Boing Boing 

Sandy slows US nuclear plants, oldest in US declares alert: morning-after update

Oyster Creek nuclear plant in New Jersey was placed on "alert" status last night, after a storm surge from Sandy caused water levels at the plant to rise over 6.5 more than normal, threatening the "water intake structure" that pumps cooling water throughout the nuclear plant.

Snip from Reuters update:

Those pumps are not essential since the reactor has been shut for planned refuelling since Oct. 22. However, a further rise to 7 feet could submerge the service water pump motor that is used to cool the water in the spent fuel pool, potentially forcing it to use emergency water supplies from the in-house fire suppression system to keep the rods from overheating.

On Tuesday, an NRC spokesman said the levels reached a peak of 7.4 feet -- apparently above the threshold. As of 6:10 a.m. EDT waters were at 6.5 feet, with the next high tide at 11:45 a.m. He said the company had moved a portable pump to the water intake structure as a precaution, but has not needed to use it.

The plant's operator, Exelon, says there is no threat to public safety, or the structural integrity of the plant.

RIP Stanford Ovshinsky — inventor with an eye on energy and communication

America lost a great Maker last week. Stanford R. Ovshinsky was a self-taught engineer and inventor who held more than 400 patents when he died on October 17th at the age of 90. The name may not be familiar to you, but his work is. Ovshinsky is credited with inventing key technologies behind flat-panel liquid crystal displays that we use to watch TV, work on the Internet, or play with our phones.

He was also the inventor of the nickel-metal hydride battery — a rechargeable battery that now powers everything from laptops to the Prius. Ovshinsky (along with his wife, Iris, who held a Ph.D. in biochemistry and was his research partner for much of his life), began working on improved versions of batteries, solar cells, and other energy technologies beginning in the early 1960s. More than a decade before climate change became a well-established fact, Ovshinsky was concerned about the pollution and political instability that went along with fossil fuels. He spent the rest of his life developing better alternatives.

For a good introduction to how truly groundbreaking Ovshinsky's ideas were, check out a 1978 article from Popular Science, all about his invention of amorphous silicon semiconductors — a technology that today forms the basis behind both thin-film solar panels and smart phone displays. At the time though, it made Ovshinky a controversial figure.

Michigan Public Radio's obituary
A good explanation of the inner workings of nickel-metal hydride batteries
Popular Science's obit (with a link to the 1978 story)

Thanks to Art Myatt for the heads up on this!

Tool to calculate benefit of rooftop solar in Cambridge, Mass

Gmoke sez, "The city of Cambridge, Mass has teamed up with MIT to produce a Solar Tool that allows people to type an address into a website and get a detailed account of that roof's solar electric potential. This is probably the most detailed service now existing and every building in Cambridge is covered. You can learn how much of your roof sees enough sun for a PV installation, how large that PV installation can be, how much it will cost, how high your Federal and state tax rebate will be, how much electricity it will produce in a year, and how much carbon it will displace."

Solar Tool v.2 (Thanks, Gmoke!)

Science of L.A.'s 'Carmageddon' proves (shock!) that cars cause much of LA's air pollution

Suzanne Paulson, UCLA professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, saw "Carmageddon" as an opportunity to make use of a "natural experiment." She and a colleague "measured pollutants in the air during the LA freeway shutdown last year, and have now released their findings.

Air quality near the normally busy highway improved by 83 percent that day last July, relative to comparable weekends. Elsewhere in West Los Angeles, the improvement was equally dramatic. Air quality improved by 75 percent on that side of the city and in Santa Monica, and by 25 percent throughout the entire region, as a measure of the drop in ultrafine particulate matter associated with tailpipe emissions.

"We saw what we expected: you take motor vehicles away, the air gets really, really clean," Paulson says, "which tells us that most of the pollution is from motor vehicles from one type or another in this area."

More: L.A.'s 'Carmageddon' Produced Dramatic, Instantaneous Air Quality Improvements (The Atlantic).

Another "Carmaggedon" just took place in LA. Wonder if there will be more science to come from this edition.

