Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Proposed solar legislation

I'm sure it is a mistake to discuss legislation before it passes (like counting the proverbial chickens before they hatch) but a recent bill could really have a positive impact. It is called Securing America's Energy independence Act. For one, it creates a long term federal incentive (8 years--4 times as long as any previous incentive) for investing in solar, and it increases the cap to a $2k per kilowatt cap rather than a $2k per installation cap. Some relevant language:

The Senate and House bills both include the following
provisions:Residential Solar Tax Credit: Extends a 30-percent tax credit, created in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, for the purchase of residential solar water heating, photovoltaic equipment, and fuel cell property. Changes the maximum credit to $2,000 for each kilowatt of capacity for solar equipment and $1,000 for each kilowatt of capacity for fuel cells. Credits may be taken against the alternative minimum tax. Expires after December 31, 2015.

It seems to me that at this point in time with all the talk about energy security this kind of a bill should fly through congress...of course this means some group promoting the enslavement of unborn children and/or citizens for a mercury filled future will probably torpedo the initiative.

House of War

I've been reading House of War by James Carroll for the past week. It is an imposing and difficult read. Difficult because of what it reveals about our history. The 500+ pages (and over 90 pages of endnotes) are a carefully researched and a surprisingly personal account of the Pentagon and the people who have perpetuated it. My knowledge of military history is spotty pre-1980 so the first 2/3rds of the book fills a gap for me. Carroll focuses the narrative on the brutality of war, the self-deception and paranoia of generals, presidents and the American public that leads to an absurd nuclear arsenal and continues to grow 60+ years after the atom-bomb was unleashed. I think Carroll's analysis was sharpest and deepest at the beginning, personal and insightful in the middle, but growing foggy and shallow by the end.
The story, as one might guess by the sub-title (the Pentagon and the disastrous rise of American power) holds a dark mirror to the actions and policies of our government. Indeed the Pentagon is imbued with super-human malevolence that perverts all attempts to control it.
Carroll's views with a few exceptions overlap/reinforce my own, which may be why I liked the story despite what it uncovers about the American psyche.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Lap counter review

A few weeks ago I found a neat looking lap counting device for swimming that solves a major frustration I've had for years. I ordered the clip version online (for $9) right away. After a slight snafu where no product came for twelve days, I contacted the vendor and asked where my clip was. The vendor found my order (there had been some glitch processing it--but they retrieved all the relevant info), apologized for the mix-up and sent it out right away. Needless to say I was very happy to see the swim counter arrive! (They even threw in the original suction style counter to make up for the delay.) The product seems to come from Sweden.

Today I tested the swim counter clip and it works exactly as advertised. This solves a very basic frustration I've had for years. In fact, I think these guys should market the device for any and all exercises involving lap counting (i.e. running around a track) or exercise sets/repetitions where one might get distracted and lose count.

I'm really happy with this swimming counter. It is very simple and it works.

PS While it is a joy to see someone post positive comments to my blog, I'm a bit skeptical about their authenticity and relevance. I plan to enact one of those spam blocker options in the hopes of upgrading the content of future comments.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

CFL update--pricing

I finally received the shipment of 23Watt CFLs (100W equivalent) that I ordered on ebay about 10 days ago. I was happy about the price/bulb at the time (~ $4 per) the lowest price I had seen. Of course I made the cardinal mistake of continuing to search for bulbs after purchasing a case of 24 bulbs...can you guess what I found?

Exactly, I found 25W CFL bulbs for $3 each!

Since I already had a case of 100W equivalents on the way, I thought I'd sample a 24 bulb case of 13W (60W equivs) for about $2.75 per (with S&H). The next day the vendor emailed me to inform me that I lived about 1.5 miles away and I accepted the offer to have the bulbs hand delivered to my building that evening. I call that service!
In case anyone is interested in inexpensive CFL bulbs check out this vendor. You don't need to order a case to get a good price. At this time I cannot comment on the quality or longevity of the bulbs...they only just arrived...except that they all seem to be in working order.

At $3 bulb, every frequently used incandescent bulb should be replaced. The payback in energy savings for a 25W bulb is less than 500 hours of use (100 days if you use your light for 5 hours/day).

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A response from Grizno

I'm sure you know the feeling. As you read a blog/article you see the author taking some recent hopeful press release (about solar PV tech improvements that promise 50% cost reductions in the next few years--in this case) and twists the info around until you are practically facing despair because all this wonderful progress means nothing.

