News posts from JTE's Archive

Juan Cole: McRambo and Mean Girl ‘08

Friday, September 5th, 2008

Juan Cole looks behind the curtain, and it’s not pretty. Here’s the short version: Wish you could go back in time and miraculously win the Vietnam War? You can, simply by voting for John McCain. Halleluiah!

Video: Chelsea Green Grasshopper Bike-Commutes into the Sunset

Monday, September 1st, 2008

We’re all feeling a bit down as Jessica Saturley, a beloved-by-all coworker, is taking her leave from Chelsea Green to pursue new adventures. Next stop: the future!

Before she had left for good, I asked her to talk about something near and dear to her heart, her bicycle.

Jessica, you are missed.

Speeches schmeeches. The political light at the end of the tunnel is a coal miner’s lamp.

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

I like Juan Cole and rely on his Informed Comment. He’s pretty on the ball. But I was a little disappointed to see him describe Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s recent speech at the Democratic convention as possibly “the most important address on energy given so far by an American politician.” (He includes video of the speech. To make it even easier on you, I’ll do it too.)

(And here’s the text of the speech.)

To Cole’s credit, he does also say, “Now if only someone could get him off this liquefied coal kick.” That’s rather something of an understatement.

Maybe Cole thinks so highly of Schweitzer because he takes his cue from Daily Kos—a hotbed of Schweitzer support. And hey, I think it’s pretty danged cool that Montana’s got a proud Democrat as governor and I think there’s plenty about Schweitzer to support. Maybe it helps that Cole was following the Sierra Club’s lead in praising Schweitzer’s speech. Even still, if Schweitzer’s speech is the top of the game for U.S. politicians to date, we are so far from where we need to be it’s a little scary, and I’m a little baffled that Cole and the Sierra Club would give the speech such strong kudos.

I commented on Cole’s blog in reaction to this, but wanted to say it more clearly and out in the open. Here’s my comment:

It’s not just that he’s such a promoter of liquified coal—which would undermine any and all progress we made by avoiding use of that barrel of oil. It’s his philosophical starting point. “We face a great new challenge…a world energy crisis that threatens…our very way of life.” Where have I heard that before? Oh, right, from Dick “not negotiable” Cheney. That’s is precisely why Schweitzer promotes liquified coal.*

“Our” way of life is the problem. “Our” way of life requires more energy than it is possible to provide in a responsible, secure, clean, or economical way. Not every aspect of “our” way of life, of course. But too many aspects are built upon a blind assumption that we will always have seemingly unlimited cheap energy available. Just like the rich kid who never had to really work to achieve financial success, “our” way of life is a spoiled way of life, when it comes to energy. When there’s not enough energy to keep us happy, we just complain to Mommy and Daddy government, and they go give out corporate subsidies to encourage more extraction of fossil fuels, they go shove nerdy gadfly climate scientists into the corner, telling them “I don’t have time for your mumbo jumbo—my kid needs a 48 inch plasma screen TV and by God, he’s gonna get it!”

When a prominent politician is wise enough and brave enough to speak that truth to the American people on national TV, then maybe I’ll be willing to think of it as “an important address.” (I don’t require that the politician be obnoxious in their rhetoric, the way, I admit, I have a little bit been.)

*Okay, the other reason is that he’s Montana’s governor, and it’s his job to promote anything that will help create new jobs and bring more money into the state. At least, that’s the way governorships are designed these days. Consequences be damned, and all.

Now there was a truly useful statement made at the DNC on this topic. (Maybe more than one, but I only saw a smattering of the speeches.) Al Gore was the only one I saw who didn’t target the boogie man of “foreign oil,” but the power behind the throne, our dependency “on dirty and dangerous fossil fuels.” (Emphasis added.) Here’s his speech.

(Here’s the text of the speech.)

