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Posts tagged ‘Energy’

Sanga Moses figured out an innovative way to help Uganda, perhaps re-contextualizing “innovation” in the process

People love to band about the term “innovation” — there’s a whole issue right now because of the recent New Yorker article on “disruptive innovation” — but most people actually use it the wrong way. (It’s similar to how many people think they’re discussing “strategy” but they’re really just planning things out.) Innovation is coming up with a different way of looking at a problem that exists, and solving it in a way that others hadn’t thought to do so. Yes, that’s a simplistic definition and it involves more than that … but that’s the basic situation. Problem exists, new and different solution is found, yay. Consider Uganda, for example. It has one of the highest fertility rates in the world — the population has nearly doubled in 20 years. But at the same time, companies around the world are destroying its forests (75 percent reduction in the past several decades). This creates a situation where young girls often have to skip school and walk miles to find firewood, as that’s the primary agent for cooking. Plus, charcoal is insanely expensive in sub-Saharan Africa. See, this here is a legitimate problem. Cue Sanga Moses with an innovative solution:

The kilns are used to carbonize the farm waste. Things like coffee husks, sugar cane waste, rice waste. You put them in the kiln, start a fire and they get carbonized. You get a powder called char. It is sold to us [by farmers who run the kilns] and then we compress that into fuel briquettes, package them and take them to the market. Slightly over 114,000 people have used them since 2011.

114K in three years in a country of 35 million people would get you groans on Shark Tank, but remember — there’s no marketing here. They just take food waste, put it in a kiln, get this powder, turn it into briquettes, and sell it to those who want it. The rate of adoption has been pretty quick. And there’s this:

We have a network of 460 women retailers who earn about $152 a month. That is a lower middle class income and is more than what the government pays a primary school teacher.

Users can save about $200 a year by using our fuel. Then we have farmers who supply us with the char and on average earn about $30 a month.

Girls don’t have to skip school to find wood. Parents, because they have some disposable income either through savings [on fuel] or through sales as retailers or farmers, can buy books for their children, can pay school fees, [and can buy] uniforms, sanitary pads.

Again, innovation. The problem involved fuel sources, people foregoing their education to gather wood, and keeping costs down in a poor area. We’re not talking about something that everyone in the country is using, no — but we are talking about an idea to solve a problem that gained steam and has now good rates of adoption. That, right there, is what we should discuss when we toss around the word innovation.


North Carolina is about to be the tipping point for the fracking debate in America

Get this:

North Carolina lawmakers have softened a controversial bill that would have made it a felony to disclose the chemicals used in fracking. Under the version of the law that passed the state legislature on Thursday, the offense has been knocked down to a misdemeanor. But legal experts say the language may still allow companies to press criminal charges against individuals who disclose what they learn about fracking chemicals—including doctors or fire chiefs.

Needless to say, some North Carolina communities are upset about this, and others are speculating as to the real reasons for the gag order. To reiterate, though: it could theoretically be a misdemeanor for your doctor to tell you exactly what made you sick, in the effort of protecting trade secrets of the oil/gas industry. That seems a bit of a reach, no? Or maybe this is all because of laziness?

The composition of petroleum distillates is complex, since they contain hundreds of different chemicals. Furthermore, the composition of the distillates continually changes based on the type of oil being refined as well as on changes in the operating conditions of the refinery. Therefore, if the drilling companies had to disclose the chemicals used in each of their thousands of fracking wells, it would require a lengthy and detailed laboratory analysis accompanied by a substantial amount of paperwork. They could do this work – they just don’t want to.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the lead author of the North Carolina bill has pretty deep ties to the oil/gas industry. His name is Robert (Bob) Rucho, and some of his leading contributors are Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas. It’s sometimes sad how these stories are always about follow the money.

You can sign a petition to against this deal here:

It’s a fact that people need energy, yes — and it’s a fact that some of the emergent technologies in that world aren’t to scale yet — but placing a semi-gag order on doctors and first responders to protect the proprietary nature of fracking seems a bit ludicrous overall.



