Amory Lovins in Portola Valley

Amory Lovins
Amory Lovins. Image via Wikipedia

(Sorry for the dearth of posts recently – family events, as well as me having a cold have impacted my ability to put two words together effectively.)

On Monday I got to see my hero Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute address a large crowd at the inaugural address in a new series of Green Speakers in Portola Valley, CA. The talks are in honor of their new, very sustainable Portola Valley Community Center. (They are hoping to be the first LEED Platinum-certified community center in the country.)

Lovins’ talk covered much of the same ground as his Stanford address in September 2007 on Energy Efficiency In Buildings (part 1, part 2). In particular, he presented as examples his home in the Rockies, the Davis energy efficient homes built in the late 80’s and some buildings in Thailand, built in the 90’s. These are great examples, but he’s used them quite a bit, and seems not to have updated his examples recently.

One of my tasks – to get back to my core purpose in this blog of illustrating “profitable applications of green energy (including efficiency) using integrative design” – for the next few months is to find up-to-date examples of the application of Lovin’s and RMI’s ideas and theories and list them here.

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Study: Make Money and Create Jobs By Greening California’s Economy

Boutiques along Fillmore Street in Pacific Heights
Fillmore Street in San Francisco; Image via Wikipedia

The San Francisco Chronicle reports on the conclusions of a study just completed by the California State Air Resources Board that “going green” will be extremely beneficial to the state’s economy.

Under the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, the state must impose a limit on the amount of pollutants companies emit and expand renewable energy. These changes, along with others, would result in 100,000 new jobs, boost the state economy by $27 billion and increase personal income by $14 billion, the study said.

It’s traditional to believe that becoming green – reducing energy usage, switching to renewable energy, and curbing greenhouse gas emissions – is costly and a net drag on economies. But studies like this one, as well as many others (see the Rocky Mountain Institute website for many more examples), show again that the future is going to be both green and profitable.

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Graphene and Nano-assembly: A Prediction

A 3D model of a :en:C60 molecule, also called ...Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday’s announcements about the potential of graphene as an energy storage material for super-capacitors are definitely exciting. As I mentioned last week in my August top story roundup, energy storage is one of the biggest nuts we need to crack to get renewable energies over the tipping point. “Ultracapacitors” are an enticing alternative to batteries for this purpose, and graphene appears to offer a significant improvement in capacitative storage:

“There are reasons to think that the ability to store electrical charge can be about double that of current commercially used materials. We are working to see if that prediction will be borne out in the laboratory,” said Rod Ruoff, a mechanical engineering professor and a physical chemist at the University of Texas at Austin.

Graphene is a special form of carbon in which the carbon atoms are linked into a sheet one atom thick. It’s highly conductive in the plane of the sheet. Because the sheet is only a few nanometers thick, the story has been presented as a “nanotech” breakthrough. However, as discussed in the April Technology Review report on a new, much cheaper and faster way to make graphene sheets, current means of producing graphene don’t use nanotechnology – just a highly miniaturized industrial process.

Continue reading “Graphene and Nano-assembly: A Prediction”

Numbers and Facts About Energy

Chocolate Chip cookies have a lot of energy content (image from Wikipedia, licensed under CC Attribution Sharealike 2.5 license
Chocolate Chip cookies have a lot of energy content (image from Wikipedia, licensed under CC Attribution Sharealike 2.5 license

One of my pet peeves is news stories about energy that say something like “Flokistan just added 100 MWs in solar panels to its grid. This is enough to power 150 homes,” with no further numbers. I always want to know the context, like how many MWs does Flokistan use? How many homes are there in Flokistan? How does 100 MWs in solar panels compare in cost with putting in 100 MWs of coal-fired powerplants, and how long will it take to pay back?

The energy field is full of numbers – cars emit 19 tons of CO2 per year, solar panels cost $0.20/kWh, PG&E just contracted for 800 MWs of solar power in California. They are used freely, but seldom put into context. So I was very happy to discover an interesting online resource over the weekend: Richard Muller’s U.C. Berkeley class “Physics For Future Presidents.”

In one semester, my goal is to cover the physics that future world leaders need to know (and maybe present world leaders too.

Chapter one, Energy and Power (and the physics of explosions), of his textbook is online (at least temporarily) and it’s fascinating. Most interesting is the table near the beginning comparing the energy content per gram of various substances, including TNT, gasoline, hydrogen, various batteries, an asteroid traveling at 30 km/sec, and even chocolate chip cookies.

