A Nation-Sized Battery

If you want to power your home entirely on renewables, the general recommendation is to include enough battery storage to keep things running for 3-4 days without any input (no sun, no wind). This fascinating blog post looks at a hypothetical scenario where we wanted to scale this pattern up to supply the entire United States with enough battery to back up a 100% renewable grid.

He does the math, and comes up with a battery size of approximately one cubic mile. Size is not a problem (it would be distributed), but the cost would be around $25 trillion – more than the annual U.S. GDP. And we know of no source in the world capable of supplying enough lead (he uses lead batteries in the though experiment because they’re 85% efficient and are the cheapest form of battery). So there’s some problem solving to do there, and there are problems with the hypothetical – for example the whole nation would never experience a lack of sun or wind for four days, and we could share extra juice around on a well-distributed grid, eliminating the need for this much battery storage. Or we could come to a fantastic battery breakthrough that changes everything. Or … Good read.

A Nation-Sized Battery

Fireside chat: Tim O’Reilly with Jason Calacanis

Loose notes from SXSW 2011 session: Fireside chat with Tim O’Reilly with Jason Calacanis

Jason Calacanis, Founder, Mahalo.com
Tim O’Reilly, Founder/CEO, O’Reilly Media Inc

Wonderful way to open a week of stimulating sessions that challenge preconceived notions of technology, politics, and journalism in unexpected ways. O’Reilly was an intellectual silver bullet, as always, but really nice to catch him in an unscripted conversation rather than in one of his more “formal” talks.
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Waste Stats

Some really amazing figures on solid waste, via the Clean Air Council, including:

Only about one-tenth of all solid garbage in the United States gets recycled.

In the U.S., 4.39 pounds of trash per day and up to 56 tons of trash per year are created by the average person. [Since this is garbage night and this stat got me curious, I actually weighed our garbage tonight before taking it to the curb – a total of 2.5 lbs for a family of 3 – the rest was recycled or composted.]

Diapers: An average child will use between 8,000 -10,000 disposable diapers ($2,000 worth) before being potty trained. Each year, parents and babysitters dispose of about 18 billion of these items. In the United States alone these single-use items consume nearly 100,000 tons of plastic and 800,000 tons of tree pulp. We will pay an average of $350 million annually to deal with their disposal and, to top it off, these diapers will still be in the landfill 300 years from now. Americans throw away 570 diapers per second. That’s 49 million diapers per day.

Throwing away one aluminum can wastes as much energy as if that can were 1/2 full of gasoline.

Americans receive almost 4 million tons of junk mail every year. Most of it winds up in landfills.

As of 1992, 14 billion pounds of trash were dumped into ocean annually around the world.

Forty-three thousand tons of food is thrown out in the United States each day.

Each American exerts three times as much pressure on the natural environment as the global average.

People who change their own oil improperly dump the equivalent of 16 Exxon Valdez spills into the nation’s sewers and landfills every year.

… more at the site.

The Groaning Power Grid

Amid the din of conversations about how South Dakota alone gets enough wind to power a quarter of the country, or the huge efficiency gains of nuclear power, or how harnessing the movement of the tides could provide 20% of Britain’s energy needs, one important fact gets lost: The power grid in the U.S. has barely been upgraded in 20 years, and is nowhere near ready to move vast amounts of power across long distances. As energy demand rises and we start to look at large centralized installations (wind, hydro, nuclear, other), we overlook a politically inconvenient truth – without vast investments in the power grid itself, all that new energy isn’t going anywhere. The grid is already full-to-bursting, and moving lots of energy across long distances is a giant headache.

When the builders of the Maple Ridge Wind farm spent $320 million to put nearly 200 wind turbines in upstate New York, the idea was to get paid for producing electricity. But at times, regional electric lines have been so congested that Maple Ridge has been forced to shut down even with a brisk wind blowing.