Mostly I just move on to the next blog, but this time I decided to strike back. Although this particular website does not offer a comment section (THE NERVE, I SAY!) undaunted I did find an email address with an invitation to I fired off my response. Well thanks to a quasi responsible blogger known as Lou Grizno, I was taken seriously and my comment (and Lou's reply) are now an official contribution to today's The Cost of Energy blog.

I do not dispute anything that Lou says in either the original post or the response. Solar PV is expensive when compared to the utility meter electricity rates. But the underlying premise that electricity from solar and electricity from the utility are equal is irresponsible. Either can power your computer monitor, but one of them is wrecking our environment.

It is like saying a shirt made in the US (following best employment and labor practices) is expensive when compared to one made by slave labor (or even modern day sweat shop labor). It is, but only in terms of $s. Is exploiting men, women and the environment ok as long as the end product is super cheap? or as long as the exploitation is done out of sight?
Grizno is perpetuating the story/fiction that it is ok, while kind of agreeing that it shouldn't be.

Self-hypocrisy alert...I don't own any renewable energy capacity, I live in the city, guzzle gas and suck down utility power at an enormous rate. But I have the decency to feel bad about it and am working on ways to improve the cost/benefit of renewables.

Monday, May 15, 2006

CFL follow-up

Perhaps I am exposing my energy hogging lifestyle when I say that until this week I've never installed/used a compact fluorescent lightbulb (in my house).

Following my recent post I've been investigating CFL prices. Prices are all over the place from $6 to $14.95 for a 25W CFL spring bulb = 100W incandescent. Because CFLs use 75% less energy than a normal bulb you can expect to save 0.6 cents per hour of use (assuming $0.08kWh electricity cost). So you recoup your $6 investment in 1000 hours, which is just under a year, assuming 20 hours of use per week. This is a worst case payback since I'm assuming the incandescent bulb is free. Obviously it will take longer if you pay more for your bulbs. The bulbs are supposed to last 8,000-10,000 hours. The $6 you save each year for the following 7-9 years is your dividend for investing in more efficient lights. Total savings ~ $50 per bulb over its life. Of course you save even more if you pay a higher electricity rate or use the light more than 20 hours/week (ok technically you just save it faster, but I'm assuming you re-invest your dividends :).

If the average house has 10 frequently used lights (20 hours+/week) replacing 'em all with CFLs can reduce your electricity bill by $50/yr.

If you had and replaced 30 frequently used 100W bulbs (or equivalent) with CFLs you get roughly the same annual utility bill savings as you might from installing 1kW of solar panels. Cost of 30 CFLs = $180 (30 x $6); cost of 1 kW solar panel = ~$5,000 + inverter and battery ~$5,000 (1kW system ~$10k). 50 times the payback of solar...and I think solar is awesome!

I've seen ~$4.50 a bulb in bulk--if they work as advertised I'll post my source :).

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The problem when you lack credibility

NSA has massive database of America's phone calls. Perhaps I shouldn't single out this one issue, but it is topical so I'll comment.

First of all, how is a database of every single phone call that Americans make useful for tracking terrorists? The major failure of 9/11 was summed up as a failure to connect the dots. Instead of focusing on dot connecting the NSA has responded by creating programs to collect trillions more dots.

Almost by definition having trillions of extra (nearly all extraneous) dots will make it harder to identify and connect the useful information. Its like making the haystack 1000 times bigger before you start looking for the needle. Now if needles appearing in haystacks were completely random occurrences (i.e assume no such thing as intelligence), there is a certain logic to searching 1000 haystacks rather than just one, and by extension searching every haystack in existence.

The obvious problem is that the cost and time involved in such a search is extraordinary. And it raises lots of questions, what happens if you find a nail in a haystack? or a sharp rock? or a lump of iron ore? are we only looking for needles? (if yes shouldn't we look in tailor shops or the hardware aisle of the supermarket first?) or does it have to be specifically a needle in a haystack? would such a concerted effort to find needles lead to mischief, like bored kids hiding needles in haystacks, or an angry neighbor planting needles in other's haystacks for personal gain? What happens if you don't find any needles? Can you conclude that none exist? or do you have to recheck the haystacks with a new "improved" search procedure?

Without intelligence almost all of these questions present insurmountable obstacles. Whatsmore assuming no intelligence is a bad assumption, because intelligence exists (it does, doesn't it?). Perhaps the NSA knows so little about terrorists that assuming no knowledge is the best operating principle? If that is the case we would do better to get rid of the NSA and start again.

