Tag Archives: energy

This is What the Future Looks Like

People frequently ask me what I think the future looks like.  Rarely do I provide a coherent answer because what I think will happen is constantly changing based on the conditions of the day.  There do exist some constants, however, and solar power is one of those constants.

Why?  For one, it is easy.  Once the panels are installed your array will just sit on your roof producing electricity regardless of what you do.  When you go to work the panels produce electricity.  When you go on vacation the panels produce electricity.  It is the ultimate in “set it and forget it” environmentally beneficial behaviors.

Second, you can see the impact at a household level.  If my utility purchased electricity produced by wind turbines I have no real concept of what that means to me.  Was 15% of my electricity produced by the wind?  More?  Less?  However, with solar panels installed you get a very local idea of how much energy you have produced versus how much you have consumed.  Witness this portion of my latest utility bill:

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Notice the lack of green bars from April through August?  That signifies my solar array produced all or more of the electricity that I consumed during that period.  Sometimes my math and the utility company’s math will not align because billing periods do not align with calendar months but the general outlines agree.

Now, imagine approximately 60% more solar photovoltaic capacity being added to this chart.  The contract has been signed, the check has been sent, the plans have been approved, and the panels are waiting in a local warehouse for my system expansion.  I am just waiting to hear when the installers are scheduled to make it happen.

This is what the future looks like.

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What Impact Does a Single Aluminum Can Make?

About once a week, sometimes more, I pick up a discarded aluminum can on the side of the road in the last few miles of my usual thirty mile out and back.  Cyclists are not the source of these cans, I believe, since most of them are on a stretch of road well-travelled by garbage trucks, work vehicles, and jackasses who litter.

Aluminum, as we all learned in elementary school when Earth Day was new and shiny, is easily recyclable.  The problem is that less than half of the estimated 100 billion aluminum cans per year are recycled.  Now, a 50% recovery rate is pretty good compared to plastic or paper but considering the ecological impact of turning bauxite into aluminum it is unacceptable.

It takes a lot of raw bauxite ore and energy to make aluminum.  Recycling the aluminum flips that equation on its head.  The old saw that we learned as kids was that the energy saved from recycling one can could save enough energy to run your television for three hours.  When you are concerned about the environment and love watching Thundercats on Saturday morning this is a big deal.  Now?  Not so much.  Here’s the deal.  It takes twenty times the energy to produce an aluminum can from raw ore versus recycling said can.  Put in kilowatt hour terms it takes ~4.2 kWh to make an aluminum can from scratch. So, every can you pull from the waste stream and put into the recycling stream saves about 4 kWh of electricity and, by extension, about 4 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.

That is for a single can.  If I pick up a single can across the 25 or so weeks of “prime” riding season here in eastern Iowa the end result is a savings of about 100 kWh of electricity or 4 to 5 days of solar photovoltaic production from my rooftop array.  Start multiplying that over all of the people taking a ride and it adds up to some real electricity savings.  Think about getting closer to 100% recovery of the 100 billion aluminum cans manufactured in the U.S. every year.  Those are big numbers.

How big?  For every one billion cans or four billion pounds of carbon dioxide not emitted that is like doing any one of the following:

  • Over 388,000 of the average car driven for a year or
  • Almost 196,000 homes energy use for one year or
  • About 460 wind turbines production for a year
  • And a whole lot more…play with the numbers, it’s fun.

This is why it is important, in my mind, to pick up the cans I see littering the road and trail when I am on my bike.  A few seconds every ride is all it takes.  Heck, in Iowa we have a freaking deposit law so every can also nets you a nickel.  Do it for the nickels!

Friday Linkage 8/3/2018

Election Day is 95 days away.  On November 6, 2018 the people of the United States have the best chance to show the world that Donald Trump and his coterie of right wing, e.g. Republican, enablers do not represent America.

Here in the 1st district of Iowa we have a chance to eliminate the stain of representation that is Rod Blum, a parody of late stage capitalist politician if ever there was one.  He has the benefit of being from the same state as Steve King so no one ever calls him the worst politician from the state of Iowa.

On to the links…

Friendly Policies Keep US Oil and Coal Afloat Far More than We Thought—This is where the fight needs to be in the near future.  Eliminate all subsidies for energy sources that contribute to climate change.  Seriously, do we need to spend public money to subsidize energy companies that have made more money than any other type of company in the history of mankind?

Congress Tries, Fails, to Destroy ANOTHER National Monument—Remember, this is a Congress led by Republicans in both chambers and they still cannot get anything done.  Government is not inherently incompetent, it is just incompetent when run by right wingers.

Dozens Of Lion Trophy Permits Issued To Hunters As Trump Rolls Back Import Hurdles—Donny Two Scoops is really looking out for the interests of the American people with this one.  How soon before Don Jr. or the goblin shark Eric come back from Africa with a mounted lion?

The EPA Just Undid Scott Pruitt’s Final Act in Office—This is why the election in November is so important.  Without a compliant Congress, any changes made by the corrupt Trump administration will be swept away with a change in the Oval Office.

Andrew Wheeler is Afraid to Revoke California’s Fuel Waiver. He Should Be.—The Trump administration is itching to fight over anything that even hints at the previous administration.  They should be careful about what they wish for when it comes to legal cases.

Coal Mining Has Destroyed 1.5 Million Acres of Appalachian Forest—Imagine if someone came up with a plan to restore these 1.5 million acres to something resembling a forest?  Imagine hundreds of millions of dollars flowing into a region for the largest environmental restoration project in the history of mankind?  I can imagine it being possible, can you?

From Coal Mines To Solar Farms: It’s Complicated, But Doable—The landscapes of coal country have been scarred by an extractive industry, see above, that has no interest in the long term viability of the communities or the health of the people left behind.

US Wind Installations To Surge Before PTC Phase-Out In 2021—We can all hope that by 2020 or so there is a more visionary government installed in the U.S. that extends these tax credits to continue one of the few positive developments in our energy infrastructure.

The $3 Billion Plan to Turn Hoover Dam Into a Giant Battery—The era of “big” public works seems to be over, but what if we could use all of that infrastructure to help the transition to a 100% renewable economy?

‘Peak Coal’ is Getting Closer, Latest Figures Show—This is why the deployment of renewables, energy efficiency, and demand destruction are so important.  Coal is teetering on the edge of economic relevance and we can topple the beast with a concerted effort.

Energy Dept. Coal and Nuclear Subsidy could Cost Average US Household $160 to $500 Per Year—As coal and nuclear are no longer competitive in the electricity generation marketplace it is now the responsibility of the American people to ensure that these companies make money.  Why?  Because they donate a lot of money to people like Donald Trump.  This is not about national security, it is about keeping coal companies humming along.

UPS Partners with L.A.-Based Startup Thor on Electric Delivery Truck—Electrification of the heavy and medium duty truck market would be a more cost effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than trying to goose adoption through personal automobile electrification.  These commercial vehicles are driven a lot more, bought in large quantities by a single user, and can make an economic case better than personal automobiles.

Have We Reached Peak Storage?—I truly hope we have reached a point where we no longer need to build storage units external to our home to store stuff that we use so infrequently that it can be stored at a remote location.

Marie Kondo Wants You to Buy More Boxes—What the shit?  Is this when you know a trend has really “jumped the shark?”  I thought the idea behind this was to buy less stuff?  We’re all just pimps for something.

Why Your Kid Needs Time Just to Be—As parents we are a seriously neurotic bunch worrying about our kids future.  Maybe, just maybe, the key to raising a happy child is to let them be a kid once in a while.  Or, letting them just be a kid a whole lot.

Friday Linkage 4/7/2017

At what point do we look into the abyss and see nothing but Donald Trump’s searing ineptitude staring back at us?  Every time the man goes to the podium with a world leader to his right he stumbles through a word salad of “very this” and “tremendous that” without ever actually saying something of substance.

Every time he steps to the podium I am reminded of Robin Williams’ line in Dead Poets Society:

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Unfortunately laziness is now the currency of the land.

On to the links…

The Question I Get Asked the Most—Take a moment and read the entirety of Bill McKibben’s piece at Resilience.org.  Think about the meaning and do something.

Can Steve King be Defeated? History Says Probably Not—People in his district love Steve King.  He is one of the most embarrassing human beings in politics and the people in his district will reelect him in a walk in 2018.   Why?  They are also the same people who are probably standing behind Donald Trump and Bill O’Reilly.

Why Is Trump Ignoring These Good Heartland Jobs?—Why?  It does not fit his easy narrative and the man is lazy.  It does not matter that renewable energy employs more people than coal and that the renewable energy jobs sector is growing.  It also is a narrative that does not line the pockets of Koch Industries and other Trump lovers.

6 Charts That Show Trump Isn’t Stopping the Renewable Energy Revolution Any Time Soon—I hope the conclusion is right.  I just hope that there is enough inertia to overcome the amazing level of stupidity coming from Washington D.C. right now.

US Coal Production Hits 38 Year Low—Here is the thing.  As coal production volumes fall there is a self-perpetuating cycle of decline that follows because it is a capital intensive business.  As coal gets more expensive to mine it gets more expensive to make coal fired electricity, which leads to utilities closing down coal fired power plants.  This causes coal demand to fall further which causes the price of mining coal to increase.  So on and so forth.

While Trump Promotes Coal, Chile and Others are Turning to Cheap Sun Power—Again, it does not fit his lazy narrative.  Plus, solar jobs don’t allow you put on cool hard hats and gesticulate:

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Wastewater: The Best Hidden Energy Source You’ve Never Heard Of—I hesitate to call this renewable energy, so why don’t we go with recovered energy.  Nonetheless, in a system where we are looking for every kilowatt hour that can be generated from non-fossil fuels this is a potential source of goodness.

What Pollutes the Urban Mississippi? Lawns, Dogs and Lots of Pavement Runoff—We may not be able to make rural communities do something about the runoff from farm fields because the rightward lurch of those areas has made progress a daunting task, but there is a lot that can be done in our urban watersheds.

Pot’s Cousin Explored as Viable Crop Option for Minnesota—Illinois is talking about legalization and Minnesota is exploring hemp.  Paying taxes and giving rural communities another crop option is the death knell of federal prohibition.

Ten Cool Facts About Hemp From the NoCo Expo—Did you have an acquaintance in college who spent hours telling you all the cool facts about hemp that “the man” would not allow to become mainstream because reasons?  That person is mainstream now.

Peak Auto? These Charts Point to Industry, U.S. Economy Concerns—We may be “over auto-ed” as a country.  The implications for the economy are fairly dramatic.

The Couple who Coaxed 300 Acres of Barren Farmland Back into Lush Forest—It’s only 300 acres, but it is also only two people.  We have the tools to make the world a better place.  Let’s get cracking.

No More Pay TV

I might start sounding like an ascetic here pretty soon. I’ve cut my beer consumption down to near zero. I’ve reduced household spending to such a level that my wife might start howling over the winter. Yes, I turn the heat down to 56 degrees at night. Yes, it’s chilly but everyone is under several layers of down, fleece, and flannel. Deal.

Now, I’ve cut the cord. More accurately I ripped the dish off my house and cancelled DirecTV. Why? Like the average DirecTV customer my bill was ~$105 per month and the television had become a huge time suck. A little wiped out at the end of the day? Just sit down, fire up the DVR, and watch three hours of television shows you really do not care about. Pretty soon it is 10:00 PM and you are off to bed. Rinse and repeat the next day.

Stop the insanity.

With the latest increase in my bill notice coming via email I called DirecTV and cut the cord. The customer service representative was surprisingly pliant when I asked to cancel. It was not the horror show of redirection that I expected. I suppose that they think you will just be back shortly.

Another payoff of cutting the cord was the reduction in energy usage. As Markos Moulitsas has shown in his excellent series of posts on saving energy at Daily Kos  , the energy requirements of entertainment devices are huge. Here is the breakdown:

Even though I upgraded to DirecTV’s latest and most efficient receiver over the summer, my DirecTV infrastructure sucks up 42 watts of continuous power draw, or just over 1 kWh per day—about seven percent of my daily total usage, for something that is on 3-4 hours a day. Cable boxes, particularly those with DVRs, are equally inefficient. When I cut the cord, the 365 kWh I shave off my annual consumption will save me (at my average $0.19 rate) about $70, and that’s before I even tally the savings in programming (which will be dramatic).

My DirecTV infrastructure is probably similar—two receivers with on being a DVR—so compared to my rolling monthly average electricity consumption I would be saving nearly one month’s worth of electricity per year by not having these devices plugged in. Damn. Start multiplying that kind of power consumption across all the people with multiple televisions and receivers. Pretty soon you are talking about some serious energy usage.

In the meantime I do not know how this is going to affect my television viewing. I will more than likely start picking up a lot more movies at the Cedar Rapids Public Library. I might even get a Netflix subscription. Maybe I will read a few more books instead of placing my brain on the end table and absorbing entertainment.

You Must Read—The World We Made: Alex McKay’s Story from 2050

I have always thought labeling something as a “thought exercise” was a convenient way to describe a book where the technical writing components were lacking relative to an interesting viewpoint.  It was something that got thrown around a lot when I was a graduate student in history for books that had obviously begun their lives as dissertations and read as such.

9780714863610Jonathon Porritt’s The World We Made: Alex McKay’s Story from 2050 is a thought exercise that manages to be technically competent without losing its core theme of hope for the future of our planet.

The idea is simple: we remade the world in a sustainable way by 2050.

It is a hopeful idea.  Instead of the world crashing into some apocalyptic miasma, people and their leaders got off their collective asses to make positive change for the planet writ large.  The theme being that if it is good for the planet it is fundamentally good for the people who live on the planet.  Stunning stuff, but pretty much basic thought for people who want to move beyond measuring everything’s value in dollars and cents.

The organization of the book is broken into sections that deal with a certain topic—e.g. solar proliferation, travel, etc.—in bite size or quick read chunks.  This is not a book you need to sit down and devote massive amounts of attention.  I sat down and read through a few sections at a time in between my children fighting over which Legos were each other’s.  Is winter over yet?

Some of the book reads a little Pollyanna-esque in that it imagines a world where we all sort of come to the same conclusion about sustainability at the same time.  And act accordingly.  I tend to think that the world will come to this conclusion, but it will occur much more rapidly in certain places and may never reach other places due to a variety of factors.

On the continuum of hope for the future, The World We Made is on the far end of optimistic with a movie like Mad Max being at the other end.  I tend to think that the future looks a lot more like the one portrayed in The World Made by Hand, but I am hopeful that we can craft a future that is a little less bleak.

In some ways, I wished that this book read more like Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.  That is to say I wish it were more like a first-person narrative tour through a remade world and less a catalog like the old Worldchanging encyclopedia that every Eco-conscious person I know has on their bookshelf.

Nonetheless, I think that The World We Made is useful for making a person consider what the future could be like without losing hope.  Pick it up at your local library—because buying a copy for ~$40 seems a little steep—and dream about a planet where sustainability is the metric we use to determine utility and solar panels proliferate.

Friday Linkage 10/25/2013

I survived Florida.  Trust me, it is usually an ordeal in some way or another when I venture into Rick Scott’s land of strange.  Thankfully I did not run across any monitor lizards or pythons.  Nor did I fall victim to any sinkholes.  Just an uneventful trip to see the mouse.

On to the links…

America’s CO2 Emissions Hit 18-Year Low—The U.S. Energy Information Administration, a wealth of information on energy issues, estimates that U.S. CO2 emissions in 2012 were actually at levels not seen since 1994.  A lot of this is due to the emergence of natural gas replacing coal in electrical generation and a reduction in the demand for heat due to warmer winters.  It’s still some decent news.

Exploring Solar, Efficiency, Gas and More with Amory Lovins and Joel Makower—If you get a chance to see either of these men speak, it’s a treat.  To get both of them on the stage talking about energy issues is just like Christmas in October.  Take a break and enjoy the talk.

Clean-Water Laws: The Second Front in the War on Greenhouse Gases—It’s not just about regulating emissions explicitly.  There are solutions to the issue of regulating greenhouse gas emissions that are much more covert.

The World Isn’t Keeping Up With The Need To Invest In Sustainable Energy—  To address the coming threat of climate change and keep warming to a “manageable” 2 degrees Celsius, the world needs to invest ~$625 billion per year through 2020.  Currently, the investment is at ~$359 billion.  It’s a pretty big shortfall, but what amazes me is that the total figure ($625 billion) is about what the U.S. spends on its military when you account for operations in Afghanistan and other ancillary defense agencies.

0.3% of GPD Would Protect East Asia from Climate Change—So, we can spend a large but manageable amount now to mitigate the impacts of climate change.  Or, we can ignore the signs and deal with apocalyptic conditions later on.  Guess which one the world will choose?

Koch Brother Wages 12-Year Fight Over Wind Farm—William Koch rarely hits the news like his more politically active brothers.  Usually, he is in the press for the strange western frontier town that he has built in Colorado.  Well, it looks like he hates renewable energy as much as his brothers.

To Expand Offshore Power, Japan Builds Floating Windmills—Thankfully the Kochs are not Japanese because it looks like Japan is going to go all in on offshore wind to replace nuclear power as the backbone of the countries electrical generation.  It will be interesting to see if a large investment can push the industry forward.

First Auction of Solar Rights on Public Lands in Colorado Draws No Bids—I was surprised to read that no one bid on the rights to build solar projects in southern Colorado.  Then I read the end of the article and was amazed at the amount of solar power already on-line in the region.

Residential Solar is a Middle Class Phenomenon—It looks like the Koch brothers, all three of those clowns, are not the only rich people who do not like renewables.  Apparently, its relatively well-to-do middle class households that like renewables.  At least when it comes to residential solar.

Independence Through Microgrids: When The Power Goes Out, Some Are Just Going Off The Grid—Every time a disaster hits where the grid is knocked out, stories flow about how a few islands—powered by renewables—kept the lights on and served as community hubs.

How The Department Of Energy Is Working To Reduce The Cost Of Solar By 75 Percent—The balance of system costs—those costs associated with a solar system that are not panel related—continue to bedevil systems as the costs prove sticky.  However, more effort is being focused on bringing those costs down.

Eating Raw Whale Meat While Dishing up Baloney — How Industry is Imperiling the Oceans While We Aren’t Looking—Man, it’s frightening just how fudged up large companies are making the world’s oceans.

Now this is Natural Food—I do not know why I have never read about the idea of perennial food systems.  Sure, permaculture has a place in the reading list and I try to incorporate some of those principles into my landscape but this seems different.

Fifteen Tons of Groceries, Sailing Down the Hudson—I have linked to articles about the Vermont Sail Freight Project before.  It is cool to see pictures of the initial voyage to New York City.

Where Do Baby Carrots Come From?—If your house is anything like mine, baby carrots are consumed in large quantities.  My children will eat bowlfuls after school or at dinner without any encouragement.  It’s interesting to see the journey to the grocery store for this staple of snacks.