(Image: Dallas Traffic 10/19/11 1227pm, a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike (2.0) image from nffcnnr's photostream)

A discussion about the history of technology and the future of energy

On Wednesday, I spoke with MIT professor of science writing Tom Levenson, as he interviewed me for the Virtually Speaking Science podcast. We had a really interesting discussion, centered on the history of technology and the question of how we end up choosing one type of tool over another. You can listen to the full thing online.

What's climate change ruining today?

Barring a seriously crazy shift that plunges us quickly into an especially cold winter, 2012 will likely go down as the hottest year on record in the United States. More importantly, this broken record is part of a larger pattern that affects the whole world—record-breaking high temperatures are becoming, themselves, a bit of a broken record. On a global scale, counting average land and water temperatures, 2012 is (so far) the 11th warmest year on record—almost a full degree hotter than the 20th century average. Of the 12 warmest years on record, all of them have happened since 1998 (and the top 20 is made up of years since 1987).

Over time, that kind of long-term trend takes a toll. But for those of us who are lucky enough to live with relatively high levels of wealth, air conditioning, supermarkets, and all the luxuries of modern life, that toll is not always obvious. Sometimes, you have to look a little deeper to see how climate change is already affecting the American way of life.

So, what's climate change ruining today? How about electricity generation? Juliet Eilperin at The Washington Post has a story about how a consistent trend of high temperatures and drought has affected water reserves, and how those diminished reserves affect our ability to produce electricity.

Read the rest

Mitt Romney: I believe in basic science, and by "basic science" I mean "cold fusion"

I'm not entirely sure what to say about this excerpt from a Washington Examiner interview other than, "*headdesk*".

Mitt Romney: I do believe in basic science. I believe in participating in space. I believe in analysis of new sources of energy. I believe in laboratories, looking at ways to conduct electricity with -- with cold fusion, if we can come up with it. It was the University of Utah that solved that. We somehow can’t figure out how to duplicate it.

I'm putting the entire quote after the jump, so you can get the full context of where this came from. It is worth noting that Romney seems to be referring to the 1989 experiments done by Stanley Pons (who worked for the University of Utah) and Martin Fleischmann. If you've ever dug into that particular bit of history, you'll find it sounds a lot like the arsenic life story from 2010—scientists announce huge news by press conference (in the case of Fleischmann and Pons the press conference happened before the research had even been through peer review); media goes apeshit; other scientists try to replicate the results and the vast majority fail miserably; finally, it eventually becomes clear that the researchers made some big errors in their data analysis and the original conclusions turn out to be incorrect.

Wikipedia has a pretty good breakdown of this history. Another good place to read about Fleischmann and Pons is in Charles Seife's book Sun in a Bottle, which details the history behind why fusion, in general, has long been more hype than happening. There is some good science going on the world of "hot" fusion, and there's some spotty evidence of weird anomalies that might or might not be cold fusion, but Fleischmann's and Pons' work is almost certainly not going to pan out. And, as energy technologies go, cold fusion is not the one most likely to give us the best bang for our buck.

Read the rest

Wind farms aren't a major cause of bird deaths

It's hard to say how many birds are killed by collisions with wind turbines. The high end of the estimates top out around 450,000 birds each year in the United States. But even that doesn't come close to making wind turbines a major killer of American birds. Among the things that kill far, far, far more birds than wind power: Buildings, cars, and house cats. (Thanks, Uncle Bruce!)

Insane, true energy fact of the day

Exit signs are so ubiquitous that they're almost invisible. Every public building has them. In fact, they are so common that, taken together, these little signs consume a surprisingly large amount of energy.

Each one uses relatively little electricity, but they are on all the time. And we have a lot of them in our schools, factories, and office buildings. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are more than 100 million exit signs in use today in the U.S., consuming 30–35 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity annually.

That’s the output of five or six 1,000 MW power plants, and it costs us $2-3 billion per year. Individual buildings may have thousands of exit signs in operation.

To put this into a bigger context: This is just one small part of what makes buildings, in general, incredibly energy intense. In the United States, we use more energy powering our buildings—from the lights, to the heating, to the stuff we plug into the walls—than we use to do anything else. Because of that (and because of the fact that electricity is mostly made by burning coal or natural gas) buildings produce more greenhouse gas emissions than cars.