“We need an interstate transmission superhighway system,” said Suedeen G. Kelly, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Music: Rail Band :: Balakononifing

ServInt Goes Climate-Positive

Worldopener-Small Several years ago, when Birdhouse Hosting was young, I was researching the market to find a reliable datacenter that was entirely powered by renewable energy sources. I did find a few, but none working at the scale I was looking for (some didn’t have 24×7 monitoring and support; others did, but didn’t provide cPanel licenses). I ended up going with ServInt, and have been extremely happy with their reliability and support.

Today got some exciting news: ServInt has just announced that their whole VPS operation has gone not just carbon-neutral, but climate positive:

ServInt’s commitment to climate-positive hosting applies to its entire line of Virtual Private Server (VPS) hosting services. Each of ServInt’s VPS services is backed by a commitment to offset the total carbon-footprint of the VPS by at least 110 percent. ServInt accomplishes its carbon-offsetting goals through large-scale reforestation campaigns operated by American Forests (www.americanforests.org).

To ensure a truly climate-positive approach, ServInt calculates its reforestation commitment not only on the energy consumption of the host servers, but on its entire VPS infrastructure. That includes compensating for all core routing and switching equipment, for cooling and redundant power operations, and for an extensive back-LAN that provides customers with free backups and centralized update repositories.

Music: Elbow :: One Day Like This

Integrated Manure Utilization Systems

The idea behind the Discovery show Invention Nation is good: Send three hipster dudes around the country in a bio-diesel bus, looking for interesting technological environmental solutions. Unfortunately, the show is poorly produced and executed, but the ideas in it are interesting enough that it’s kept me watching.

Cool to see a piece recently on Integrated Manure Utilization Systems (IMUS). There’s a butt-load (sorry) of usable methane gas locked in the manure that gets discarded by the ton at dairies and stock yards around the world. An IMUS system involves strategically placed floor grates in cattle yards, into which manure can be pushed. From there, it’s chopped, mixed with water, and placed in large holding tanks. Bacteria go to work on the sludge and methane rises to the top, where it’s burned (cleanly) to create electricity.

How effective is the process? The dairy farm visited by the Invention Nation guys had 250 cattle, and was able to generate enough electricity not only to power itself, but 150 average-sized households as well. And the equipment investment pays off in 5-7 years.

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association says the range of benefits from IMUS include:

  • Reduced manure handling costs
  • Protection of water resources
  • Odour reduction
  • Recycling of waste water
  • Reduced energy costs
  • Value-added revenue from the sale of energy and bio-based fertilizer
  • Strengthening agriculture’s reputation of environmentally sustainable resource management

Imagine if every dairy and cattle yard installed their own IMUS – the enviro benefits would be immense.

Music: Son House :: Empire State Express

Turbine Turbulence: How to Fix U.S. Wind Power

Why is U.S. wind power output two million times below its potential, accounting for just one half of one percent of our annual consumption? (For point of comparison, Denmark currently gets 20% of its electricity from wind). Popular Mechanics sums up some of the challenges and potential solutions.

– Inconsistency. If the wind is blowing at night, and the grid is too full to soak up the excess energy while the town sleeps, a lot of energy goes to waste. And there’s no quick fix for a windless day. Batteries are the answer of course, but batteries make more sense for individual homes than they do for entire cities.

– The biggest wind farms are deep in rural areas such as North Dakota and Kansas, but it takes big pipes to bring the electricity they generate back to city grids. At a cost of $1 million/mile, no one wants to foot the bill. But all power sources need feeds to home-base, so wind energy should be taken into account along with other power sources when planning grids.

– Though an estimated terrawatt exists up to 50 miles off-shore, deep-sea turbines present their own set of problems – oil rig style platforms have to be enhanced to withstand the horizontal shear of blades as big as football fields, and floating them around is more complex than it sounds.

More info.