I don’t nominate Gore’s speech to fill the shoes that Cole described, “the most important address on energy given so far by an American politician.” Gore isn’t a politician any more, so he doesn’t have the same pressure on him—the way Schweitzer definitely does from his own in-state coal lobby.

But just as Robert Kuttner argues in Obama’s Challenge on economic issues, that a “transformative president” is one who can be “teacher-in-chief,” telling the American people hard truths and explaining to us the realities we must face and embark upon to deal with those truths, we need politicians who can be transformative leaders on the energy-and-climate issue. We need them to be leaders while they are in office, not only after they retire from elective politics.

The speech that makes a difference? We’re still waiting.

[Photo courtesy of the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety.]

How green can you go? A poop-powered kitchen

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Any tinkering addicts, basement inventors out there looking for a good project? I’ve had a vision of the eco-kitchen future, and I want you to help make it into a demonstrable reality. I don’t have the tinkering skills, or time away from the toddling kids, to work on it myself.

The vision is this: cooking and refrigeration powered by methane produced from household waste (including bodily waste). Can such a utopia be possible. You betcha! It works (in the fevered theory of my mind) like this:

When anaerobic bacteria feed on organic wastes (like poop, food scraps, paper, etc.) they produce methane as one of their waste products. This is the basis for “landfill gas,” in which the methane emerging from all the trash buried in landfills is captured and put to good use—or at least burned off. (If you can’t do anything useful with it, it’s a good idea to at least burn off methane that would otherwise go into the atmosphere. Methane is a super-strong greenhouse gas, moreso than the carbon dioxide that results from burning the methane. So burning it and converting it to carbon dioxide reduces the impact on global warming. It is still adding to global warming when you do this, just not as much as if you let the methane escape unburned.)

A biodigester is a contraption that takes advantage of these anaerobic bacteria to process wastes and capture the useable methane. The physical solids that remain can also be a good fertilizer in gardening and farming. Biodigesters can be either large or small in scale. Large scale versions are now cropping up on dairy farms to power electric generators. Here in Vermont, one of the utilities is pursuing this under the name “Cow Power.” It’s being done in Michigan as well, and probably elsewhere.

Meanwhile, in another part of the eco-universe, is the absorption refrigerator, long a sturdy workhorse for those living off-grid and who power their refrigerators with propane. Happily, these refrigerators—which are marvelously efficient—can also run on methane. Treehugger has an article describing a few that are “dual fuel” and can run on either methane or electricity. That’s a handy feature to keep in mind.

Okay, so enough background. Here’s my proposal: install a biodigester in your home, perhaps like this one designed by Robert Crosby. Route the resulting methane to your absorption refrigerator. Voila! A fossil-fuel free refrigerator! (And, as mentioned before, high quality fertilizer for your garden.)

If you have excess methane coming out of the biodigester, you could use it to preheat domestic hot water. It’s probably not a good idea to try to store any quantity of the methane as that would be a serious fire hazard, so don’t make plans to cook with it. That’s why the refrigerator is, in theory, a good use for the methane; a biodigester emits methane in a more-or-less slow-and-steady manner, and the absorption refrigerator uses its fuel in a slow-and-steady manner. They were made for each other!

But what if you don’t produce enough methane? Or if you go away on vacation and don’t add wastes to the biodigester for a week? That’s where the dual-fuel methane/electric refrigerators come in. Problem solved.

Does Crosby’s biodigester produce enough methane to power a home’s refrigerator? I emailed Bob and asked him that very question. Doing some quick calculations, he determined that they should indeed be pretty well matched up.

A quick google search looks like a typical propane refrigerator might go through about 1/4 gal of propane per day, or 91,000/3 about ~23,000 Btu/day (or ~30,000 Btu/Day in a warmer climate). At a heat value of, say, 600 Btu/Cu Ft biogas, that would be equivalent to ~ 40 Cu Ft/day. Plugging some “what-if” values into my biogas calculator <> to see what volume and type of waste would be needed to provide that amount, it looks like it could be done if fed the waste from 4 people plus maybe 5 lbs/day of leaves, veggie scraps, grass clippings etc.