Read more about the energy consumption of exit signs and how we can use less energy, while still getting the same services, at Green Building Advisor

Take a look at some stats on energy use in buildings at the Architecture 2030 website

Via Jess McCabe

Image: Exit Sign, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from mtellin's photostream

Destroying Precious Land to Drill for Gas: Sean Lennon, anti-fracking activist

In the New York Times, an eloquent op-ed by Sean Lennon that serves as a manifesto of sorts for Artists Against Fracking, an organization started with his mother, Yoko Ono. Snip:

Natural gas has been sold as clean energy. But when the gas comes from fracturing bedrock with about five million gallons of toxic water per well, the word “clean” takes on a disturbingly Orwellian tone. Don’t be fooled. Fracking for shale gas is in truth dirty energy. It inevitably leaks toxic chemicals into the air and water. Industry studies show that 5 percent of wells can leak immediately, and 60 percent over 30 years. There is no such thing as pipes and concrete that won’t eventually break down. It releases a cocktail of chemicals from a menu of more than 600 toxic substances, climate-changing methane, radium and, of course, uranium.

Video: THE SKY IS PINK by Josh Fox and the GASLAND Team.

Japan: record high radiation levels found in Fukushima fish, more than a year after nuclear accident

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) in Japan said Tuesday its monitoring efforts have recorded record high radiation levels in local seafood: 25,800 becquerels per kilogram of radioactive cesium in fish sampled within a 20-kilometer range of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The photo shows fish caught Aug. 1, 2012 within 20 kilometers of the crippled nuclear power plant. The findings indicate that radioactive contamination remains at unsafe levels in the area's food supply more than a year after the nuclear crisis.

From Kyodo News:

The level of cesium found in greenling is 258 times that deemed safe for consumption by the Japanese government, suggesting that radioactive contamination remains serious more than a year after the nuclear crisis.

Fishing in the sea off Fukushima Prefecture is voluntarily restricted except for trial fishing of certain octopuses.

CNN has more.

India's in the dark, are we next?

670 million people—roughly half of India's population—has been without electricity for two days, following a massive blackout. The United States has a much more modern grid, but only nine years ago a blackout in the Northeast of this country cut power to 45 million. How does a huge blackout like that happen? What are we doing to prevent another one? I'll be on Southern California Public Radio's Madeline Brand Show this morning to talk about how America's electric grid works ... and doesn't work. The show starts at 9:00 Pacific time and I'll be on around the top of the hour.

Maggie speaking in Richland, Washington today

I'm speaking this evening at the Public Library in Richland, Washington, talking about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. The talk starts at 7:00 pm. You can learn more by checking out the website for my book, Before the Lights Go Out. Hope to see you there!

Important news from the wind energy industry

DONG to buy big Siemens wind turbines for the UK. Just so you know.

Nest Learning Thermostat

Last year I replaced my old-looking but perfectly functional programmable thermostat with a better looking, WiFi-equipped model. The remote aspect of it was good. We could set “away” temps, and restore normal temps on our way back home. And the programmable part was always good – cool at night, not working so hard when we’re at work, etc.

But even though the thing was from a “major name”, it was a true PITA. While it worked most of the time, any time we wanted to tweak things, ugh. It was miserable. Then Nest came out with their Learning Thermostat.

I  recently put one in and it’s well beyond what I was hoping the other might be. Superbly easy installation and activation, beautiful to look at, and as user-friendly as anything can be. It’s still in learning mode which basically means it is figuring out our daily schedules. But so far they’ve thought of everything, and this has given me complete confidence in its long term purpose.

Nest also provides apps that allow you to control your thermostat from your iOS or Android phone or tablet. You can also track energy usage history, etc. At $249 it’s a lot more than other thermostats, and so maybe not suited for everyone’s budget. But I’ll say it’s more than suitable for any home. It’s a beautifully designed and exceptionally functional thermostat that continues to do its job very well.

