Archive for the ‘Nature’ category

Concentrated Solar Power

April 14, 2011

Energy! This was on digg recently because Google was funding it. But it was also supported by a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the US Department of Energy, so it’s funded in part by your friendly neighborhood American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009! In watching the video, you notice that big names are in attendance, such as Ahnold and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Suffice to say that most DOE Recovery Act awards don’t get that kind of attendance and attention – this is a big deal.

It’s a puffy video, with cheesy music, and a lot of patting themselves on the back. But CSP has a lot of promise – cheap, simple, clean. Now that some BIG plants are going up, we’ll start seeing more and more of them. Unfortunately, they won’t appear as quickly as they need to, partly because energy politics in DC are so terrible these days such that the government won’t be investing as much. Alas.

Anyways, it’s a fun, optimistic watch. And it has some cool visuals (those are HUUGE mirrors!).



January 14, 2011

I’ve thought about recycling and composting before. It’s standard fare for someone involved in the sustainability movement. But I’ve rarely started my thought process with trash.

Then the NYTimes reminded me that you could focus on the waste.

If municipalities, states, or even the federal government somehow implemented a more direct – “you toss, you pay” structure, it could be a good financial incentive to move towards recycling. Why have I not heard about that type of policy tool much before? Where are all the advocates? It seems like it would be pretty effective. But maybe if no one talks about it, it’s not effective…

Either way, I’ll keep my eye out for research and case studies on that type of system.

Categories of Efficiency

December 26, 2010

David Owen’s piece in a recent New Yorker discussed efficiency, and an idea called the Jevons Paradox. Basically, when you make a system more efficient, people will take advantage of the added efficiency and use more.

The example given is refrigerators. A few decades ago, the government (I think) made some efficiency standards for fridges, and either due to that standard or product development, fridges used up a lot less energy. Fridge use, on the other hand, is way up. Owen talks via anecdote about how we aren’t one-fridge-per-house anymore, but full of mini-fridges for drinks and a second fridge in the basement for extra storage. It used to be too expensive to have more than one, but now we have a lot. So total energy use didn’t go down.

This is a reasonable worry. In light of much of the work going on at the US Department of Energy on efficiency, it should make a policymaker pause…

However! I think there are a couple different categories of efficiency at play. There are some parts of life people enjoy having in large(r?) quantities, if they can. Having more convenient drinks and a wider selection of refrigerated food is clearly something towards which people gravitate. But some activities, people only need to (and only can) do a limited amount of time/ways/whatever.

For example, a person can only drive one car at a time. Or, how often would you need to work at two computers at once? And, when you’re not in other rooms in your house, do you need the lights on in them? My biggest example is home heating/AC – you’re aiming for one temperature, so if it’s cheaper and faster for your heater to find it, then you’re golden. Making any of these activities more efficient in terms of the energy required won’t be the dominant factor in anyone choosing to do more of them.

(Side note: ok, maybe not with driving when gas is cheap vs expensive, but in Los Angeles, I’d say traffic is the biggest factor. Also, I understand the environmentalist’s desire to making driving on gasoline very expensive so we can finally switch fuels… that’s not entirely my point here.)

To be fair, there is a possibility that the money saved on heating and electricity will wind up going towards other, energy-consuming consumption. Your house can get to 70 degrees way faster, so you have an extra 100$ a month. So you go shopping, or drive to the beach, or buy another appliance. Substitution.

So maybe I just proved that there is no distinction… As noted in the article – it’s very hard to prove causality in the Jevons Paradox. People rarely (though might be starting to more often now) think, “Man, that energy-efficient fridge saved me $22.47 a month. After a couple years, I can buy a new fridge and then only be back to my original load!” I’d conjecture that the decisions are much less connected. People rarely do the analysis to see how much less money they would have had, and then go spend the extra earned cash. You have a bank account balance no matter what, and do financial decisions based on that quantity. Or not – or you have some other way – but that’s sort of how I do it (so far). Either way, it’s clearly not always a direct subsitution.

There’s one last aspect to it I want to bring up: there’s still a limit on how much people can do any one particular activity. I don’t foresee refrigerators in every room in every house. I don’t foresee people driving or flying 24/7 just because they can. Alone, you can only do so much. So imagine if we encourage more energy-efficient activities, and keep working to make the others more efficient. Except, then the problems arise more when the population keeps growing, and all these limited individuals make for a growing total amount of energy. Is there a Jevons Paradox of population – when people lead more efficient lives, we substitute with more people?

Ok – I’ll stop there for now. Energy ramble. Many people spend their lives thinking about this, I’m noobily scratching the surface.

Venus on Mars

August 5, 2010

Landing people on Mars in some ways feels like it’s a long way off. We haven’t landed on the moon in a while, and space programs are seen as expensive. But I’d totally be down for a bit of patting ourselves on the back in the name of science again. Lets go to another planet.