Let’s summarize the benefits: 1) you are recycling your bodily and other wastes, 2) you get climate-friendly refrigeration, 3) you get high quality, home made fertilizer for your garden, and 4) you prevent methane that might otherwise be produced in a landfill or at a wastewater facility from escaping into the atmosphere, which would exacerbate climate change.

So what do you say? Any eco-conscious high-schoolers out there with really liberal parents who want to do a science project sure to win first place at the regional science fair? If you do try this out, definitely let us know so we can give you credit on the blog. And, more importantly,

be safe!

Don’t start producing methane in your house until you’ve figured out how to do it without hurting yourself or starting any fires. Seriously—for all my glib tone, I do not want to find out that I inspired some overeager yahoo to play with fire.

[Photo courtesy of NatalieMaynor]

The free-market myth that wouldn’t die

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

Proponents of the “free market” have a tendency to ignore one inconvenient fact: there is no such thing as a free market in reality. Never has been one. Never will be one. The “free market” is a myth, a fairy tale told over and over by newspaper columnists and TV pundits and quite a few professional economists. I’ve come across a few declarations of this myth lately that irked me (for example this infuriatingly ignorant and ignorizing dreck), and so I’d like to rant for a moment.

This is not to say that markets, as a system for organizing economic activity, are no good. There are some good things about markets, flawed as they always are. There are also bad things about them. Sometimes, the flaws are their saving grace! That’s because some “flaws” in what might otherwise be a fully “free” market (theoretically, that is, but only in theory since it simply cannot exist in reality) make the results of the market activity more socially beneficial. The opposite is also true: some flaws lead to worse social results, relative to what might happen if the markets were to be fully “free.” But again, that’s all pie-in-the-sky philosophizing, because markets are never, ever fully free.

Here’s photographic proof!

One result of a free market, proven beyond any doubt in multitudes of Econ 101 courses for the past century, is the so-called “law of one price.” As Wikipedia states,

The law of one price is an economic law stated as: “In an efficient market all identical goods must have only one price.”

(Where “efficient” is econo-speak for what laymen call “free.”)

Now even in the Econ 101 courses, the professors will mention some nuances to this blanket statement, for example to account for the difference in shipping costs to deliver an otherwise identical product from different locations. Similarly, as Wikipedia notes

The law also need not apply if buyers have less than perfect information about where to find the lowest price.

Yet here we are in the brave new 21st century, equipped with the world’s greatest information tools in history, and even still, prices for identical products differ by enormous magnitudes. An example: this Samsung 32-inch flat-panel TV, as shown through Google shopping.

Check it out… the lowest price shown is $382 and the highest price shown is 149% higher at $950. The screenshot doesn’t capture all the offers that the Google search unearthed, but obviously prices vary widely within those two outliers.

How can this be? How can there be so much difference in prices for an identical product? Well, economists and business analysts can probably offer quite a few explanations, but they all boil down to this: the market is not free. It is not efficient.

So keep that in mind next time someone says that all we need to do to solve some problem is to “set the market free,” “get rid of government interference,” or “blah blah blah.” As I implied above, sometimes it will make sense to reduce the government’s influence on a particular aspect of some particular market, but too many people have adopted a blindered ideology that the “free/efficient/unfettered” market represents an ideal that we should be always and everywhere be pursuing. Not only is that doubtful that the ideal is actually ideal, but it simply cannot be achieved, nunca. And as the “theory of the second best” teaches us, that means there is no good reason whatsoever to think that the best alternative is to move as close as possible to this unachievable so-called ideal.

Class dismissed!

