS information and replace the intended material with content of the marauder’s own.

While Black Hat 2008 awarded Kaminsky its Pwnie Award for “Most Overhyped Bug,” Erica’s piece gives you a very good argument why (a) you should have been at least retrospectively, very, very afraid; and (b) more generally, to remember the eternal truth most vividly expressed in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, that the internet is not a benign playground.  There be dragons out there.*

On that note — a third article in the current Tech Review that is a true must read comes from my old friend and long-time MIT guy Simson Garfinkel. (If there were anyone with beaver-blood running in his veins, its Simson, a four (or more, I can’t keep up) Institute degree holder who is as far as I can tell, perfectly adapted to MIT’s unique intellectual island ecosystem.)

The piece, “Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth,” Simson has written what seems to me to be a very important article that emphasizes the Wikipedia’s appeal to authority as its ultimate standard of what merits inclusion in what is rapidly becoming the default web-based repository of recognized knowledge.  A must read, IMHO.

(And I have one anecdote about the pitfalls of the imputation of authority of printed sources.  I wrote an article not that long ago for a national publication not to be named here.  The fact checker called me up to confirm some detail.  I said, basically, that it had come out of my own research.  She demanded a published source.  I asked if my own book would do.  She said yes.  Sic.)

*The other pleasure of Erica’s article for me was that I finally got a semi-definitive (at least Wikipedia-worthy) pronounciation for the web-slang term “pwn” — which apparently rhymes with “own.”  I had previously suggested at least partly tongue-in-cheek that it might derive from the Welsh use of the “w” as a vowel. The Welsh “cwm” pronounced “koom” exists as a loanword in English (and has also be transcribed as Comb or Coombe). Given that earlier this year I offered the suggestion/question whether or not pwn should be pronounced “poon,” following the Welsh example, and evoking Neal Stephenson’s use of the word in Snow Crash to describe what his character Y.T. does when she uses her magnetic harpoon to attach to the vehicles that can pull her along on her Kourier rounds.  Sadly, inventive as that may have been, it appears that my attempt at etymology is not just wrong, but terribly, terribly so.

Image:  J.M.W. Turner, “Sunrise With Sea Monsters,” 1845.