Prospecting for wind

Before the Lights Go Out is Maggie's new book about how our current energy systems work, and how we'll have to change them in the future. It comes out April 10th and is available for pre-order now. (E-book pre-orders coming soon!) Over the next couple of months, Maggie will be posting some energy-related stories based on things she learned while researching the book. This is one of them.

Steve_Saus submitterated this video that combines 14 years of weather radar images with a soothing piano concerto. It's a neat thing to watch a couple minutes of (though I'm not sure I needed to sit around for all 33 minutes of the video). It also reminded me of something really interesting that I learned about U.S. weather patterns and alternative energy.

Weather data, like the kind visualized here, can be collected, analyzed, and turned into algorithms that show us, in increasingly granular detail, what we can expect the weather to do in a specific part of the United States. Today, you can even break this information down to show what happens in one small part of a state compared to another small part. And that's important. As we increase our reliance on sources of energy that are based on weather patterns, this kind of information will become crucial to not only predicting how much power we can expect to get from a given wind farm, but also in deciding where to build that wind farm in the first place.

Take Texas as an example, which has the most installed wind power capacity of any U.S. Read the rest

Two new nuclear reactors to be built in Georgia

Yesterday, the United States' Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the construction of the first two nuclear reactors to be built in this country since 1978. They're both part of the same power plant complex, near Augusta, Georgia.

As David Biello points out in an excellent analysis of this news over at Scientific American, these reactors are not part of a nuclear renaissance in the U.S. That's simply not happening. But they represent some important shifts in technology. These reactors employ passive cooling systems. Basically, in the event of an emergency, you don't need to rely external pumps or generators to keep the reactor cores cool.

You'll recall, of course, that this was the key problem at Fukushima. The tsunami damaged the generators that powered the pumps, so when the reactors began to heat up, there was no way to get cooling water into them. In Georgia, the new reactors will, instead, rely on gravity. If one of these reactors gets too hot, a heat-sensitive valve will automatically open, releasing cooling water that's stored directly above the reactor core.

Obviously, this doesn't make the reactors fail-proof. If you support nuclear energy, you're going to see this (and the fact that the NRC approval is conditional on utility Southern Company demonstrating that they have learned from the lessons of Fukushima) as a step in the right direction. If you're absolutely against nuclear energy, you're going to be deeply disturbed by this project no matter what happens.

I sit somewhere in the middle. I'm uncomfortable with nuclear energy—as it currently exists—being presented as a long-term energy solution. Read the rest

Paved with good intentions: When energy efficiency backfires

Right now, I'm reading The Conundrum by David Owen. It's a really interesting book about some of the unintended consequences of the way we approach sustainability and environmentalism.

I'm going to post a full review soon, once I get all the way through it, but so far Owen is making a couple of key points: One that I agree with, and one I think he's oversimplifying a bit. I agree with this: You can't shop your way out of climate change. The tendency to turn environmentalism into a set of luxury lifestyle choices is a huge problem—doing nothing to solve our energy issues and perpetuating an idea that sustainability is "for" some people and not for others.

Owen also talks a lot about the rebound effect (or, as it's sometimes called, Jevons Paradox)—a very real problem that affects our ability to reduce emissions caused by energy use. Basically, it works like this: when you reduce energy use through energy efficiency, you get the same amount of work for less energy investment. That's good. But saving energy also saves money. That saved money often ends up spent in ways that consume energy. In the end, some measure of the energy you thought you saved through energy efficiency ends up not actually being saved. It just got consumed in another place. The result is good for the economy, but maybe not so good for the climate, depending on how the energy in question was produced.

So far, Owen seems to be taking the position that the rebound effect will always negate all the environmental benefits of energy efficiency programs. Read the rest

Hey, electric cars don't totally suck: A realistic sort-of rebuttal



As a Midwesterner and someone who has been paying a lot of attention to energy issues, I read Joel Johnson's recent Jalopnik essay with interest. "You're Not Alone. America Hates Electric Cars," is a pretty provocative title. But, as with most provocative titles, it doesn't really capture what Johnson is actually trying to say. So my response to this is not going to be exactly what you might expect. 

I think he makes some good points. If you're expecting everybody in America to be driving electric cars in 20 years time, you're out of your mind. That's not how the turnover rate of America's automobile fleet works, for one thing. For another, that kind of sunny, environmental optimism doesn't really mesh with the kind and cost of electric cars that are currently available—and likely to be available for some time. But I also think Johnson is oversimplifying some things and is flat-out wrong on a few of the important details. 

My response breaks down into five key points. Two places where I want to expand on the things I agree with, and three things I think need correcting. Now it occurs to me that this measured response might not be sufficiently antagonistic for a rebuttal piece on the Internet. So, let me add two quick comments before I dive into the nuance: First, grrrrrrr. Second, Mizzou sucks. Yeah. You heard me, Johnson. Rock chalk.* 

Read the rest

The future of energy and the future of risk

I got to have another great conversation with synthetic biologist and blogger Christina Agapakis on's Science Saturday. Christina and I chatted about some of the issues that came up at an energy conference I spoke at recently, examined the possibility of using synthetic biology to create fuel, and talked about how we navigate the often-confusing questions of technology and risk. Read the rest

The future of energy: Where will we be in 2030?

I'm spending today at "What Will Turn Us On in 2030?"—a Future Tense conference on the future of energy. I'm live Tweeting, and you can actually watch the whole conference live stream online. Tune in at 4:10 Eastern, when I'll be speaking about why our short-term energy future is likely to be a little boring (and why that's okay). Read the rest

Maggie in DC, talking about the future of energy

I'll be speaking next Wednesday, the 19th, in Washington DC, as part of a one-day conference on the future of energy. What Will Turn Us On in 2030? is part of Future Tense, a series of events sponsored by, Arizona State University, and the New America Foundation. It's free, and open to public if you register. Can't make it in person? You can catch me, along with some great thinkers like Craig Venter, Time magazine's Bryan Walsh, and Scientific American's David Biello, on the live stream. My talk will be based on some of the ideas I've spent the last two years researching and writing about in my book, Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us, which will be published in April. Read the rest