Music: Mercury Rev :: Hudson Lines

Un-Charge Your Charger

Reach under your desk and touch your cell phone charger’s wall wart. Is it warm? That warmth correlates to wasted electricity. Treehugger: 95% of all energy consumed by cell phones is used by the charger when the phone is not plugged in. Some interesting follow-ups in the discussions there — two readers extrapolate the rather small amount of waste to the entire population of Canada (32 million) and come up with 32.3 million kilowatt hours, or 196,977.08 barrels of oil per year. And that’s just cell phone chargers. In Canada. Extrapolate to the whole world, and to all devices with wall chargers, and the numbers get scary.

Other articles I’ve seen on this say the figure is closer to 2/3 of cell phone electricity, rather than 95%. But:

If 10 percent of the world’s cell phone owners did this … it would reduce energy consumption by an amount equivalent to that used by 60,000 European homes per year.

Nokia’s new phones will be visually suggesting that users unplug their chargers when not in use. Nice move on Nokia’s part, but makes you wonder why chargers aren’t made with sensors and switches, capable of turning themselves off when not in use. Apparently there is no technical barrier to building chargers this way – the absence of such switches now is purely economic.

I’m thinking of creating a home charging station, so all of our gizmos’ chargers can be plugged in to a single power strip with an on/off switch.

Music: Mission of Burma :: The Mute Speaks Out

Spin Time

Catching up on some of the SXSW talks I missed via podcast, and happened on Alex Steffen’s Worldchanging conversation. Lots of good stuff, but was struck by one tidbit in particular. But before I reveal that, pop quiz:

If you own a power drill, how many total minutes would you estimate it’s been spinning since you bought it? Think hard. Be honest.

How much spin time is on your drill?

View Results

According to Worldchanging (who admittedly provide no backup for their data), the average power drill “is used for somewhere between six and twenty minutes in its entire lifetime.”

And yet supposedly almost half of all American households own one. If you think of all the energy and materials it takes to make, store and then dispose of those drills — all the plastic and metal parts; all the trucks used to ship them and stores built to sell them; all the landfills they wind up in — the ecological cost of each minute of drilling can be seen to be absurdly large, and thus each hole we put in the wall comes with a chunk of planetary destruction already attached.

But what we want is the hole, not the drill. That is, most of us, most of the time, would be perfectly happy not owning the drill itself if we had the ability to make that hole in the wall in a reasonably convenient manner when the need arose. What if we could substitute, in other words, a hole-drilling service for owning a drill?

We can. Already there are tool libraries, tool-sharing services, and companies that will rent you a drill when you want one. Other models are possible as well, and such product-service systems are not limited to hand tools.

It’s a significant point. Which unfortunately ignores the fact that there’s an ecological footprint involved in driving to the tool-lending library when that rare picture-hanging time arrives. But still – if you step back and look at how much you own that you seldom use, multiplied by n zillion people, the impact is staggering. How do we change our own minds, our own ways of living? How much convenience are you willing to sacrifice for ecological gains?

Music: Akron/Family :: The Lightning Bolt of Compassion

Play Pump

Historically, villagers in water-starved areas have worked hard to manually pump contaminated water up from shallow water tables for drinking – water they then have to carry in buckets back to their homes. People spending their time as beasts of burden.

Inventor Trevor Field is bringing clean, fresh drinking water from deep underground to villagers across Africa with the Play Pump, which harnesses the limitless energy of kids. In place of the traditional hand-cranked pump, Field’s team installs a merry-go-round connected to a deep well pump on school playgrounds. The kids, who often have virtually no access to playground equipment, love it.

The Play Pump can be installed in a few hours for just $7,000, and can bring drinking water to more than 2,500 people — water that’s cleaner than what came from the hand pumps it replaces, since it comes from deeper underground.

Field then sells ad space on the pump’s reservoir to finance pump maintenance — and reserves one ad panel for AIDS awareness campaigns: “We’ve got to get the message through to them before they become sexually active,” he says. “It seems to be working.”

According to comments on the Frontline story, other companies are using similar solutions to generate electricity.

Music: Robert Wyatt :: Tubab