Sometimes people comment about the psychological toll of sitting on a spacecraft with just a couple other people for months and months, on an incredibly dangerous journey, to an entirely different planet. But if you got to be the astronaut to be THE FIRST PERSON ON MARS – you know you’d do it. History forever.

So how about this time, we pick a woman to take the first step?


August 3, 2010

I have a tie that I bought in Thailand at a night market for about a dollar. The tag claims it is hand-made and 100% silk. Of the hand-made, I can’t say, but it’s definitely not all silk.

It is covered in elephants.

They are white elephants. They are wearing rug-like things on their backs, and have a head covering. Basically, they are patterned in an asian style of some kind.

I work at the Department of Energy. In a democratic administration.

I have worn this tie to work about once a week for the last 4 months. On maybe three occasions, people have noticed that my tie is covered in elephants. They ask if I’m a republican, and I respond that, no, I bought this tie in Thailand and they are asian-y looking elephants. People generally are ok with that.

But there is some intense partisanship in DC. Some people are a little insulted at my elephants. (yes “at”)

Well screw them. Is the rotunda of the natural history museum a Republican temple?

it was the most magical thing to five-year-old-me, not a damn partisan statement

I refuse to allow the monopolization of animals as partisan symbols.


July 29, 2010

It was an extremely hot day today. More importantly, it was also extremely humid. There were at least two serious flash downpours.

Then at the end of the day, when it was dark out, and still extremely humid, the skies decided to have a little fun.

Standing on top of a 10-story parking garage at 10 at night, looking out over the treetops, I could see the gods fighting. There was enough haze that the horizon looked like it might be clear of clouds – it just seemed dark but for a dusty glow from streetlights.

Except that every few seconds – FLASH – one little section of that dark horizon would be backlit by a bolt of heat lightning, exposing billowy clouds that were hidden in the darkness. Patches of the heavens kept appearing because of all the static in the humid air.

Driving down the road, one radio station made it seem like God was a Hell’s Angel, rocking his ass off with pyrotechnics. A switch of the channel, and all of a sudden that deity was improvising a jerky (and a bit thunderous) rhythm along with the best of drummers.

Better than any fireworks.

End the Oil Companies

May 25, 2010

We have to be honest.

If our goal is to curb global warming we have to end the emission of greenhouse gases.  We talk of “reducing” emissions because it will take such a long time to fully transition, but in the longer-term grand scheme of things, we have to eliminate emissions of greenhouse gases.


This means we won’t be using fossil fuels.  No more oil. No more coal.

So, in the politics of things, what kind of approach do we take? Do we blame the oil and coal companies for being evil, fighting against them in some manner (taxes, stricter regulation, greenhouse gas caps)? But who has the moral high ground when it’s everyone buying the fuel or electricity from fossil fuel sources? Do we “punish” ourselves instead with taxes every time we buy gas?

The conversation has mostly moved past these kinds of questions and has settled on either a carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme. The suppliers get taxed, which ultimately affects everyone because prices rise. Basic economics. It’s not a punishment, it’s accounting for the environmental externality and mandating emissions reductions.

But as we frame the issue, we need to be clear. The oil companies and the coal companies, at some point, will no longer sell oil or coal to be burned. We need to end their business as we know it. (technically, they can still be companies, they just have to sell something else)

When in history has an entire industry needed to be shut down before? Is slavery a good example? Cotton was ok to produce. Energy is ok to produce. Producing cotton with slave labor was terrible. Producing energy with fossil fuels that cause global warming is terrible. It’s a simplification, but this is huge. systematic. change. we’re talking about.


Shutting down companies means people go out of work. Politicians can’t accept that.

The answer so far has been an unclear, “lets hope things get worked out over time” approach. As we transition to a clean energy economy, we’ve generally hoped those coal and oil jobs will somehow shift into wind installation, photovoltaic manufacturing, etc.

But you’re not going to win any votes by attacking a bunch of companies sans jobs opportunities for workers who will be affected.

Maybe this is too paternalistic – maybe we should just set the carbon emissions limit and let the dirty companies shift their portfolios into clean energy production. Exxon has a biofuels operation now that they threw $600 million into. The US culture seems to favor market forces working their magic.

But with the aggressive position I outlined above, I think we need to propose some extra help for those affected. Because those oil and coal workers are our oil and coal workers. They supply us with the energy that runs our modern world. Just because their place in history put them in a harmful industry doesn’t mean we should punish them. We should provide them with the opportunity to remain participants in the economy.  Bad companies can die and I won’t cry. But their workers must be accounted for.

In the end, what will probably happen is a long-term shift, where the renewable industry grows (quickly, hopefully) and a national policy makes the dirty energy industry more costly, so the workers will migrate on their own. It will happen over a long enough time that the pain will be minor. We don’t have the renewable capacity today to turn off the oil spigot. But we must continue to build up that capacity so that someday, we can finally turn off that faucet.