Chelsea Green participation in “Point-to-Point” ride a great success

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

As you may have seen previously, a bunch of us here at Chelsea Green signed up to participate in the Harpoon Brewery’s “Point-to-Point” charity bike ride. The ride took place this past Saturday, and, despite sometimes-heavy rain, we had a blast. Team members included Brianne Goodspeed, Jesse McDougall, Jonathan Teller-Elsberg, Dennis Pacheco, Jessica Saturley, and friends-of-Chelsea Green, Cally Wheeler, former CGPer and now Valley News reporter Erin Hanrahan, and Farm and Wilderness counselor Karen Ganey–the latter two, plus Brianne, decked out in matching green capes. I think this was their first outing as the new Upper Valley Auxiliary Super Heroes.

We participated in the 25-mile loop ride—there were simultaneous 50-mile and 110-mile point-to-point rides as part of the event, but given the uneven fitness levels in our team, the 25-miler was the right choice for us. (I think Brianne and Jessica might be the only ones capable of doing the longer rides at the moment, but Jesse and Cally took oaths that next year they’d be ready for 50 big, bad miles.) Our start was delayed by the onset of bad weather. Up-to-the-minute weather predictions were calling for severe storming on our path at the planned start of 1pm. As it turned out, that storm shifted further south—but it was a doozy we’re glad we didn’t have to bike through, with reports of half-inch hail, forty-mile-per-hour winds, and lightning that gave the Beijing Olympics fireworks show a run for its money. The volunteer “safety guru” for the ride regaled us with statistics about the 62 people who were killed by lightening last year in the U.S. Having been properly forewarned, we looked deep into our hearts and decided to uphold the Chelsea Green motto of “honor above all, biking above honor!” And off we went. We didn’t get pelted with hail, but we did get drenched through and through.

Worst moment: one mile from the finish, Cally hit a dinger of a pot-hole that buster her real tire flat. Best moment: Cally coming in to the finish with a smile on her face, not fazed in the slightest by her little mishap. (That, plus the sausage sandwiches being cranked out by the folks at the Vermont Smoke and Cure tent. Oh, and the Harpoon beer tent. Oh, and the Gifford’s Ice Cream tent. To which I went for seconds.)

And what was it all for? Not only did we have some good Chelsea Green biking and bonding, we also raised $486 for the Vermont Food Bank, which was the focus of the charity event. That total, by the way, is only “so far,” as the event fundraising window remains open for another month, I think. So if you haven’t given $10 (or more!) to the cause but would like to and have the means, feel free to mosey your way over to our fundraising page.

The Russia-Georgia War Detours through a Gas Station Near You

Friday, August 15th, 2008

Are you surprised that control over oil and natural gas has a role in Russia’s diplomacy-by-other-means in Georgia?

The sudden war in the Caucasus brought Georgia to heel, reasserted Russia’s claim as the dominant force in the region, and dealt a blow to U.S. prestige. But in this part of the world, diplomacy and war are about oil and gas as much as they are about hegemony and the tragic loss of human life. Victory in Georgia now gives Russia the edge in the struggle over access to the Caspian’s 35 billion barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of gas. The probable losers: the U.S. and those Western oil companies that have bet heavily on the Caspian as one of the few regions where they could still operate with relative freedom.

It’s a global market for these fossil fuels. American over-consumption plays a role (not the only role, of course, and sometimes not a leading role; but a role nonetheless) in every one of these energy-related power plays. Our first responsibility is to get ourselves out of Iraq, but we’ve got responsibilities beyond that. Time to transition.

  • Drive less. Or not at all. It can be done.
  • Stop using natural gas, heating oil, propane, or fossil-fuel-derived electricity in your home. It can be done.
  • Eat local, organic food. It can be done. Year round.
  • Grow your own food. Can’t get much more local than that. Even in the darkest basement apartment, it can be done.
  • Feel free to add to the list.

    SUVs: Down for the count?

    Sunday, August 10th, 2008

    This is a story of market failure and the need, at times, for strong government intervention. As most everyone knows, the large increase in gasoline prices lately have sent sales of the worst gas guzzlers dropping like rocks in the last few months,wreaking havoc with the business model GM, Ford, and Chrysler had established for themselves. Sales are way down for trucks, minivans, SUVs and other less-efficient vehicles, and once-invincible corporate giants have been brought to their knees.

