Real-Life Steampunk Wants to Hack the Power Grid

Danielle Fong

Caleb Garling, my colleague at Wired Enterprise, writes:

You might think of Danielle Fong as a real-life incarnation of Steampunk, that science-fiction literary genre that re-imagines Victorian technology in a post-apocalyptic future. The difference is that her prototype isn’t fiction. Fong’s original plan was to put her tanks into cars. She holds up Elon Musk, the founder of electric car pioneer Tesla, as a role model. “He was willing to go all out,” she says. But rather than equip cars with combustable engines or rechargeable batteries, LightSail planned to fill them with compressed air. The hot air would drive the pistons in a new breed of automobile engine.

But after a nudge from their backers, Fong and team decided that — whatever Musk has accomplished with Tesla — convincing old-school automakers to put these tanks into their vehicles was an almost insurmountable task. So she chose another almost insurmountable task: Reinvent the power grid.

Full Story: Wired Enterprise: Steam Punk Remakes Power Grid with Compressed Air

The Carbon Footprint of Marijuana – How Does It Compare with Carbon Footprint of Television?

By now you may have seen coverage of this report on the carbon footprint of marijuana cultivation in the U.S. If not, check out the report or this Huffington Post story on it.

The figure that the HuffPo and other sources cite, that indoor marijuana cultivation accounts for 1% of electrical use in the U.S., is meaningless to me. I mean, how does that compare to other stuff? According to the report’s FAQ, that 1% figure works out to “22 billion kilowatt-hours/year estimated for indoor Cannabis.”

Working backwards from this page from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, I’ve worked out some comparisons. This data is from 2001, so there may have been significant advances in efficiency since then, but this is the best I could find on short notice:

-PCs and printers: 23 kWh
-Dishwashers: 29 kWh (I’ve read that electric dishwashers actually end up using fewer resources than washing dishes by hand, but I don’t have a source handy. I’m also not sure if those figure factor in the manufacture of dishwashers).
-Color TVs and TV peripherals: 49 kWh
-Refrigerators: 156 kWh (freezers add an additional 39 kWh)
-Air conditioning: 183 kWh

That of course doesn’t include the carbon foot print of manufacturing the equipment. Nor the cost of producing TV shows, and the carbon foot print of data centers and servers to power the Internet. You and I are probably doing more environmental damage right now by writing and reading this blog post than my pot-smoking neighbors down the hall are.

That doesn’t mean that growing indoor weed couldn’t or shouldn’t be made more efficient. But “indoor marijuana cultivations uses slightly less than half the total amount of electricity spent powering TVs” is less impressive than saying “1% of U.S. power consumption in the U.S. goes to growing pot.”

Also of interest is the environmental footprint of other drugs. Marijuana has a much lower impact than crystal meth, because meth requires chemicals imported from India and China. Marijuana doesn’t generally have to travel far once it’s grown, which reduces its footprint.

The ecological case for decriminalizing drugs is probably stronger for drugs other than marijuana. From the report’s FAQ:

Does this study support the case for criminalization?
No. In fact, many argue that criminalization is an important driver towards energy-intensive indoor production. Criminalization also contributes to many of the energy inefficiencies in the process, including long driving distances, noise and odor suppression measures that undercut ventilation efficiencies, and off-grid power production that is far less efficient produces more greenhouse-gas emissions than many electric grids. Moreover, decades of criminalization has resulted in this energy-using sector being passed over by massive efforts to incentivize and mandate efficiency improvements. The analysis does suggest a role for improved management of energy use, in much the same way that we address the energy use and fuel economy of our cars, buildings, and appliances.

Does this study support the case for decriminalization?
Not really. People grow indoors for many reasons aside from criminalization, e.g., quality control, pest control, and year-round yield. Many producers with licenses choose to grow indoors. That said, in a scenario where production is legalized it is, in principal, easier to address the energy issues.

Update: I thought I should also mention that 22 kWh per year for growing pot is still a pretty high number, even when compared to TV and other stuff, in that only about 10% of the U.S. population smokes marijuana. However, I still don’t think it justifies alarmism.

