Thursday, September 29, 2005

More bad news on the Climate Change front: Arctic Ice Melt Accelerates to Record Lows

This one from Green Car Congress:

Accelerating melting has shrunk Arctic ice to its smallest extent in at least a century, according to scientists from NASA, the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), and the University of Washington.

For the fourth consecutive year, NSIDC and NASA scientists using satellite data have tracked a “stunning” reduction in arctic sea ice at the end of the northern summer. The persistence of near-record low extents leads the group to conclude that Arctic sea ice is likely on an accelerating, long-term decline.

"Considering the record low amounts of sea ice this year leading up to the month of September, 2005 will almost certainly surpass 2002 as the lowest amount of ice cover in more than a century. If current rates of decline in sea ice continue, the summertime Arctic could be completely ice-free well before the end of this century."

—Julienne Stroeve, NSIDC

That conclusion echoes last year’s findings from the Arctic Council, an eight-nation report by 250 experts.

Arctic sea ice extent, or the area of ocean that is covered by at least 15% ice, typically reaches its minimum in September, at the end of the summer melt season. On September 21, 2005, the five-day running mean sea ice extent dropped to 5.32 million square kilometers (2.05 million square miles), the lowest extent ever observed during the satellite record from 1978.

A recent assessment of trends throughout the past century indicates that the current decline also exceeds past low ice periods in the 1930s and 1940s.

For the period 1979 through 2001, before the recent series of low extents, the rate of September decline was slightly more than 6.5 percent per decade. After the September 2002 minimum, which was the record before this year, the trend steepened to 7.3 percent.

Incorporating the 2005 minimum, with a projection for ice growth in the last few days of September, the estimated decline in end-of-summer Arctic sea ice is now approximately 8 percent per decade. All four years have ice extents approximately 20 percent less than the 1978 through 2000 average. This decline in sea ice amounts to approximately 1.3 million square kilometers (500,000 square miles). This is an area roughly equivalent to twice the size of Texas.

With four consecutive years of low summer ice extent, confidence is strengthening that a long-term decline is underway.

"Having four years in a row with such low ice extents has never been seen before in the satellite record. It clearly indicates a downward trend, not just a short-term anomaly"

—Walt Meier, NSIDC

The winter recovery of sea ice extent in the 2004-2005 season was the smallest in the satellite record. Cooler winter temperatures allow the sea ice to rebound after summer melting. But with the exception of May 2005, every month since December 2004 has set a new record low ice extent for that month.

In addition, arctic temperatures have increased in recent decades. Compared to the past 50 years, average surface air temperatures from January through August, 2005, were 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (3.6 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than average across most of the Arctic Ocean.

The trend in sea ice decline, lack of winter recovery, early onset of spring melting, and warmer-than-average temperatures suggest a system that is trapped in a loop of positive feedbacks, in which responses to inputs into the system cause it to shift even further away from normal.

"Feedbacks in the system are starting to take hold. Right now, our projections for the future use a steady linear decline, but when feedbacks are involved the decline is not necessarily steady—it could pick up speed."

—NSIDC Lead Scientist Ted Scambos

'Nough said!

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Renewable Energy Investment Opportunities

If you, like me, see renewable energy as both a socially/environmentally responsible sector, AND a pretty good bet for a growth sector to invest in, you should check out the following threads. When I actually have a steady income and a bit of cash to put away somewhere, it seems like some of the green energy mutual funds described in the threads are probably good places to put my money.

The Alternative Energy Blog has a good post and some good comments here and this spawned a similar thread over at Treehugger over here.

Anybody got any other good investment tips?

[OK, I promise this is my last post for today (man I sure missed a lot!). More catching up to do tomorrow...]


I also stumbled across this blog, 'Alt Energy Stocks' and I'll add it to my list of links. It's devoted to keeping tabs on alt eng stocks and the like. Check it out if you want more on this subject.

It seems like the easiest investment opportunity for clean energy is the Powershares WilderHill Clean Energy Portfolio (stock ticker PBW).