Unfortunately as a result of virtually everything that has happened in the past 5 years, the administration lacks credibility. This administration is obsessively secretive, dangerously combative, myopically spend-thrift, unapologetically unconstrainable, fearfully incompetent, and pathologically disconnected from reality. They will not cooperate with congressional investigations, claim every privilege in the name of national security and viciously attack any dissent as unpatriotic. How then can we trust or believe that they are acting in accord with the laws of our nation? The very laws that they have denounced even as they are enacted, (the president's signing statement in the case of McCain's ban on torture).
I cannot. Of course many will defend them and say they are protecting us, and civil liberties are no use to a dead person. Indeed in many countries I've heard people say that in America there is too much freedom...clearly those already committed to Bush's agenda must agree. There are none so blind as s/he that will not see. Furthermore, I see the administration that uses force and threat of force instead of diplomacy to pursue ideology over our own interests abroad. This can only lead to a backlash (and already has) that ensures a less secure future for ourselves and our diminished nation.

Kudos to Congress for the H-prize.

I like to see this H-prize, for boosting Hydrogen fueled vehicles. It will be interesting to see how it works in practice. Just over a week ago I suggested investing in a series of E-prizes to boost fuel economy at a fraction of the cost of a $100 gasoline give-away to taxpayers. Presumably prizes for other technologies will follow.

I think we should set some ambitious goals for vehicles, based on life-cycle energy return on investment (EROI), carbon emissions, sustainability etc., equivalent to 250 mpg (roughly 10x current technology) and let all technologies compete to get there. [Maybe there should also be a novelty factor, I don't want someone to win $5M based on a horse and buggy...]

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Getting CFLs into homes

Lots of folks know that compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFL) are 75% more efficient than standard bulbs, but CFLs are both more expensive and different. This is called a switching cost, a common problem for a new product. To overcome switching costs marketing types come up with creative ways reduce switching costs and encourage people to try the product.

Recently I saw a notice that Oprah Winfrey (and later Home Depot) joined an effort by Mr. Luna to get every student in America to bring a CFL home. They have a long way to go, but they have made a start (5,500 CFLs).

I think a foundation, concerned with energy efficiency and the environment, perhaps in conjunction with a retail outlet could offer $1 or $2 (or more) off purchases of CFLs. The foundation would pay the retailer the difference per CFL for a set time period (1 day) or a fixed number of bulbs (say 1st 5000 sold). This is something a foundation (or even an individual) could sponsor without breaking the bank. The idea is to generate interest and sampling (nothing like a limited time sale/offer to capture peoples attention) so people can experience the benefits (and long term savings) of CFLs.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Concentrating Solar comes of age

I was reading my Solar Today magazine yesterday. Rona Fried's article "Concentrating Solar Has Arrived" noted some truly exciting developments. In the last year 864MW of concentrating solar power (CSP) has been announced by three utilities in the US Southwest.

While I had heard of each development individually, taken together it is eye-opening. According to Sandia's SUNLAB (and Rona) the levelized cost of CSP at the 100+MW scale is now ~ $0.11 per kWh. CSP supplies peak power, which is (almost by definition) the most expensive power to provide. Typically CSP competes with natural gas peaking plants which provide power at a levelized cost of $0.15 kWh (back in 2003 when natural gas was cheaper) according to the California Energy Commission.

Perhaps this 27% cost advantage has something to do with the explosion of CSP projects announcements? But perhaps more exciting than the cost is the size of the installations. This is happening at a near GW scale that utilities are used to dealing with. Unlike solar PV which normally gets installed at 2-20kW scale and occasionally 100-250kW. CSP is "starting out" 1000x as big. I say starting out in quotes because the technology has been proven over the past 20-25 years. Essentially CSP must now be taken seriously as a peak power solution by utilities around the country (although it will clearly produce the greatest bang in the southwest). Moreover there are several hybrid designs which allow CSP in combination with storage or fossil fuel technology to become as reliable as needed (i.e. the stray cloud won't bring the whole grid to a halt).

All in all, I see this as a watershed year for CSP at a time when people are taking a serious look at ways we can reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Please note: I'm not saying CSP is THE answer, but it does appear to be one serious answer (among many we will need) that fits nicely into the existing utility worldview. A ray of hope...

