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

Flowers From a Dung Heap

Hot on the heels of Hercules’ recent victory over Wal-Mart, Mark Morford on the intended greening of “this most voracious and powerful of low-end, trashy retailers.”

Wal-Mart has already committed to selling 100-percent sustainable fish in its food markets. They are already experimenting with green roofs, corn-based plastics and green energy (which is now used to power four Canadian stores, for a total of 39,000 megawatts, amounting to what some estimate is the single biggest purchase of renewable energy in Canadian history). Is this remarkable? Groundbreaking? Utterly confounding? Well, yes and no.

The motive may ultimately be profit rather than a genuine interest in eco-health, and their move to sell organic food may undermine the critical “small and local” ethos, and there may still be a dozen other reasons to avoid shopping at Wal-Mart, but you gotta admit there’s something very wonderful in this, “like flowers from a dung heap, like vodka from old potatoes.”

Music: spot :: ray’s new sunglasses

Carbon Footprint

British Petroleum posts a nifty Flash-based carbon footprint calculator, which lets you describe basic facts about your house and household, driving patterns, recycling habits, showers vs. baths, etc. The process is quick and painless, and ends with an estimation of the number of tonnes of carbon your family deposits into the atmosphere yearly. Our family: A “respectable” 12 tonnes (compare to the national average of 19). Our biggest savings came from the fact that we drive so little, but the calculator definitely illuminated a lot of places where we could do better (want to look into the possibility of buying energy from green providers). And I’m sure that if the quiz took other environmental factors into account (such as diaper consumption), we’d earn a few demerits. Interesting to see which factors can make huge differences — check what a heated pool (which we ain’t got) will do to your carbon footprint!

Music: Steve Coleman And Five Elements :: Changing Of The Guard

Solar Grove

Kyocera installed an array of 25 “solar trees” in their parking lot, letting employees park in their shade. Cars stay cool, and the mini-plant generates enough power yearly to save an estimated 338,905 pounds of carbon dioxide (which would otherwise be spewed into the air by conventional power generation).

Cheap plastic solar is not nearly as efficient as traditional solar, but it destroys the price barrier for small private projects like this.

Music: Tom Waits :: Drunk On The Moon

Solar-Powered Web Hosting

Back in 2003 I had this grand vision to offer solar-powered web hosting. That ended up not happening for a bunch of reasons, but great to see that the idea is taking off. Wired:

The panels are not only good for the environment, they’re also good for business. In addition to saving the companies thousands of dollars a month in electric bills, they’re drawing in customers from all over the world who want to host their websites in a green data center.

Of course, the problem a couple of years ago was that I was trying to think of ways to do it all myself. The answer now, clearly, would be to lease a server in a solar datacenter. But I’m not about to undertake another server move right now. Maybe in a few years…

Thanks Dylan.

72 Terawatts of Raw Wind Power

Wired: If wind turbines were installed at 13% of 8,000 sites monitored by Stanford researchers, we could be sucking 72 terawatts of electricity out of the atmosphere — five times the world’s energy needs, which was roughly 14 terawatts in 2002. Lots of caveats and codas to that of course, but the potential is pretty inspiring.

Music: Shelly Manne :: Tommyhawk

Environmental Heresies

Environmentalist / futurist Stewart Brand, who founded the original Whole Earth Catalog as well as the legendary electronic community The Well, and who is now involved with The Long Now Foundation has written an excellent piece for Technology Review on changes of heart — and needed changes of heart — within the environmental movement.

He starts by separating environmentalists into scientists, who “live to admit their mistakes,” and lay-environmentalists, who are often romantics and have trouble changing course. For example, while much of the environmental movement still clings to old ideas about indefinitely expanding populations being the greatest umbrella threat to the environment, world populations are actually in rapid freefall as rural areas empty out and people move to the city (life in the country encourages lots of children, life in the city discourages same). Most environmentalists have not yet gotten the message that population changes are now actually working in their favor.

He also makes some interesting cases about genetically modified foods. For example, the Amish, who are among the world’s best farmers, have enthusiastically embraced genetically modified crops. And he makes the point that environmental concerns like protecting wild spaces (a goal he embraces) are helpless against invasive species of flora and fauna, which do as much or more harm to the natural balance as man. “I can’t wait for some engineered organism, probably microbial, that will target bad actors like zebra mussels and eat them, or interrupt their reproductive pathway, and then die out.”

And then he gets to the zinger we knew was coming, re: climate change:

So everything must be done to increase energy efficiency and decarbonize energy production. Kyoto accords, radical conservation in energy transmission and use, wind energy, solar energy, passive solar, hydroelectric energy, biomass, the whole gamut. But add them all up and it’s still only a fraction of enough. Massive carbon “sequestration� (extraction) from the atmosphere, perhaps via biotech, is a widely held hope, but it’s just a hope. The only technology ready to fill the gap and stop the carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear power.

I do disagree with Brand on this: “Gas-electric hybrid vehicles are now on the road, performing public good.” Hybrid vehicles may be less bad than gas-only cars, but “performing public good?” No matter how efficient, cars still take up way too much space in comparison to the number of passengers they typically transport, lead to congestion and the relentless paving over of the planet, and discourage bicycle and public transport. Hybrids are good, but they don’t “fix” the problem of cars in the larger picture.

There are other things to quibble with in Brand’s essay, but it seems clear that the environmental movement is entering a period of deep reflection. To achieve its goals, it will have to honestly question its positions on the very pillars of its philosophy. To save the planet, environmentalists have to be intellectually honest and begin debate on many of their fundamental planks. And that debate has barely started.

Related links at Metafilter.

Music: Joni Mitchell :: The Boho Dance