How green is public transit? The answer may surprise you

mpg transit use

Brad Templeton looks at the per-passenger cost of taking public transportation vs. other types of transportation (such as cars and bikes) and finds that the greenness of public transportation has been much exaggerated (see chart above).

A full bus or trainload of people is more efficient than private cars, sometimes quite a bit more so. But transit systems never consist of nothing but full vehicles. They run most of their day with light loads. The above calculations came from figures citing the average city bus holding 9 passengers, and the average train (light or heavy) holds 22. If that seems low, remember that every packed train at rush hour tends to mean a near empty train returning down the track.

Transit vehicles also tend to stop and start a lot, which eats a lot of energy, even with regenerative braking. And most transit vehicles are just plain heavy, and not very aerodynamic. Indeed, you’ll see tables in the DoE reports that show that over the past 30 years, private cars have gotten 30% more efficient, while buses have gotten 60% less efficient and trains about 25% worse. The market and government regulations have driven efforts to make cars more efficient, while transit vehicles have actually worsened.

My figures suggest the city bus moves 3,000lbs of bus for every passenger on average, and still 500lbs per passenger when fully packed at rush hour — starting and stopping all the time.

In order to get people to ride transit, you must offer frequent service, all day long. They want to know they have the freedom to leave at different times. But that means emptier vehicles outside of rush hour. You’ve all seen those huge empty vehicles go by, you just haven’t thought of how inefficient they were. It would be better if off-hours transit was done by much smaller vehicles, but that implies too much capital cost — no transit agency will buy enough equipment for peak times and then buy a second set of equipment for light demand periods.

Some cities do much better than others, and some countries do much better than the US:

This Australian Study cites figures saying that Western Europeans use only 76% of U.S. BTUs/pm in their private transport, and only 38% in their transit — 2.5 times more efficient. Rich Asians do even better at transit — they are almost 4 times as efficient in terms of energy/passenger-mile.

Their private transport is better because they own a lot more motorcycles and scooters, as well as smaller cars. Asians do almost 10x as many miles in motorcyles as Americans. Their transit is better primarily because of ridership. They take 5 to 7 times as many transit trips per person. Asian transit actually attains a higher average speed than private travel, another big booster.

They also have much more efficient vehicles.

Note however that in spite of their much higher ridership, transit in Europe is still only 7% of private vehicle energy use, and I would guess about 5% of total compared to ~1% of total for the USA. Even they have the automobile bug pretty strongly.

It’s worth taking a look at:

Brad Templeton: Is green U.S. mass transit a big myth?

Templeton wonders if it might be more worthwhile to push people towards more fuel efficient vehicles. Along those lines it’s worth considering the MPG Illusion.

(via Robin Hanson, who has a considerably less positive view of transit than Templeton)

DIY fridge hack uses almost no electricity

green freezer

An Australian guy hacked a freezer into a super-efficient refrigerator:

Nearly every household on Earth has a fridge that totally wastes at least 30 kwh of energy every month. Most of the energy is wasted every time you open the door. Cold air is heavier and falls out on the floor every time you open your fridge and warm air rises to fill the space it left. But with a top opening fridge; even if you leave the door wide open, gravity effortlessly leaves the heavy cold air inside. […]

His home-made fridge uses much energy in 24 hours as a 100W light bulb gets through in just an hour.

Not only is it energy efficient; but it’s absolutely silent too. The thing is only running for a minute or two every hour. At all other times it is perfectly quiet and consumes no power whatsoever.

Home Design Find: Green Fridge Invention Uses Almost No Electricity

(via Atom Jack)

I can see why this hasn’t taken off – space constraints. It wouldn’t fit in my kitchen, or in the kitchens of any of the apartments I’ve ever lived in. This may cause a problem for mass production. Still, it’s a smart solution.

Google’s new data center uses nature instead of AC

Google has begun operating a data center in Belgium that has no chillers to support its cooling systems, a strategy that will improve its energy efficiency while making local weather forecasting a larger factor in its data center management. […]

Rather than using chillers part-time, the company has eliminated them entirely in its data center near Saint-Ghislain, Belgium, which began operating in late 2008 and also features an on-site water purification facility that allows it to use water from a nearby industrial canal rather than a municipal water utility.