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Global Water Crisis--Intro

There are so many problems in this world, it is hard to focus on just one. Rising energy costs is one that is capturing headlines at the moment but a related and more tragic one is the emerging (in many places already critical) global water crisis. For those new to the topic, a global water crisis my sound like a joke, since the planet is 3/4 covered with water. Obviously I'm talking about drinkable water, and there is a massive ongoing crisis due to its scarcity in multiple places around the planet. This site has a quick one page summary of the situation

Only a couple percent of all the water on the planet is freshwater (i.e. not salty) suitable for drinking. Less than a percent of this freshwater is available to us (the rest is tied up in polar ice-caps or underground aquifers). All the freshwater we encounter and use (rivers, lakes, reservoirs and shallow wells) for everything we do comes from this tiny sliver of freshwater. Because of pollution, even this tiny sliver may be overestimating what is actually usable.

The result is that each year over a billion people get sick, and approximately 2 million people die from diseases related to drinking unsafe water. About 80% of those that die each year are children under five. This is staggering if you think about it; every day unsafe water kills more children than all the people that died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and every month kills nearly as many people as the December 2004 tsunami.

Access to clean drinking water is a BIG problem.
In the near term, people are working hard to protect existing clean water sources and provide more people with wells, rainwater catchments and water-treatment technologies. Despite the Herculean efforts underway, we are barely treading water in terms of solving the problem.
In the long term, the solution requires desalination (removing salt from seawater) which in turn requires energy...a whole lot of energy.

Even if the developed world can stop using more energy, bringing the developing world up to a basic standard of health and sanitation will require massive growth in energy consumption. I say this not to be pessimistic but to underline the scope of the challenge that lies ahead.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Roller Sleds

Has anyone seen a sled with rollers/wheels for sale?

I was thinking this would be a super cool toy, because it would allow kids to go sledding year round. They have roller blades, skate-boards and roller skis I'm told, so why not roller sleds? I envision a substantial sled with six or eight inch diameter wheels/rollers...bumpers, brakes! (possibly an anchor-like feature). I'd of loved one as a kid/12yr old...please tell me if you find one.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Encouraging addiction?

Before the government sends drivers a $100 check to "ease the pain at the the pump" could we consider some alternatives? This giveaway would "cost" $25B ($100 x ~250 million people) and do nothing to resolve the underlying oil dependency issue. Do you think Senator Frist would support giving "rebate" checks to drug addicts? Not bloody likely...and yet that is his prescription for oil-oholics.

The US Dept. of Energy spends under $2 per person annually on renewable energy R&D, and around $4 per person on all renewable programs (~$1B). One particularly good program is the Energy Star program which helps consumers identify efficient home appliances (only gets $50M a year). At least that was my read of the 2006 budget (frankly it is a challenge to decipher government budgets since everything is stated as a % increase or decrease from the prior year). Why don't we first double, triple or even quadruple investment in the DOE's renewables program? Cost $2-$5B.

We could start a National Sustainable/Secure Energy Foundation (NSEF) modeled on the NSF (National Science Foundation). I'd propose initial funding at $1-2B with a 50-50 academic-industry split to dispersing funds. Grants for funding would be evaluated/approved by expert panels before funding, like the current NSF program. Cost $1-2B

The government could offer a series of $1-5M E-prizes (modeled on the X-prize) for demonstrated solutions (i.e. they gotta work) to pernicious energy problems, open to individuals, university (student) teams and start-ups. Cost (?) $20-30M

We need to treat the disease (fossil fuel dependency/oil addiction), not the symptoms (high gas prices). Additional ideas welcome.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Turning solar upside down

It seems to me that people could easily double, triple, or more the output of a solar panel by installing the panel upside down and placing mirrors underneath it. Like this:
. _

Sorry for the vintage DOS/1982 artwork, but it would work just like a larger version of an upside down fluorescent light fixture, with the solar panel taking the place of the bulb.

Solar panels cost ~$50 square ft (assumes $5 a watt and 10% efficiency) and mirrors cost ~ $5 a square ft (maybe less). There must be a simple mirror arrangement where 10 square ft of mirror can more than double (as much as 5x?) the amount of sunlight falling on each square ft of solar panel.

Yes I am familiar with concentrating solar power/parabolic trough systems, I am talking about simple flat mirrors and flat solar panels. The 10 square feet of mirror could be 10 individual mirrors approximating a parabolic curve.

What am I missing? (i.e. why isn't anyone doing this? or is someone?)