-- Wayne Ruffner


Manufactured by Nest

First of Japan's 50 reactors restarts since nuclear crisis; Japan's energy policy still in turmoil

Photo: Oi Nuclear Power Plant, via Wikipedia.

The No. 3 reactor at the Ohi (or Ōi) nuclear plant in Japan went back on the grid Thursday morning, according to a statement from its operator, the Kansai Electric Power Company. The nuclear reactor in western Japan became the first in the country to restart since last year's tsunami and earthquake caused a nuclear crisis at the Fukushima plant, and led to intense debate over the future of energy in Japan.

Also today in Japan, a parliamentary inquiry concluded that the nuclear accident at Fukushima "was a preventable disaster rooted in government-industry collusion and the worst conformist conventions of Japanese culture." Hiroko Tabuchi at the New York Times has more.

A political typo of epic proportions

In North Carolina, a legislator accidentally pushed the wrong button on her vote-making machine and now the state will be open to fracking operations. Even though Rep. Becky Carney realized she'd hit the wrong button almost immediately, she was not allowed to change her crucial, outcome-changing vote. Suddenly, I feel a bit better about my problem with it's vs. its. (Via Colin Schultz)

Monster storms and aging power grids nix many July 4th festivities in Eastern US

Storm damage and high temperatures have left 1.3 million homes and businesses in the eastern United States without power since Friday. At least 23 people have been killed, some crushed by falling trees, others from heatstroke. From Illinois to Virginia, "Many Fourth of July celebrations were canceled as local governments confronted damage from the hurricane-force winds and high heat and drought conditions that made firework shows risky." There's an intense image comparison here at the NASA website, showing before/after satellite images that reveal massive blackouts in DC, Richmond, and other cities affected by the "derecho" storms.

Interesting interview about the downsides of local food

Ever since researching Before the Lights Go Out, my book on energy in the United States, I've been a little skeptical of the locavore movement. Sure, farmer's markets are a nice way to spend a weekend morning, and a good way to connect with other people from my neighborhood. There are arguments to be made about creating local jobs and contributions to local economies. But I see some holes in the idea, as well—particularly if you expect eating local to go beyond a niche market or a special-occasion thing.

Think about economies of scale—the cost benefits you get for making and moving things in bulk. That works not only for cost (making non-local food often cheaper food), but it also works for energy use. It takes less energy for a factory to can green beans for half the country than it would take for us all to buy green beans and lovingly can them at home. When our energy comes from limited, polluting sources—that discrepancy matters. Plus, you have to think about places like Minnesota, where I live. In winter, local food here would require hothouse farming—something that is extremely unsustainable, as far as energy use is concerned.

Basically, I think there are benefits to local food. And I don't think the problems with local food mean we shouldn't change anything about our food system. But we have to acknowledge that the locavore thing isn't perfect, and maybe isn't as sustainable as we'd like it to be. That's why I like this Grist interview with Pierre Desrochers, a University of Toronto geography professor and author of The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet. Desrochers talks about some of the problems he sees with the sustainability of local eating and explains the nuance of his argument. It's not "local eating" vs. "change absolutely nothing, hooray for Monsanto!" And that's what makes it interesting, and important.

Q. Was there anything that surprised you as you got deeper into the issues?

A. I was surprised by the number of local food movements I discovered in the past, but I was not surprised to see that they all failed. There was a local food movement in the British empire in the 1920s. And it turns out that even the British empire was not big enough to have a successful local food movement. The first world war cut Germany off from the rest of the world, so they had to revert to local food. And of course people starved there, and they had a few bad crops, and all the problems that long-distance trade had solved came back with a vengeance.

Nobody would bother importing food from a distance if it did not have significant advantages over local food. [In the book] we talk about food miles, but I’m sure you’re familiar with the arguments — transportation is a tiny thing [in terms of climate impacts], and if you try to cut down on transportation, then you need to heat your greenhouse as opposed to having unheated greenhouses further south. Then your environmental footprint is actually more significant.

Read the rest of the interview on Grist

Gadgets cheap to charge

Gadgets do not cost much to juice up; an iPad runs to $1.36 a year at the U.S. average residential price of electricity. [Jonathan Fahey/AP]

Learn about climate, energy, and "the new normal" this weekend

I'm at the Aspen Environmental Forums, an annual conference focused on many different aspects of climate science, energy policy, conservation, and other environmental issues. You can follow along on Twitter with the tag #aef2012, and I'll be tweeting regularly from the panels I watch. For instance, if you check out the tag now, you can find some great tweets from last night, covering a discussion with Stewart Brand about biotech, cloning, and the possibility of reversing extinction.

A quick and dirty education in fossil fuel subsidies

How much do you know about energy subsidies? National Geographic has a really interesting quiz that covers some of the basics, as well as a few interesting background details. Here's one freebie: The first fossil fuel subsidy in America was instituted by George Washington. It was a 10% tariff on imported coal, aimed at making American coal competitive in comparison to British coal. (Via Matt McDermott)

Fracking and earthquakes: The real risk is injecting liquid underground

The National Research Council published a report today, reviewing and analyzing peer-reviewed literature, federal and state documents, data requested from private companies, and more …

Read the rest

Solar Impulse plane lands, completing world's first intercontinental flight powered by the sun (photos)

Photo: REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

The Solar Impulse plane project president and pilot Bertrand Piccard lands after a 19-hour flight from Madrid at Rabat's International airport, June 5, 2012. The plane landed in Morocco on Tuesday, completing the world's first intercontinental flight powered by the sun to show the potential for pollution-free air travel.

Read the rest

The Watt?: Great Kickstarter project aims at helping people better understand energy

The Watt? is an interactive energy primer aimed at making the complicated and completely non-intuitive world of energy use a bit more understandable to laypeople.

I wholeheartedly support any effort to make this stuff make more sense. In the course of researching my book, Before the Lights Go Out, I stumbled across tons of extremely important information that was basic "duh" knowledge to energy experts—but not to you, me, and everybody actually doing the decision making on energy issues.

I ended up focusing on the story of the electric grid, how it works today, and where it might be headed in the future. But there's no way I could cover everything. The Watt? promises to fill in some of those gaps—fleshing out the details on everything from physics and terminology, to economics and technology. There will be some really lovely-looking charts and graphics, guest "speakers" embedded into the e-book, and lots of other cool surprises.

The team behind this is trying to raise funds now through Kickstarter. Their deadline is in 18 hours. If you want to better understand energy systems (or you want to help other Americans better understand them) I suggest making a donation.

The Watt? on Kickstarter

Solar-powered airplane "Solar Impulse" attempts transcontinental flight

Photo: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

A Solar Impulse aircraft takes off at Payerne airport May 24, 2012, piloted by André Borschberg. The Solar Impulse HB-SIA prototype aircraft, which has 12,000 solar cells built into its jumbo-jet-sized wings (about 200 feet long), attempted its first intercontinental flight from Switzerland to Morocco with a few days for a technical stop and a change of pilot in Madrid. This flight will act as a final rehearsal for the 2014 round-the-world flight.

Read the rest

The history of the U.S. electric grid

Where did our electric grid come from? It's a complicated question to answer. That's because the grid we have today didn't come from any single place. Instead, its origins are scattered, distributed geographically, technologically, and philosophically.

Different people built different parts of the grid in different ways and for different reasons. For many years—up until the 1970s in some places—individual towns and cities were independent grids that weren't connected to anything else around them. They functioned as little islands, incapable of reaching out for help when things went wrong.

More importantly, the grid wasn't designed. It evolved. Nobody ever really sat down and thought about how to build the best grid possible. The grid as we know it was assembled from bits and pieces, from mini-grids that were often built to be cheap and to go up quickly. Quality wasn't always priority number one.

I think the story of the electric grid in Appleton, Wisconsin—the second centralized electric grid in the world and the first hydroelectric power plant in the world—is a great example of all of this history in action.

Last month, I got to talk about Appleton at a Barnes and Noble in the Bay Area. The video of that talk went up on CSPAN Book TV yesterday. It's not available for embedding, unfortunately, but I encourage you to give it a watch. The talk covers not only history, but also the importance of writing about science online, rather than in print. You guys, as commenters at BoingBoing, have made my writing better—and for that you get a shout-out. (Plus: At the 5 minute mark, you can see a little cameo of Dean and Pesco in the audience.)

Watch the video at Book TV

Learn more about the history of the electric grid, and how the grid works today, by reading my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

Image: The Electric Highway, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from tomsaint's photostream

Energy is more than sources; energy is systems

When we talk about energy, we often talk about it in very disconnected ways. By that, I mean we talk about new renewable generation projects, we talk about cleaning up dirty old power plants, and we talk about personal decisions you and I can make to use less energy, or get more benefits from the same amount.

What we fail to talk about is how all those ideas fit together into a coherent whole. And that matters, because our energy problems (and our energy solutions) are about more than just swapping sources of power or making individual choices. We have to fix the systems, not just the symptoms.

Back in April, I got to go on Minnesota Public Radio's "Bright Ideas" to talk about my book, Before the Lights Go Out. Now MPR has the entire hour-long interview up on video. You can watch the whole thing if you want. But, if you're short on time, I'd recommend the stretch from about minute 8:30 to 10:50. That's where I explain in more detail why systems—infrastructures—are so important and why we can't solve our energy problems without focusing on how choices and sources fit into those larger issues.

Watch that clip, then read this Minneapolis Star-Tribune article about how investments in transportation-oriented bicycle infrastructure have changed the way Minneapolites think about biking and dramatically increased the number of people who choose to bike. I think you'll see some thematic connections.

Learn more about how our energy infrastructures shape our choices and our lives by reading Before the Lights Go Out.

Video Link

More detail on what Kodak was doing with a neutron multiplier

Earlier today, David told you about a news story that's everywhere right now: The fact that the Kodak company ran a small nuclear facility at its research lab in Rochester, New York.

The facility closed down in 2007, but I can totally understand why this story interests people. It's nuclear! And it is really weird for a corporation to be sitting on 3.5 pounds of uranium. Like David said, this is unusual today. David did a good job covering this in a sane way. The TV news I saw this morning at the airport ... not so much. That's why I like the detail provided the Physics Buzz blog, where Bryan Jacobsmeyer explains, better than I've seen elsewhere, just what exactly Kodak was doing with their nuclear system. Turns out, it's really not all that odd for this specific company to own this specific piece of equiptment when they did. That's because of what Kodak was. We're not just talking about a corporation in the sense of middle managers and salesmen. We're talking about original research and development—a job for which a californium neutron flux multiplier is quite well suited.

In fact, these research reactors can be found on several university campuses, and they are operated under strict guidelines without any nefarious intentions.

Researchers working at Kodak wanted to detect very small impurities in chemicals, and Neutron Activation Analysis (NAA) proved to be one of the best techniques to find these impurities. During NAA, samples are bombarded with neutrons, and elemental isotopes from the sample will absorb a small fraction of these neutrons.

Many of these stable elemental isotopes will become radioactive after gaining a new neutron; consequently, they will emit gamma rays. With the right equipment, researchers can measure the precise energy levels of this radiation and narrow down which elements are in the sample.

Basically, it provided a way to sift through the components of a sample at a molecular level, and spot the things that shouldn't be there. Originally, the lab used just californium. Later, it added uranium plates that helped make the system more powerful.

Read the full Physics Buzz post

Via Jennifer Ouellette

Image: IMG_7391.jpg, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from jameskarlbuck's photostream

Maggie talking about decentralized electricity and the future of energy in New York City

I'm going to be in New York at the end of May, talking about my new book Before the Lights Go Out. There's two great events you should join me for. On May 29th at 6:00 pm, I'll be talking about the electric grid, the process of writing a book, and how writing online has improved my work as a science journalist. On May 30th at 6:30 pm, I'll be leading a panel on decentralized energy. Chris Hackett—of the Science Channel's Stuck with Hackett—will be joining me to talk about DIY energy, and Susan Covino, who works for one of the independent organizations that controls movement of electricity around the grid, will talk about integrating decentralized power into our existing infrastructure. Both events are free and open to the public, but you do need to follow those links and RSVP.