If you race electric cars on the streets of Miami and London, does that make them sexier? Formula E hopes so.

“Formula E” will debut next summer with a bunch of cool features — you can ‘tweet to boost’ certain drivers, for example — perhaps none more than the essential feature of the circuit: all the cars are electric and yes, if you watch the video above, they sound like robots out of Star Wars (which could get annoying over a longer race, you’d imagine). The idea is that “racing on Sunday sells cars on Monday” — which seems to have worked in the American Southeast and Europe for decades — so maybe putting electric cars on the streets of global cities will make electric cars something people must own. In reality, it will come down to price.

The racing starts in Beijing this September, and they’re aiming for a total audience of 205 million across their major races (20 million viewers per race). By contrast, NASCAR got about 7 million viewers for the Coca-Cola 600 two weekends ago; while that was the most-watched sporting event of the weekend (it got more viewers than Heat-Pacers and the Indy 500), Formula E is still claiming it can almost triple that figure for a race. That said, the branding is a bit more global — and of the 10 initial teams, they’re pretty spread out in terms of country. Formula 1 ratings in the U.S. are doing better but still not great (320K per race), and at the beginning, that’s probably the brand it will be the most-closely tied to (the cars each go 0-60 in about 3 seconds, for example). Some think Formula E is “coming for” Formula 1.

As for whether it’s the “future of motorsport,” well, probably not anytime in the immediate short-term. (In 50-70 years, it might have to be.) But is it a good branding tool for the coming generational shift we need to make in terms of fossil fuel usage? Undoubtedly. And it should be cool to watch a few of these races. Check out the car debuting on the Las Vegas Strip, for example:

And check out this overall ‘context of the circuit’ video too:

Damn, North Dakota: from 2010 to 2013, 940 new jobs per 10,000 people. Next highest in the U.S.? 337 new jobs per 10K people.

Say it with me now: the twin engines of present-day American job growth are knowledge and energy. We’ve talked about this before (with a little more context here), and now theres’s some new data via Atlantic Cities essentially underscoring the idea. Look at this chart:


The most actual jobs were added in California and Texas, but those are two of the three biggest states in America. If you do it per capita across 10K residents, North Dakota blows everyone out of the water. Simple reason: oil + natural gas reserves. You could argue it’s a hardcore ‘boom-bust’ situation, whereby all those towns with 100K residents now will be deserted when the resources run out. Sadly, that’s probably accurate. People go where money and jobs are (adjusting for factors like family); that’s kinda the real American way.

Obviously, jobs aren’t created equal — some are high-paying and some are basic blue-collar type jobs. If you look at The Atlantic Cities link, you’ll see maps for both job creation models across all 50 states; North Dakota leads in both, and by a fairly wide margin. You may think a state like California — with more tech jobs — would be No. 1 or No. 2 for “high-paying.” (It’s in the top five, but it’s below Washington state — think Seattle.) But if you want to know the overall reason why the “high-paying job creation” states and the “low-paying job creation” states sync up, here’s one idea:

Here the picture becomes more interesting. On the one hand several of the states that top the lists of overall job growth and high-wage job growth also turn up here. Generally speaking, the job market is often consistent across the board, with low-wage jobs following growth in overall and high-wage positions. As my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Charlotta Mellander demonstrated this fall, on a metro level places with more high-wage job growth tend to have more low-wage job growth as well. So, for example, North Dakota’s energy boom has created demand for energy workers and contractors, as well as restaurants, hotels, and other amenities. Unsurprisingly, then, North Dakota, Utah, D.C., and Texas again top the list.

Salt Lake City, FYI, might be the best place in America to move to right now; obviously there’s a religious context to living there (Mormon faith), but damn, it tops almost every quality-of-life figure out there (and there’s jobs!).




Could a Boston-based company called XL Hybrids help change the world (and the climate)?