The climate in Belgium will support free cooling almost year-round, according to Google engineers, with temperatures rising above the acceptable range for free cooling about seven days per year on average. The average temperature in Brussels during summer reaches 66 to 71 degrees, while Google maintains its data centers at temperatures above 80 degrees.

So what happens if the weather gets hot? On those days, Google says it will turn off equipment as needed in Belgium and shift computing load to other data centers. This approach is made possible by the scope of the company’s global network of data centers, which provide the ability to shift an entire data center’s workload to other facilities.

Data Center Knowledge: Google’s Chiller-less Data Center

(via Chris 23)

Save energy by using Blackle instead of Google

In January 2007 a blog post titled Black Google Would Save 750 Megawatt-hours a Year proposed the theory that a black version of the Google search engine would save a fair bit of energy due to the popularity of the search engine. Since then there has been skepticism about the significance of the energy savings that can be achieved and the cost in terms of readability of black web pages.

We believe that there is value in the concept because even if the energy savings are small, they all add up. Secondly we feel that seeing Blackle every time we load our web browser reminds us that we need to keep taking small steps to save energy.


(via Wadester23

Energy Firms Buying River Rights Add to Competition for Scarce Resource

Oil companies have gained control over billions of gallons of water from Western rivers in preparation for future efforts to extract oil from shale deposits under the Rocky Mountains, according to a new report by an environmental group that opposes such projects.

The group, Western Resource Advocates, used public records to conclude that energy companies are collectively entitled to divert more than 6.5 billion gallons of water a day during peak river flows. The companies also hold rights to store, in dozens of reservoirs, 1.7 million acre feet of water, enough to supply metro Denver for six years.

ndustry representatives said they have substantial holdings of water rights for future use in producing oil from shale, though they could not confirm the precise numbers in the report.

Full Story: Wall Street Journal

A short history of ending US oil dependence

“It will be the policy of my administration to reverse our dependence on foreign oil while building a new energy economy that will create millions of jobs”

–Barack Obama

“To keep our economy growing, we also need reliable supplies of affordable, environmentally responsible energy. Nearly four years ago, I submitted a comprehensive energy strategy that encourages conservation, alternative sources, a modernized electricity grid, and more production here at home, including safe, clean nuclear energy. My Clear Skies legislation will cut power plant pollution and improve the health of our citizens. And my budget provides strong funding for leading-edge technology — from hydrogen-fueled cars, to clean coal, to renewable sources such as ethanol. Four years of debate is enough — I urge Congress to pass legislation that makes America more secure and less dependent on foreign energy.”

–George W. Bush

“Beginning this moment, this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977, never.”

–Jimmy Carter

“We will never again permit any foreign nation to have Uncle Sam over a barrel of oil.”

–Gerald Ford.

“Let this be our national goal: At the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need to provide our jobs, to heat our homes, and to keep our transportation moving.”

–Richard Nixon

Full Story: Pizza SEO

Related External Links

Russian Economy Tanking Because Energy Prices Have Collapsed

The ruble has fallen 19 percent against the basket since Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August, to 34.8216. That five-day war, the global credit squeeze and plunging oil prices have led investors to pull more than $200 billion out of Russian investments in the last five months, according to BNP Paribas SA.

“A large part of the government’s revenues, such as oil and gas export duties and extraction taxes, is dollar-denominated, so the ruble weakening certainly helps both the budget and income statements of the oil and gas producers,” said Ronald Smith, head of research at Alfa Bank in Moscow.

Full Story: Bloomberg

(via Cryptogon)

Oregon to pursue mileage tax

Terrible idea for so many reasons…

“As Oregonians drive less and demand more fuel-efficient vehicles, it is increasingly important that the state find a new way, other than the gas tax, to finance our transportation system.”

According to the policies he has outlined online, Kulongoski proposes to continue the work of the special task force that came up with and tested the idea of a mileage tax to replace the gas tax. […]

A GPS-based system kept track of the in-state mileage driven by the volunteers. When they bought fuel, a device in their vehicles was read, and they paid 1.2 cents a mile and got a refund of the state gas tax of 24 cents a gallon.

Full Story: Albany Democrat Herald

(via Cryptogon)

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