    Have American consumers seen the light? Are miles-per-gallon now going to take a seat alongside Mom, baseball, and apple pie in the American cultural pantheon? Maybe. But we’ve been there, done that before, and nothing can be declared for certain.

    Let’s look back at some history. The chart below shows auto sales in the U.S. (both cars and light trucks/SUVs/minivans) and also the inflation adjusted price of regular gasoline. The black line shows the percentage of all sales that are from U.S. automakers. The blue line shows the percentage from foreign automakers. The red line shows the inflation-adjusted price of gas. That data isn’t available for as far back in time, so it makes interpretation of the left-most area of the chart a little difficult. Nonetheless, the basic message here is that, as the price of gas rose in the 1970s, foreign (mostly Japanese) automakers were able to gain ground with U.S. consumers. Then as the price of gas fell back down through the 80s and leveled off in the cheap zone in the 90s, U.S. automakers were able to gain back a lot of those customers. The latest wave of rising gas prices, which have been going on for pretty much all of the current decade, puts the foreign automakers back into play.
    [Source data: auto_sales_gas_prices.xls]

    Notice that it took several years of gas price declines before consumers started really moving back away from foreign automakers. Now, some of that has to do with changes in consumer tastes, as Detroit discovered the SUV and figured out how to market it really well. But gas prices are largely what made that possible in the first place. As you can see, as soon as gas prices started coming down from their early-80s peak, foreign car sales, as a percentage of all car sales, level off. But they hold that level for almost the full decade before the U.S. automaker resurgence in the 90s.

    What does that tell us? Consumers, as a whole, seem to remember the pain of high gas prices for a while, but not for all that long in the grand scheme of things. A few years of low gas prices, some shiny new ads for boss, rough-and-tumble trucks, and voila! Off-roading in your SUV is the new “green” transportation.

    Now today almost everyone is saying, “the era of cheap gas is over! Prices may fall and rise a little, but a barrel of gas won’t ever go down below $100, and a gallon of gas won’t ever go down below $2.50,” or something like that. Maybe, and maybe not. One good recession in China, and oil prices will tank. One impressive oil field discovery, and prices will tank. Neither of these is especially likely, but they’re not impossible. Yes, yes, in the long run, the price of oil is absolutely going to go up and stay up. But year to year fluctuations? Completely unpredictable. Is it possible that we might have three or four years of back-to-relatively-cheap-gas in the near future—long enough for some noticeable fraction of U.S. auto consumers to forget the importance of fuel efficiency? You bet yer behunkus.

    And that, my friends, is why we need the government to act now to institutionalize mandatory fuel efficiency standards that are strong and get stronger over time. (I’d also love to see lots of fuel-efficiency “feebate” programs established at the state level for auto registration fees. That would be a big help as well.) If we leave things to the “market,” we’re asking for bone-headed failure.

    But what about the promised explosion in the production and purchase of electric vehicles? Won’t that solve our auto problem? More on that later…

    Obama’s Lowball Target for Renewable Electricity

    Tuesday, August 5th, 2008

    Not only does Barack Obama’s target for renewable electricity pale in comparison to Al Gore’s vision of a complete transformation in the next ten years, but Obama’s “New Energy Plan for America” target is lower than we already produce. Taking his policy paper literally, we would have to reduce our renewable electricity production over the next ten years, rather than increase it.

    Obama’s latest policy paper states that he wants to “Ensure 10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025.” Dude, that is so not inspiring. After all, in the 12 months from March 2007 through February 2008, the United States generated 8.4 percent of its electricity with renewables. (This includes conventional hydroelectric, which has its problems*, and is down from a peak in 1997 of 12.4 percent.) So Obama’s target for ten years from now is lower than what we were already achieving ten years ago? I think he needs a new energy adviser.