XL Hybrids is a company out of Boston that, right there on their homepage, will promise a 20 percent reduction in urban fuel consumption. The business media is on board: Fast Company just had them as the third-most innovative energy company in the world (behind Tesla and GE, which is fairly nice company to be in), and the 35th most innovative company overall (that seems hard to rank, but OK). What do they do, essentially? They take older vans and trucks and retro-fit them with an electric motor and a lithium-ion battery, essentially making them into hybrids. If gas prices stay in normal ranges, the work pays for itself in about 2-3 years. Since 2013, they added Coca-Cola and Fed-Ex as major clients and their revenue went up twenty-fold. They’ve also partnered with Knapheide, which does a lot of van/truck service annually anyway. The retro-fitting process can simply be connected to the other work the truck is having done.

Since some are now claiming we’re in the “terminal stage” of our fossil fuel addiction (I would generally concur), the work of XL Hybrids is super important: they take some of the biggest gas-guzzlers out there — and gas-guzzlers that are consistently in use, because they transport commerce and services — and make them more effective in terms of the environment (yay for all) and the bottom line within 2-3 years (yay for the company). That’s the only type of set-up that’s going to help reduce emissions by the 40-70 percent we apparently need to reduce them by in the next 50-100 years; the company needs to feel it in their bottom line too. No company will do something simply for the environment; there has to be a bottom-line aspect to it. Sad but true.

XL Hybrids is a spin-out from MIT (a true center of innovation), as detailed here. Here’s a bit on how it all works:

“The goal is to reduce oil consumption with cost-effective electric drive technology, where fleets don’t need additional infrastructure and don’t need a large battery,” says Tod Hynes ’02, co-founding president of XL Hybrids and a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

The system’s powertrain includes an electric traction motor, a lithium-ion battery, advanced power converters, and other connecting components that attach to the powertrains of traditional General Motors and Ford cargo, delivery, and shuttle vans, as well as cutaway trucks.

When the vehicles brake, a process known as “regenerative braking” captures the kinetic energy (usually dissipated as heat through friction) and converts it into electricity that charges the battery — which, in turn, releases the energy to the electric motor during acceleration.

Custom software reads the driver’s braking habits and optimizes the system. The startup also collects operational data from the vehicles to inform fleet managers of the best vehicles for the technology — usually ones traveling in the stop-and-go traffic of urban areas.

Here’s how the money side of it works:

Electric or hybrid fleet vehicles traditionally run on large batteries — sometimes more than 100 kilowatt-hours (kWh) in capacity — that cost upward of $40,000. XL Hybrids installs small, 1.8-kWh lithium-ion batteries that provide a 20 percent fuel savings, Hynes says.

To determine the extent of the savings, XL Hybrids conducted a dynamometer test, which involves running a vehicle on treadmill-like rollers to estimate fuel mileage in urban driving. They first ran a 5-ton vehicle through the test without XL Hybrids’ system and then with the system, observing a 21 percent savings.

With this savings, companies can expect to save 4,000 gallons of fuel over the life of an XL Hybrids system, Hynes says. Since the system costs $8,000, companies essentially pay $2 for each gallon saved. “Why pay $3 or $4 for a gallon, when you can pay $2 to save a gallon?” Hynes says.

Additional benefits to the system, Hynes says, include reducing brake wear and maintenance, and the time employees spend filling up at gas stations. Also, downsizing engines: An XL Hybrids electric motor adds torque to an existing powertrain, meaning a customer can reduce the size of the engine from, say, a 6-liter to a 4.8-liter, and get better acceleration — which can save hundreds or thousands of dollars upfront, Hynes says.

Cool. The big news in this space will always remain whether Tesla can make the electric car a day-to-day reality, but what XL Hybrids is doing is a great development in terms of reducing emissions from some of the larger fleets out there.

Matt Teeters and the tricky dance of politics and education in Wyoming

Matt Teeters is a state representative in Wyoming who helped lead the charge for the state to officially reject the new Next Generation Science Standards, becoming the first state to officially do so. (It should be noted that the Governor of Wyoming, Matt Mead, is on the same side as Teeters on these issues.) Here’s the essential breakdown, via local press. Let’s start with Teeters:

“[The standards] handle global warming as settled science,” said Rep. Matt Teeters, a Republican from Lingle who was one of the footnote’s authors. “There’s all kind of social implications involved in that that I don’t think would be good for Wyoming.”