For example, a gram of gasoline has about 15 times as much energy content as a gram of TNT, and about half again as much energy content as a gram of ethanol. Hydrogen has almost three times the energy content of gasoline per gram, but even as a liquid, hydrogen is only about 1/10 as dense as gasoline, meaning that per volume, it has about 1/3 the energy content. Muller’s paper is full of useful rules of thumb, such as the following:

Remember this: Compared to gasoline, liquid hydrogen has

  • 3 x more energy per gram (or per lb)
  • 3 x less energy per gallon (or per liter)

He then goes on to discuss the relative merits of different forms of energy for powering cars, noting that gasoline is a particularly desirable fuel given its very high energy content and ease-of-use compared to, say hydrogen. Or batteries – which have 100x less energy density than gasoline. He also explains why having a big meteorite or asteroid hit Earth would be a bad thing.

If you’re interested in the numbers around energy, and how to compare them, I can definitely recommend a reading this chapter. The course is also available via podcast – see here for links, and covers not just energy, but terrorism, nukes, space, and global warming.

I’d be interested in hearing your comments about Muller’s information. If you have sources that you use for energy-related numbers, let me know about those too. I’m putting together a reference site for these sources, which I’ll link to on this blog as a static page when it’s ready.

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A Building That Creates More Energy Than It Uses

Mesa Verde

This is a great example that aligns perfectly with the topic of this blog, “Keeping the lights on.”

In its most recent “Environmental Lovins” blog post, Monica Sanford and Maria Stamas of the Rocky Mountain Institute describe “passive design,” the techniques for building structures that work for humans within the natural constraints of the environment. Buildings sited for optimal use of daylight, equipped with thermal mass to keep them cool in summer and warm in winter, using passive ventilation systems, and so on, can use significantly less energy than “normal” buildings.

Consider the Anasazi Indians. They constructed high-mass adobe dwellings in southern-facing caves in the American West. In the winter, when the sun follows a lower path, their designs harnessed the sun’s direct heating energy, and during the summer, when the sun follows a higher path, rock overhangs blocked heat gain and the sun’s harsh rays.

Though they didn’t realize it at the time, the Anasazi employed passive design — using the sun’s energy to light, cool, heat and ventilate a building’s interior.

Sanford and Stamas go on to provide a lot more background on passive design and its benefits for building owners, occupants, and the global environment.

As an example of the power of passive design, especially when combined with renewable energy sources, they pointed out this office building under construction in a suburb of Paris which will create more energy than it uses.

Patrick Getreide, who is leading the Energy Plus project with partner Marc Eisenberg, said: “It will be the first building in the world to be ‘energy plus’ and carbon zero.”The proposed building, which will be more than 70,000 sq m and house up to 5,000 people, will produce enough of its own electricity to power all the heating, lighting, and air conditioning required by tenants. It will also generate carbon credits which it hopes to trade for money in the future.

Energy Plus building visualization
Energy Plus building visualization

Getreide acknowledges that this isn’t the cheapest way to build a building (yet), but anticipate that tenants will end up paying about the normal rate for premium office space in their location. And of course, they won’t have energy bills.

By using integrated design, including solar PV collection, optimal siting, and a cutting-edge form of insulation, the team expects electricity consumption per square metre of office space per year of 16 kilowatts, lower than any other building in the world of this size. Most modern buildings use between 80 and 250 kilowatts per square metre, while older ones often use up to 300 kilowatts.

Because commercial real estate is a conservative industry, this project required investment from non-traditional sources, including former President Clinton’s Global Initiative and support from several governments. Rocky Mountain Institute is a key advisor on the project as well.

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Why My Optimism Is Tempered

Achieving energy independence in the U.S. is possible, but there are many obstacles to overcome.

On 140 acres of unused land on Nellis Air Forc...Image via Wikipedia

I wrote on Monday about why I am optimistic that we will come out of this energy mess in excellent shape. But, my optimism is not unalloyed – there are a lot of questions still to answer.

  • Is there truly enough capturable solar energy streaming down on the Earth to power a good lifestyle for all 9 billion of us in 2050? Clearly not, at least at the U.S.’s current per capita energy intensity. What about at 50% of our current energy use? That’s a target that many think we can accomplish here in the U.S., so why not around the world?
  • What about all the C02 we’ve stuck up there already? Can we do something about it that won’t end up causing as many problems as it solves? Certainly sensible steps like reversing deforestation will help a lot, but do we have time, and do we know how? Can we grow a rainforest from a burned-out meadow, even if it use to be a rainforest? This is not clear – but we should figure it out.
  • Can we do any of this fast enough? I’ve argued that the technology and knowledge are here for reducing our energy footprint in the U.S. by 50% and replacing all of the remaining energy needs with renewables, but is there time and will to do it? The sheer manpower that it will take? Even if owners of commercial real estate were willing to do the necessary retrofits to achieve the goals, because they are cost effective? More importantly, if every one agreed to do it, are there enough architects, contractors, HVAC installers, and electricians to do the work?
  • There’s a similar question for residences – most residences get enough solar energy flux on the roof to offset a good portion of their electricity use – but even if the cost were free, after first year saving, who would do the 100 million installations? Even if spread over ten years, that would keep 25,000 installers busy every day.