    US Energy Consumption 2003-2007

    Okay, okay, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was referring more narrowly to what the Department of Energy calls “other renewables” (meaning, excluding conventional hydroelectric). In the latest 12 months of data, we were already at 2.5 percent. That means there are two related flaws in the Obama energy team’s thinking.

    The first is that these targets just aren’t that impressive. Well, the first target is pretty decent—after all, going from 2.5 percent to 10 percent in just 4 years means we would have about a 42 percent annual growth rate in renewable electricity, and that assumes that there is no growth in other forms of electricity generation. But to then go from 10 percent renewable electricity in 2012 to 25 percent in 2025, the growth rate in those later years would be a measly 7.4 percent (approximately). So it’s not a very impressive target in that sense, and the second flaw is that it ignores the nature of renewable energy and what will happen if we do reach the first target.

    Think about it. If we manage to grow renewable electricity generation by more than 40 percent each year for the next four years, that implies that there will be a massive expansion of the renewable electricity industry, including the expansion of manufacturing for renewable generating machinery (wind turbines, solar panels, concentrated solar thermal equipment, wave and tidal power equipment, geothermal equipment, etc.). Along the way, presumably, there would also be a fair bit of technological advance either in terms of the technical efficiency of this equipment to turn renewable environmental energy into electricity, or in reducing the cost of the equipment to generate the electricity, or both.

    This isn’t a situation where there are low-hanging fruit that we can get in the early years, and that we’ll struggle to capture the tougher renewable energy fruit in the later years. The sun will be shining just as strongly in 2025 as it will be in 2012 as it does today in 2008. The wind will blow pretty much just as much. The moon isn’t going anywhere, so that means tides will be the same (allowing for changes resulting from rising ocean levels as the ice sheets melt from global warming). The fruit is almost all equally low hanging. Right now it is hanging moderately low, but not that low. Technological advances will be the equivalent of lowering the fruit, or you might say of lengthening our arms, making the fruit of the same height easier to reach. Yes, the compounding math means that early percentage gains are easier than later ones, but I think this is largely or totally compensated for by the physical and economic features of renewable energy. Unlike oil, where cheap, easy oil is pumped first and tough, expensive oil afterwards, renewable energy only gets easier and cheaper over time. Sweet!

    * Conventional hydro is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, building large dams is destructive to the local environment that is flooded to create the reservoir that powers the turbines. Second, the low-carbon-emission benefits of dam-hydro can actually be a total flop, because the vegetation and other biomass that is submerged in the reservoir decays anaerobically, resulting in the release of large volumes of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. This is more of a problem in tropical areas than in temperate zones like the United States. So while building new dams looks to be at least risky and possibly downright a bad idea, from the perspective of avoiding global warming, continuing to use existing dams already constructed in the U.S. could be okay, and could be fair to think of as a renewable source of energy.

    [Photo by NY Times]

    If you build it green, will they come? And will it be too cheap to meter?

    Monday, August 4th, 2008

    BW’s Green Business reports that venture capital investments in “cleantech” is booming. Despite an overall drop in VC funding in U.S. businesses between the first and second quarters of 2008, investment in cleantech companies was up 41 percent from the first to the second quarter, from $683.5 million in Q1 to $961.7 million in Q2.

    There’s been some shifting of priorities lately. The amount of money being invested in biofuel opportunities dropped 44 percent from Q1 to Q2. Meanwhile, “Energy/Electricity Generation” is a strong investor priority, capturing 52 percent of the total for the quarter, followed by energy efficiency.

    Which of all these brave new investments will bear fruit? Which will result in technologies that are truly useful and make a difference? Which will result in products that earn their investors mega-profits? Will there be much overlap—as in, will the profits arise from products that are truly useful and make a difference? Stay tuned!

    Meanwhile, on the basic science front, MIT has announced a “breakthrough” that could make solar power more useful. (Hat tip to Juan Cole.)