Teeters said teaching global warming as fact would wreck Wyoming’s economy, as the state is the nation’s largest energy exporter, and cause other unwanted political ramifications.

(I was dubious about the “largest energy exporter” claim when I first saw all this, but it appears to be mostly true.)

Now here’s the flip side of the issue, via Pete Gosar:

“Over the last few years in Wyoming, we’ve injected politics into education time and again and it has been less than successful,” said Gosar, a member of the state board of education and chairman of the Wyoming Democratic Party. “And so here we go again.”

And now we dance!

You see this issue all the time in America (although probably more often in Texas than anywhere else); basically, politicians want to control exactly what the next generation is being taught in line with their own views/beliefs. For the life of me, I can’t understand why it’s a bad thing for American students to be exposed to two sets of beliefs and draw their own conclusions — isn’t that basically what critical thinking is, which is what we seemingly need more of in America? — but apparently it is. You see this issue most tangibly with creationism, but it comes up elsewhere.

In Wyoming the issue seems to be — if the science standards say “our energy exporting is helping to accelerate global warming,” and then kids believe that and shy away from that type of work, could that eventually cripple the economy of Wyoming? (That’s a broad, umbrella-level view of the arguments.) I actually think family means more to people than education per se, so if your family has been in coal for 50 years, you might go into coal as well, national science standards be damned. But I could be wrong on that front.

A lot of the current discussions around education curriculum remind me of Eli Pariser and the “algorithm bubble,” basically talking about how it’s really hard to be exposed to information outside of your belief set — since everything is tailored via preference. Are politics ultimately going to do that to the notion of classroom learning? That would be sad.

Is the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System a danger to both pilots and birds?

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System — also known as the world’s largest solar farm right now — is on the California-Nevada border, about 40 miles from McCarron Airport (Vegas) and near a slew of other regional airports. It was built by BrightSource Energy out of Oakland and during its initial stages, the heat being generated was enough to melt the feathers of birds as they were flying. Not great, even if you believe solar is the future.

Now there’s a new concern: human fliers, aka pilots. Check out some of these reports from pilots:

 “From the pilot’s seat of my aircraft the brightness was like looking into the sun,” reported one pilot as his small plane climbed from 6,000 to 12,000 feet after taking off from the Boulder City, Nevada, airport.

And then:

“Daily, during the late morning and early afternoon hours we get complaints from pilots of aircraft flying from the northeast to the southwest about the brightness of this solar farm,” reported an air traffic controller at an FAA center that monitors the airspace in southern California. A pilot of a commercial jetliner told him the light reflected from the Ivanpah mirrors “was nearly blinding.”

This doesn’t seem positive. Here’s another awkward aspect: some of those complaints above? They were filed in August 2013. When did they reach the correct authorities? March 2014. That’s essentially seven months for information to be reaching the right place. It’s not exactly elite communication.

NRG Energy, which runs Ivanpah, says they’re looking into the situation — and it should be noted that aviation-types have long been not huge fans of solar plants.

It should also probably be noted that for all the fuss and muster about Ivanpah, it’s actually pretty much already irrelevant despite its $2.2 billion price:

Solar thermal creates electricity by using mirrors to direct intense amounts of heat at a centralized collector, which is used to heat a substance like water to create steam power. Solar photovoltaic, meanwhile, directly converts solar energy into electricity through semiconductors.

If solar thermal sounds unnecessarily complicated, you’re right. Solar photovoltaic has seen explosive growth in the past few years thanks to plummeting material costs, state incentives, and eco-conscious homebuyers putting up panels on their roofs. But solar thermal growth has stalled, and is expected to continue to do so. Ivanpah cost $2.2 billion. Warren Buffett paid the same amount for the world’s largest photovoltaic plant just up the road outside Bakersfield. That plant will generate 1.5-times as much power as Ivanpah.


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