Producing power from the wind and sun isn't as simple as just swapping a wind turbine for a coal-fired power plant. Every source of power we use has to work with our electrical grid, an old, imperfect, complex system that wasn't put together with the needs of renewables in mind. For instance, because renewable generation is intermittent generation, using it goes hand-in-hand with ramping production from traditional generation up and down. When you don't have enough wind, you turn up the gas-fire generators. That kind of treatment can put stress on machinery and rack up costs in maintenance and repairs. But new research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory
suggests that, at least in monetary terms, those costs are dwarfed by the cost savings you get from using more wind and solar power and, thus, not having to pay for fuel sources. Read the rest
Whether or not Voyager I has actually left the solar system, one thing is certain — it never would have made it far enough to have a debate if it weren't for the help of plutonium-238. The isotope has been crucial for powering spacecraft — there's 10 pounds of the stuff in the batteries of Curiosity. But supplies are very, very limited. In fact, the US scientific stockpile is down to 36 pounds. All of it spoken for. What happens to space exploration when there's no more plutonium-238?
Dave Mosher investigates at Wired. Read the rest
There are many downsides to hydraulic fracturing and the natural gas it's used to harvest, but for the people who work in America's booming oil and gas fields there's a positive that outweighs a lot of the problems other people worry about. At High Country News, Jonathan Thompson writes about the financial benefits fracking holds for families, especially those where the people working don't have a college degree. With fewer and fewer well-paid manufacturing jobs, hydrocarbons are one of the few industries left where your job can improve your kid's chances of reaching a higher income bracket
. Read the rest
Redditor Tufflaw has been running a central air-conditioning system "24/7" during the New York heatwave. But the bills were offset by 26 home solar panels by Sharp that took three days to install and were subject to state and federal tax-credits, and will take 7-8 years to pay for themselves. Here is the most recent bill: $6.05. Tufflaw says that there are sometimes months that go by with no bill at all (and one year generated a $20 rebate from the power company!), and adds, "There's also an intangible benefit, feeling good about using a free renewable source of power."
Been running my central air 24/7 lately, especially with the recent heat wave. This is my most recent electric bill. Damn I love my solar panels.
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The entire country is in the red (and orange) today
. At 10:20 am, it was hotter in Minneapolis than southern Florida and the only places that looked remotely comfortable were all on the Pacific coast. Those temps don't just strain your patience. They also strain your electrical grid, as millions of Americans simultaneously crank up their air conditioners and test the grid's ability to match supply of electricity with demand
for it. For grid controllers, a day like today is akin to the Super Bowl. Will there be brownouts? Blackouts? Awkward flickering? Place your bets. The peak in demand will happen later this afternoon. Read the rest
I'm not a big fan of AC. It's not an ideological thing for me (although it's hard for me to not be aware of how much energy those systems draw). Instead, it's mostly about comfort. Air conditioned spaces usually feel too cold to me, and too stuffed up. I'd prefer to have the fresh air and the open windows. Of course, there are some days when that's not exactly comfortable, either. Treehugger has a slideshow that can help
. It's filled with tips for changing your lifestyle and your home to make things more comfortable at higher temperatures, reducing the number of days when you actually need the AC. This isn't all stuff you can do in a day — for instance, it will take a while to get a good shade tree outside your house — but the suggestions are interesting, and helpful, and most of them are focused cheap and simple, rather than high-tech and costly. Read the rest
Reuters reports that Apple will build
a new solar farm with NV Energy Inc, to power the computing giant's new data center in Reno, Nevada. The plan is seen as "a major step towards its goal of having its data centers run on renewable energy." Read the rest
Alan sez, "Evie Sobczak, who is presently 16, appears to have invented a completely chemical-free process for turning algae into a biofuel. Along the way her process appears to be about 20% more efficient than current chemical-heavy (and thus potentially polluting) processes. Her project just took first place and best in category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair."
Teen's biofuel invention turns algae into fuel
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Richard Komp has taught people how to make solar as a cottage industry in at least 16 different countries over the last few years.
There are existing solutions to our the energy crises facing us today, but they all suffer from being frustratingly imperfect, complicated, and not particularly easy to implement (at least not quickly). Some even require us to change our behaviors. And, most likely, we'd have have to use lots of these solutions all at once, further adding to the complication involved. It's no wonder then that, in our heart of hearts, most of us are holding out for a miracle — some new technology that could provide all the power we want, with few drawbacks, and few changes to our current infrastructure or social status-quo. But is that a good idea, or a waste of time and resources? In the first edition of a new monthly column for The New York Times
, Justin Gillis writes about the allure of energy miracles
, what they actually look like in reality, and whether there's really a dichotomy between using what we have and developing something better. Read the rest
Two Bedouin women return from a six-month solar engineering training at the Barefoot College in India as 'solar engineers' to start training other women.
A documentary and PSA from Yoko Ono and Artists Against Fracking.
There is no single definition of comfort. My newest column for The New York Times Magazine explores the different cultural definitions of pleasant living
, how those traditions affect energy use in different countries, and how globalization changes both the culture and the fossil fuel consumption. Fun fact: Engineers have a unit of measurement that helps them account for clothing when they're trying to figure out what temperature an office building should be. It's called the Clo, and 1 Clo is equivalent to one full business suit. As I discovered, that fact has a big impact on women, business people in the tropics, and basically anybody who doesn't wear a suit to work. Read the rest
A photograph that shows the Hiroshima atomic bomb cloud split into two sections, one over the other, has been released by the curator of a peace museum in Japan
. It was discovered among archival items related to the bombing, articles now in the possession of Honkawa Elementary School in Hiroshima city.
Richard Perry/The New York Times
A worthy and overlooked story in the NYT by Elizabeth Rosenthal about a new economic riptide hitting Central America, a result of America's changing corn policy. The US is now using 40% of our own corn crop to produce biofuel, and tortilla prices have doubled in Guatemala, which now imports about half of its corn.
"Recent laws in the United States and Europe that mandate the increasing use of biofuel in cars have had far-flung ripple effects, economists say, as land once devoted to growing food for humans is now sometimes more profitably used for churning out vehicle fuel."
Read the rest, and check out Richard Perry's photo slideshow. Read the rest
This is the difference between low kinetic energy (top) and high kinetic energy (bottom), as illustrated in the 1956 Disney book Our Friend the Atom. It may be useful in visualizing some of the ideas presented in my recent feature on space radiation.
From Fresh Photons, a fantastic blog chock full of science pictures.
Via David Ng Read the rest