There are many more such questions – can we successfully combine distributed power generation (e.g., on residences) with utility energy on a gigantic scale? Where do all the materials to do these installations come from?

I’d love to hear your questions and comments about whether you’re optimistic, the obstacles you see in the road ahead, and your ideas on how to overcome the roadblocks.

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Getting (A Lot) More Done Per CO2 Molecule

CIA World Factbook 2007 figures of total nomin...Image via Wikipedia

According to a McKinsey Global Institute report released at the end of July, the world economy will have to improve its “carbon productivity” – the amount of gross domestic product (GDP) created per unit of CO2 – by a factor of ten by 2050 to stop global climate change in its tracks while continuing to enable a healthy level of growth. The report predicts that the cost of this transformation will amount to 0.6% – 1.3% of global GDP by 2030. They note that this compares favorably to the cost of insurance born by economies, which amounts to more than 3% of GDP.

Helpfully, the report also suggests the most appealing opportunities for achieving this ten-fold improvement in productivity (referring to MGI’s February paper on the global cost curve):

It will be essential to identify and capture the lowest-cost abatement opportunities in the economy. Analysis of McKinsey’s global cost curve, a map of the world’s abatement opportunities ranked from lowest-cost to highest-cost options, identifies five areas for action to drive the necessary microeconomic changes: capturing available opportunities to increase energy efficiency in a cost-effective way; decarbonizing energy sources; accelerating the development and deployment of new low-carbon technologies; changing the behaviors of businesses and consumers; and preserving and expanding the world’s carbon sinks, most notably its forests.

Productivity (“regular productivity”) increased by a factor of ten over the course of the Industrial Revolution – a period of 120 years. McKinsey’s call to action calls for a similar increase, but over a period one-third as long. But they warn that, if this goal is not achieved, we will all be facing lives of significant privation.

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Efficiency profitable for energy-independent Denmark

Thomas Friedman’s OpEd on Sunday describes how Denmark has achieved energy independence, and illustrates the numerous benefits for the country, including a very low unemployment rate and a large new export market.

When the 1973 oil shock hit, Denmark got 99 percent of its energy from the Middle East. Now they get zero. The country has combined massive energy efficiency programs, such as using waste heat from power plants to heat homes (known as “cogeneration”), with alternative energy sources like windmills (20% of their energy comes from the wind now), effective use of their own petroleum resources in the North Sea, and incentives for lowering energy use via high taxes on gasoline.

As a result, Danes enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world, an extremely low unemployment rate, and a healthy export sector in alternative energy products.

Because it was smart taxes and incentives that spurred Danish energy companies to innovate, Ditlev Engel, the president of Vestas — Denmark’s and the world’s biggest wind turbine company — told me that he simply can’t understand how the U.S. Congress could have just failed to extend the production tax credits for wind development in America.

Engel suggests why this might concern us here in the United States.

“We’ve had 35 new competitors coming out of China in the last 18 months, and not one out of the U.S.”

If Denmark has been able to achieve 100% energy independence, at net benefit to their society economically, what does that say about America’s chances? Denmark has some advantages – it’s much smaller than the U.S., it has new oilfields in the North Sea – but we have advantages as well – our Southwest is much better for solar than anywhere in Denmark, we have whole states available for wind power, we have comparatively high rates of energy inefficiency that represent massive “negawatts.” Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute has outlined a set of steps for getting the U.S. off oil by 2025 – Winning The Oil End Game – that provides one possible, well-researched scenario for a profitable transition.

In the 35 years since the ’73 oil shock, Denmark has accomplished something remarkable. Now we in the U.S. need to set ourselves a similar goal. Using new technologies, such as the fuel cell breakthroughs I mentioned last week (here and here), we should be able to get there a lot faster than 35 years.

Which CFL should you buy to replace your incandescent lightbulbs?

I had what I believe is a common experience last week, when I decided to “go green” and replaced the incandescent bulb in my bedside lamp with a compact fluorescent (CFL). Suddenly, my bedroom had that look that you used to get with old black-and-white TV sets, a blueish cast that’s not comfortable at all. It wasn’t a bad light to read by, but overall it gave the room a cold and unpleasant feeling.

Since I “had” to go to Home Depot anyway, I took the opportunity of asking one of the experts there about which CFL I should use to get the old incandescent light feeling back. As it turned out, the answer was simple, although it would have taken me much testing to figure out on my own: buy CFLs that are called “soft white.” The bulb I was using was a “daylight” bulb – these are the ones to avoid. A “soft white” CFL has a warm light, like an incandescent.

I bought a couple, replaced the “daylight” bulb in my bedside lamp, and am now happily saving a few pennies a day on lighting and air conditioning with my wonderful “soft white” CFL.