    In a revolutionary leap that could transform solar power from a marginal, boutique alternative into a mainstream energy source, MIT researchers have overcome a major barrier to large-scale solar power: storing energy for use when the sun doesn’t shine.

    Until now, solar power has been a daytime-only energy source, because storing extra solar energy for later use is prohibitively expensive and grossly inefficient. With today’s announcement, MIT researchers have hit upon a simple, inexpensive, highly efficient process for storing solar energy.

    Requiring nothing but abundant, non-toxic natural materials, this discovery could unlock the most potent, carbon-free energy source of all: the sun. “This is the nirvana of what we’ve been talking about for years,” said MIT’s Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and senior author of a paper describing the work in the July 31 issue of Science. “Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon.”

    Inspired by the photosynthesis performed by plants, Nocera and Matthew Kanan, a postdoctoral fellow in Nocera’s lab, have developed an unprecedented process that will allow the sun’s energy to be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Later, the oxygen and hydrogen may be recombined inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity to power your house or your electric car, day or night.

    The key component in Nocera and Kanan’s new process is a new catalyst that produces oxygen gas from water; another catalyst produces valuable hydrogen gas. The new catalyst consists of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode, placed in water. When electricity — whether from a photovoltaic cell, a wind turbine or any other source — runs through the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on the electrode, and oxygen gas is produced.

    Combined with another catalyst, such as platinum, that can produce hydrogen gas from water, the system can duplicate the water splitting reaction that occurs during photosynthesis.

    The new catalyst works at room temperature, in neutral pH water, and it’s easy to set up, Nocera said. “That’s why I know this is going to work. It’s so easy to implement,” he said.


    A few comments… First of all, the MIT press release isn’t quite right when it says that storing extra solar energy for use after sunset is “prohibitively expensive and grossly inefficient.” That’s pretty much true for solar energy systems that are small scale and/or are based on photovoltaics (the panels that directly convert sunlight into electricity). But it’s not true for concentrating solar power systems that indirectly generate electricity by using sunlight to create heat, which then turns water to steam, which then powers a turbine generator. Such systems exist and are more efficient than photovoltaics, and, depending on the details of the systems, are capable of continuing to generate electricity even after sunset. (For example, if the concentrated sunlight heats up a heat-transfer substance to thousands of degrees, the residual heat can keep the water boiling and the turbines turning for hours after dark.) What’s cool and hopeful about the MIT deal is that it makes stored solar power more affordable for the small scale—assuming the technology pans out of the lab.

    Also, were you like my good friend and coworker Jesse, wondering, “how is this different from good old fashioned electrolysis?” I emailed some of my college friends who wasted their academic years studying physics and chemistry* (and homebrewing beer), and put the question to them. The response:

    Good old fashioned electrolysis takes place in a highly corrosive environment. The normal catalysts are salts that cause all sorts of problems. Because salt is a great catalyst in ion exchange it requires special metals to avoid these problems. Specifically on the anode where oxygen is produced, if you use a cheap metal, you will quickly oxidize the electrode, causing failure of your system. In order to prevent this, you need to use an inert metal, most typically platinum. If they are able to use a catalyst that enables you to avoid salt, and eliminate the need for platinum as an anode, you probably will see a big cost savings. This is the main drawback of current hydrogen fuel cells. It costs too much to produce them due to the need to use platinum as an anode. So, even if the process is the same efficiency as current electrolysis methods, it may make it much more affordable by avoiding the need to use increasingly expensive precious metals. The key that I hear in the video, is that they use “earth abundant materials” to produce their reaction. If it is also more energy efficient, that would make a big difference as well. So, while the process appears to be the same, the materials appear to be different, and presumably more affordable and efficient.

    Thanks, Al!

    * You think I’m being sarcastic, but not so fast… What did Perry do with his PhD in biochemistry? He became a lawyer!

    [Graphic courtesy of lumaxart.]

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