Last summer, I worked with IBM and the Weather Channel on some climate- and energy-related content for their Forecast Change campaign. I just learned that the project apparently won a Digiday Content Marketing Award for the best branded content site of the year, which is pretty cool (or at least, my mom might think so).
But I wanted to share one of the pieces I wrote, because the concept was new to me before working on it, and it's now stuck with me ever since; I even found a way to work in as a plot point for playwriting commission I did on climate change. It has to do with floatovoltaic energy — essentially, floating solar panels on (or submerging them in!) bodies of water, to make them more efficient and save water. As I wrote then for Weather.com:
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“It’s like putting a plastic sheet over the whole lake, or the whole tailings pond,” explains Joshua Pearce, a Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Michigan Tech. Pearce has worked extensively in the emerging field of floatovoltaic technology (FVT), or the overlap of solar energy systems and water use. He says that the presence of solar panels over a body of water can provide enough shade to consistently reduce evaporation by 70-80%.
A solar module can easily increase its energy output by five percent just by floating on top of a body of water, even if the panels themselves don’t actually touch the surface. The panels at Las Tórtolas are positioned several inches above the water itself resting on floating pontoons, but even that close proximity still results in an additional 3,000 kWh of electricity annually; a fully submerged solar panel can be even more efficient.
Clifford Burgoni wanted to sell his system for cleaning 86,000 solar panels, so he made a cool drone video of the gear in operation. Read the rest
Britain went a full day without using coal to generate power, reports the BBC. It's the first 24-hour period of inactivity there since 1882, when the world's first public coal-fired power plant was stoked at Holborn Viaduct in London.
But Ms O'Hara says that while the country makes the transition to a low carbon system, coal remains an important source of energy.
According to Gridwatch.co.uk, around half of British energy on Friday came from natural gas, with about a quarter coming from nuclear plants.
Wind, biomass, and imported energy were also used.
As in the U.S., coal power's been squeezed out by natural gas, a cleaner fossil fuel, though the trend is now toward renewable sources. Britain will close its coal-fired power plants down for good in 2025, supposedly. Read the rest
Heather videoed this charming collection of solar-powered bobbleheads. Read the rest
Aeroacoustics expert Nigel Peake of Cambridge University leads a group of engineers mimicking owl wing feathers to reduce noise on wind turbines. Read the rest
The land speed record for a regular bus has been shat on. "Bus Hound," powered by biomethane derived from cow manure, clocked 76.785mph in speed trials in England.
Operated by Reading Buses, the vehicle was painted black and white in honor of the Frisian cows whose excrement powers its mighty engines. It was designed to advance the "power and credibility of buses fuelled by cow poo," reports the BBC.
"Most importantly we wanted to get the image of bus transport away from being dirty, smelly, and slow," Chief engineer John Bickerton told them ."We're modern, fast, and at the cutting edge of innovation."
Ars Technica's Sebastian Anthony writes that biomethane is a promising technology, far greener than natural gas, but close in performance: "not only are you leaving those fossil fuels in the ground, you're also combusting methane that would've otherwise ended up as an atmospheric greenhouse gas."
If you're wondering, the answer is yes: Britain has also invented a bus powered by human excrement.
GENeco general manager Mohammed Saddiq said: "Gas-powered vehicles have an important role to play in improving air quality in UK cities but the Bio-Bus goes further than that and is actually powered by people living in the local area, including quite possibly those on the bus itself."
One human's annual output would would fuel the Bio-Bus for 37 miles. And if you're all out, there's always chip fat. Read the rest
California may be the first US state to generate more than 5% of its electricity from utility solar, but runner-up North Carolina leads the four east coast states that comprised last year's top solar states. The top ten: Read the rest
IKEA has now started selling solar panels in the UK. According the Associated Press, "a standard, all-black 3.36 kilowatt system for a semi-detached home will cost 5,700 British pounds ($9,200) and will include an in-store consultation and design service as well as installation, maintenance and energy monitoring service." Feel free to suggest funny faux-Swedish product names in the comments. Read the rest
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
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) Read the rest
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 Read the rest
If you only have the vaguest notion of what a "smart grid" actually is, don't feel bad. This is one of those energy buzzwords that confuses a lot of people. Part of the problem is that utility companies don't often do a very good job of communicating this stuff. They tell you it's good. They say something hand-wavey about the Internet. And then they pretty much leave you to fend for yourself.
The other part of the problem: "Smart grid" is one word that refers to more than one thing. A smart grid is actually lots of different technologies. They're related. But they do different jobs in different ways, and even one tool might have different levels of functionality that apply to it. That fact is really clear when you visit a smart grid research laboratory, as I did earlier this week at the Colorado State University.
The school's Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory houses a little micro-grid, where electricity can be generated, used, and stored in ways that model the workings of the real-life grid. The smart grid technologies the laboratory is used to study apply to every part of that system—smart grid is part of generation, it's part of how electricity is moved around, it's part of how we consume electricity, and it's part of how we balance supply and demand and avoid blackouts. In other words: This seemingly vague and esoteric concept is actually closely tied to practical, day-to-day realities.
Yesterday, I got to go on NPR's Marketplace Tech Report to talk about two smart grid technologies that you're likely to get some hands-on experience with in the near future. Read the rest