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This could be big!

Another great new technology is described here at Green Car Congress (sorry if this is old news to some of you, I'm still catching up on the past couple of weeks news...):

NexxtDrive DualDrive e-CVT Prototype Promises Fuel Savings, Hybrid Capability
14 September 2005

NexxtDrive (formally DriveTec UK), a UK-based design and development company, used the Frankfurt IAA to promote its prototype DualDrive, a power-split electronic Continuously Variable Transmission (e-CVT) with dual motor-generators.

NexxtDrive claims that the DualDrive can provide potential fuel and CO2 emissions savings of up to 20% even in non-hybrid applications. With the addition of a more robust energy storage and management system enabling full hybrid capabilities, NexxtDrive projects savings of up to 35%.

[Read the full article here]

As far as I understand this technology, it is a planetary gear box like the ones typically found in Toyota's 'Synergy' hybrid drivetrain. The DualDrive is very compact and so can easily replace the standard transmissions (manual or automatics) found in just about any car, which contrasts with existing planetary gear sets that have had to be specifically designed for each powertrain. This means that the DualDrive could be dropped into just about any car, including aftermarket retrofits of existing cars!

As far as I can tell, it raises fuel efficiency by using the planetary gear set to optimize torque at any speed so that you are always getting maximum (i.e. most efficient) power out of your engine (unlike normal transmissions which have ideal rpm 'power-bands' for various speeds but who's limited number of gear-ratios - typically only 4 or 5 - means you can't always get the ideal torque). Additionally, like the planetary gearbox in the Synergy drive, the DualDrive opens up the potential to easily couple it with full hybrid systems as it allows input from an ICE and/or electric batteries. Finally, it also replaces the conventional alternator and starter motor and can thus be used to integrate start-stop functionality (where the engine shuts off at idle and restarts instantaneously when coming out of idle) further boosting fuel efficiency in stop and go traffic.

It seems like these transmissions, if they are as good as they sound, should go (along with the TIGER exhuast to power system I discussed below and probably variable valve timing like in Honda's Accord hybrids) in every new car off the assembly line. This would also pave the way for a decrease in the cost and complexity of integrating hybrid systems and start-stop functionality into drivetrains. It seems to me like we should be seeing some kind of hybrid system in just about any kind of car in the relatively near future (5-10 years). We could easily make huge improvements in average transport fleet fuel efficiency, if the will (political/regulatory/consumer demand etc.) were there. Let's cross our fingers anyway... or better yet, contact your Congressman and support increased CAFE standards (see below)!

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Call your Congressman and get them behind this bill!

I missed this one while away on my trip. I hope it hasnt been defeated already. I am skeptical about the chances of this bill but it will be helped if all of you American readers call/write/email your congressmen and get them behind this bill ASAP! Check this out, again from Green Car Congress:

Bipartisan Coalition Introduces Bill to Increase CAFE Standards
14 September 2005

A bipartisan coalition of 16 House Members has introduced legislation calling for increasing fuel economy (CAFE) standards by 32%—from the current level of 25 mpg to 33 mpg over the next 10 years.

Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Representative Ed Markey (D-MA), a senior Member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee are the sponsors of the bill.

"[Hurricane Katrina] also exposed how vulnerable we remain to high gas prices and disruptions in our oil supply. It laid bare our comfortable indifference to an inefficient transportation sector, and it swept away the illusion that a successful business strategy for automakers is to bet the farm on gas-guzzlers and simply pray for eternally low gas prices."
—Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY)

The original cosponsors of the Boehlert-Markey bill include Representatives Todd Platts (R-PA), John Lewis (D-GA), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD), Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Chris Shays (R-CT), Brad Miller (D-NC), Jim Leach (R-IA), John Olver (D-MA), Jim Gerlach (R-PA), Dennis Cardoza (D-CA), Nancy Johnson (R-CT), Hilda Solis (D-CA), Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), and Ray LaHood (R-IL).

"Raising the miles-per-gallon standard is the greatest no-brainer issue in Congress. Domestically, it is the most logical way to counter high gasoline prices and constrain environmental degradation. Internationally, American national security requires that we reduce petroleum usage. It is costly to defend the seaways, and because dependence on foreign oil jeopardizes our sovereignty, it makes recourse to war too tenable."
—Rep. Jim Leach (R-IA)

The bill would allow the Secretary of Transportation to establish separate standards for different size vehicles, as long as the overall average of the fleet is at least 33 mpg. This would allow the Secretary to implement a size-based system similar to the Administration’s proposal for reforming light-truck fuel economy standards. The Secretary would also be authorized to establish a credit trading program between manufacturers.

(A hat-tip to Greg Thornwall!)


Archived webcast of press conference

It's about damn time Congress did SOMETHING to address fuel efficiency standards. Bush's weak-ass attempt to increase light truck/SUV standards seem to be just that - a weak-ass attempt to appear green while really doing quite little to increase the efficiency of our personal transport fleet. Good to see this is bipartisan as well. Seriously, if are a US citizen, let your representatives know your support for this (or a similar, perhaps stricter) bill.

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Another 'why didn't anyone think of this before' moment:

This from Green Car Congress...

TIGERS: Exhaust Gas to Electricity for Reductions in Fuel Consumption
21 September 2005

British engineers have developed a simple mechanism for recovering energy from engine exhaust gases that could potentially reduce vehicle fuel consumption by up to 10%.

The TIGERS—Turbo-generator Integrated Gas Energy Recovery System—consortium (a Foresight vehicle project) diverts exhaust gases to drive a small switched reluctance generator to create enough electricity to power a car’s electrical system. [The switched reluctance generator is the part in yellow in the graphic above]

The small turbo-generator is installed in a by-pass waste pipe fitted just below the engine exhaust manifold. A valve linked to the engine’s management control system allows some of the high-energy exhaust gases to pass through a turbine to drive the generator, depending on engine load conditions.

Typically the 800ยบ C gases have a velocity of 60m/s and a mass flow rate of 0.05 kg/s, providing enough energy to spin the generator at up to 80,000 rpm and create electrical power of up to 6kW—sufficient to handle the car’s electrical systems.

An energy management system will ensure optimal utilization of the available energy. During highway driving, when the available exhaust energy is high, the energy will be captured and the excess power will be stored in a battery. However, at engine idle the penalty for recovery is high and so the vehicle will be operated in battery only mode.

The researchers have looked at placing the new generator at various locations along the exhaust system. Placed too far away from the engine, the waste gases start to lose energy, so in the development stage the generator has been placed just beneath the exhaust manifold to maximize energy recovered. The gases then pass through the catalytic converter after the turbine, to ensure that the gases can still be conventionally cleaned.

By placing it close to the manifold the energy available is optimized. This also allows for shorter runs for control leads and coolant pipes and provides greater protection to the unit. Disadvantages are that the high temperatures mean the generator has to be water-cooled and totally sealed. However, the researchers are convinced that they can fully develop the system and plan to have a fully operating prototype ready for bench testing within a few months.

Because the system is fairly simple and partly based on existing technology, it could be fully developed for all car, van, bus and truck engines within a few years.

The simple design of the switched reluctance generator enables a low cost and easy to manufacture unit to be built that can run reliably at high speeds. It gives the TIGERS device a power density of approximately three times that of a typical alternator. An efficiency in excess of 80% can be achieved compared with 60% for traditional technology.

Dr Richard Quinn, one of the engineers leading the TIGERS project, says the system could be developed to produce anything from 12v to 600v.

The recovered energy could power all of a car’s heating, lighting, air conditioning and in-car entertainment systems. Longer term, the cam belt, drive belts and alternator could be scrapped with the TIGERS-recovered power providing electrical drive instead for further potential for gains in engine efficiency.

The additional electrical energy could be used to power more advanced engine technologies, such as electro-magnetic valve actuation, electric intake charge cooling, electric-powered super-charging or electrical exhaust after-treatment.

Parasitic losses from mechanical support systems (i.e., belt-driven) can normally be as high as 6kW or 8hp in a family sedan but can be significantly higher in larger capacity cars and trucks. Moving from those mechanical systems to electrical removes those loses, and fuel consumption could be reduced from between 5%–10%.

In a hybrid electric car the TIGERS system could feed the extra power directly to the drive motors or back to the battery to increase the range of the vehicle.

On commercial vehicles the extra electricity could be used to power electrical systems to run refrigeration units for chilled food, turn the motors on cement mixers or power pumps on fuel tankers.

The TIGERS group comprises researchers from Visteon UK Ltd in Coventry, Switched Reluctance Drives of Harrogate and The University of Sheffield Electrical Machines & Drives Research Group.

Switched Reluctance Drives is a leader in switched reluctance technology and is developing a high-speed generator to work in this demanding environment. The University of Sheffield research group is applying its knowledge of electrical system modelling and design to optimise the control and energy storage system.

Visteon is the lead partner in the project and is one of the world’s leading Tier 1 automotive suppliers. It is responsible for the system design, testing and implementation.


300 kW Switched Reluctance Generator for Hybrid Vehicle Applications (Delphi)

This is another great idea that makes one wonder why noone thought of this before. I hope these little devices end up in every internal combustion engine on the streets in a few years. There really should be a goverment mandate that car makers have to put the best fuel efficiency technologies in their cars that they can, like they mandate that new power plants have to have the best emissions control technologies they can. After all, increased fuel efficiency means decreased emissions.

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WattHead Returns

That's right, I'm back from my wonderful grand tour of six American National Parks. There's a lot of beauty out there in the world and these six parks encompass some great examples of the unique and wonderous places in the American West. Now I have a few days of downtime to catch up on all the energy news I missed out on in the last couple of weeks and maybe write a couple of entries for my blog. This weekend I move into my new apartment in Eugene for the beginning of my senior year. I will likely begin work on an energy related thesis as well as continue work with the Ecological Design Center. My current plan for the thesis is to compare several alternative transportation options including various pure and hybrid combinations of biofuels, zinc-air fuel cells, batteries and/or hydrogen PEM fuel cells. Any research leads any of you can offer on those subjects would be appreciated. Also, any ideas on energy conservation projects for a largish university you have would be appreciated as well as I will be looking for projects to implement for the EDC this year. Anyway, enough about me, back to alternative energy, sustainability and climate change etc...

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Thursday, September 01, 2005

WattHead Goes on Vacation...

That's right, I'm off tomorrow for a three week road-trip to six of jewels of the American West: Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Canyon, Arches, Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks! Yeah, not great timing for a 3000+ mile roadtrip what with Hurricane Katrina pushing gas prices up to record highs but its too late now to call it quits. And don't worry, carbon dioxide offsets were purchased (through Climate Care) to offset the emissions from the entire trip (as well as the rest of my vehicle miles for the year). So, my posts will take a hiatus for the next three weeks and I shall likely return around the 26th of September, writing from my new apartment in Eugene. All the best to all of you in the interem. Cheers...

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Live Simpler, Live Richer

I recently posted a lengthy response to a forum question over at TheWatt regarding how we will live after Peak Oil (assuming it happens). I thought I'd go ahead and post it over here as well. This is in response to another comment that included the astute line:

"Using less doesn't mean living less."

To which I replied...

While I think peak oil will require some restructuring of our economies and our living patterns (we'll see how much longer urban sprawl and suburban growth remain attractive when commute times get longer and longer and fuel costs get higher and higher), I dont subscribe to the doom and gloom, start stockpiling food and ammunition mantra of many Peak Oilers. However, we don't have to live a poorer quality of life simply because Peak Oil and the energy constraints it brings will require us to use less.

I'm quite tired of the common stigma that conservation means less enjoyment. That's why I prefer to use the term efficiency (i.e. energy efficiency, fuel efficiency, etc.) which has a much better connotation for the average Joe. [slight digression begins here] