Friedman to Detroit: Batteries R U

Soyuz Boosters
Soyuz rocket (Photo by James Duncan, CC 2.0 license)

Following up on my post yesterday about the Detroit bailout, today I wanted to mention Tom Friedman’s op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times “The Real Generation X.” It is primarily about how Obama’s stimulus package should focus on preparing us, especially our young people, for the future, not saving old dinosaur industries like Detroit:

We not only need to bail out industries of the past but to build up industries of the future — to offer the kind of big thinking and risk-taking that transforms enormous challenges into world-changing opportunities.

But what I thought was both charming and an important call to action was specifically about the auto industry bailout – an audacious challenge to Obama and Detroit:

You want my tax dollars? Then I want to see the precise production plans and timetables for the hybridization of all your cars and trucks within 36 months. I want every bailed-out car company to move to hybrid electric drive trains, because nothing would both improve mileage and emissions more — and also stimulate a whole new 21st-century, job-creating industry: batteries.

I love the audacity of this idea. It’s a big idea, and breaks the commonly held “20 year” rule that says it takes 20 years for a laboratory discovery to make it into industrial production. But we’ve overcome that rule occasionally before, in moments of great crisis, haven’t we? The Manhattan Project and the conversion of U.S. industry to war production during World War II, and the Apollo program both accelerated the 20 year rule significantly.

Do you have other audacious suggestions for Obama, or examples of technologies that broke the 20-year rule? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section!

Expanding Options In Solar Energy and Electric Cars

Mission Peak (L), Mount Allison (C) and Monume...
Mission Peak in Fremont, CA. Image via Wikipedia

A roundup of a few stories that came out this week that I found particularly interesting.

  • Solyndra, a startup in Fremont, CA (just down the street from my office), is using a new form factor for thin film solar cells:

    Unlike conventional solar panels, which are made of flat solar cells, the new panels comprise rows of cylindrical solar cells made of a thin film of semiconductor material. The material is made of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium. To make the cells, the company deposits the semiconductor material on a glass tube. That’s then encapsulated within another glass tube with electrical connections that resemble those on fluorescent lightbulbs. The new shape allows the system to absorb more light over the course of a day than conventional solar panels do, and therefore generate more power.

    Not only do they not need trackers, but because they are mounted with space between each tube, they aren’t susceptible to wind and they can collect light reflected off the building’s roof and ambient light coming in obliquely.

    What I like about this story is that it shows that there’s still a lot more innovation to be done in all areas of alternative energy design – yesterday I saw another report about a new fuel cell membrane made of a cheap material instead of platinum, and there’s practically a new wind energy device every week. They’re not all going to be winners, but it’s the kind of design ferment that’s going to lead to big cost and practicality improvements in every area.

  • The EPA provides an interactive analysis (using Google Earth) of marginal and contaminated land that could be used for renewable energy farms – wind and/or solar:

    According to the EPA, many lands tracked by the agency, such as large Superfund sites, and mining sites offer thousands of acres of land, and may be situated in areas where the presence of wind and solar structures are less likely to be met with aesthetic, and therefore political, opposition.

    One stumbling block for a massive transition to solar power in the U.S. has been the land use question. I’m not saying we want to build our power on contaminated lands, but it’s interesting to see this as an option.

    Via CleanTechnica.com

  • Renault commits to electric vehicles. Saying that:

    “EVs are a necessity because hybrids cannot deliver the level of gasoline use and emissions reductions that governments and customers are demanding of automakers”

    Renault unveiled two zero-emission concept cars at the Paris autoshow Mondiale de l’Automobile, both of which are pure electric. The cars have a range of 160-200 kilometers (95-120 miles) and are designed for day-to-day use and short weekend trips, “not vacations” as Renault admits.

    Renault is committing to EVs because they believe that’s the only they’ll be able to deliver the gasoline economy and emissions reductions being demanded by both the market and governments.

These stories caught my eye as not just “more of the same” this week. What green energy stories got your interest up recently?

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Top Green Energy Stories For August 2008

Top Fivewoodleywonderworks
Top Five Stories

August was a great month for energy storage breakthroughs! In addition, a big talking head talks big, and a business-of-green-energy announcement make my list of top stories.

1. Hydrogen from water
2. Fuel cell breakthrough #1: cheap catalyst
3. Fuel cell breakthrough #2: better cathode
4. Al Gore’s call to action: The U.S. should “produce all electricity from carbon-free sources by 2018.” (Actually from late July, but my blog didn’t start until August!)
5. Green energy investment up 60% YoY in 2007, on target for 60% YoY growth in 2008

Moore’s Law depended (and still depends) on a constant flow of breakthrough technologies, processes, scale, and designs. You can’t necessarily predict how Moore’s Law will continue to hold two years from now, or five years from now, but you can be confident that through some combination of technologies, processes, and designs, the price/performance of IT will continue to decline at an exponential rate.

The top five green energy stories of 2008 give an indication that the same types of forces are at play in the green energy world. Numbers 1, 2, and 3 each represent a potential 10x reduction in the cost of the most expensive part of a particular energy flow. For number 4, Gore used the bully pulpit of a Nobel Prize and Oscar (and, oh yeah, he was nearly president) in a most constructive way. And number 5 illustrates that green energy technologies are on a growth rate of doubling about every 18 months.

Did these stories excite you as much as they did me? Were there other green energy stories in August that you feel are more important?

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Renewable Energy Investment up 60% Per Year in 2007, On Same Pace for 2008

Windmills Along the M6
Windmills Along the M6, photo by Bob Cox Photography

Saw this news item about the growth of green energy investment last week, which tends to correlate with the idea that the growth rate of renewable energy is not linear, but geometric (that is, doubling every n years, like Moore’s Law).

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that investments in renewable energy in 2007, at $148 billion, were 60 percent above 2006, with 2008 growth continuing. Achim Steiner, head of UNEP, said:

“The clean energy industry is maturing and its backers remain bullish. These findings should empower governments both North and South to reach a deep and meaningful new agreement by the crucial climate convention meeting in Copenhagen in late 2009. It is increasingly obvious to the public and investors alike that the transition to a low-carbon society is both a global imperative and an inevitability. This is attracting an enormous inflow of capital, talent and technology. But it is only inevitable if creative market mechanisms and public policy continue to evolve to liberate rather than frustrate this clean energy dawn. What is unfolding is nothing less than a fundamental transformation of the world’s energy infrastructure.”

There was similar news recently about the growth of both solar energy generation and wind energy generation.

Thanks to blow-hard winds, the United States has just become the world’s largest generator of wind energy.

Germany previously held this distinction, though since the United States has about 26 times more land than Germany, the milestone isn’t a huge surprise. Nonetheless, we weren’t expected to reach this point until late 2009. [Emphasis added – npd]

The key point is that we’re ahead of schedule on renewables, because the schedule was based on linear growth projections. The big question that remains is not whether the growth is exponential, but what’s the time period for doubling? Is it two years? Three years? One year? What do you think?

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Why I Am Optimistic

GDP per capita vs. 'Economic Energy Efficiency...Image via Wikipedia

The signs are pointing to a critical convergence that, to be honest, is coming just in time. The world’s will is aligning. Climate change, oil prices, pollution, growth, commuting – these and other factors are forming a message in society’s mind that says “things are not good and they must be fixed.” Businesses and governments, at the same time, are realizing that the changes needed to achieve sustainability are not going to be a drag on the economy but can actually be profitable while being good for society as a whole. Of course, the high and rising price of oil has something to do with this as well.

And technology is improving – finally – to the point that our remaining energy needs, after the 50% reduction in energy intensity possible via efficiency, can be cost-effectively replaced by renewables. Scientific and technical announcements just in the last two weeks – factor of 10 reductions in fuel cell and hydrogen splitting catalyst costs; new materials lighter, stronger, and cheaper than carbon fiber; and new ways to collect sunlight and convert it to electrical, thermal, and chemical energy – will, when available commercially, combine with all the other technologies that continue to stream out of labs and corporations, to drive the prices of sustainable energy down, down, and farther down.

So what we’re seeing at this moment in history is a powerful combination – the will to change with the technical ability to make the change, and the understanding that the change is cost-effective and in many cases profitable.

And that’s why I’m optimistic.

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Some Experts Say “Moore’s Law Does Not Apply To Solar PV” – Kurzweil (and Page) Disagree

Exponential growth of computing. 20th to 21st ...Image via Wikipedia

In his call to action two weeks ago, Al Gore compared the future development of solar electricity sources to the development of the semiconductor industry. His implication was that Moore’s Law, which reliably predicted that the price/performance of semiconductors doubled every 18 months, would also apply to photovoltaics.

ComputerWorld, in an article two weeks ago, assesses this comparison as flawed. (As did Harry Gray of Cal Tech, as I reported earlier today.)

“But does Moore’s Law also apply to the solar energy industry? The short answer is no. As with microprocessor technology, the price and performance of photovoltaic solar electric cell is improving. And Gore can clearly point to price drops of solar cells to make his case. But the efficiency of those solar cells — their ability to convert sunlight into electric energy — is not increasing as rapidly.”

The article goes on to suggest reasons that Moore’s Law might not apply – there’s a lot more to solar panels than just silicon, while the price/kilowatt has been coming down, it doesn’t seem to be coming down fast, etc.

However, there are other opinions. The best explainer and interpreter of Moore’s Law, and exponential growth in general, is Ray Kurzweil. His Law of Accelerating Returns is essentially a generalization of Moore’s Law that applies to all information technologies. (Learn a lot more about accelerating returns and exponential growth in his recent book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.)

A panel convened by the National Association of Engineers, including Kurzweil and Larry Page of Google, concluded that:

“We are not that far away from a tipping point where energy from solar will be [economically] competitive with fossil fuels.”

Kurzweil characterizes solar energy technologies as “information technologies,” especially as nanotech gets into the picture.

“We also see an exponential progression in the use of solar energy,” he said. “It is doubling now every two years. Doubling every two years means multiplying by 1,000 in 20 years. At that rate we’ll meet 100 percent of our energy needs in 20 years.”

I think we may be at one of the most interesting points in human history, when technology is changing so fast around us that in twenty years the world will almost literally be unrecognizable compared to today. (One of the side effects of the Law of Accelerating Returns is that the world changes completely on a regular basis – it just gets faster and faster!)

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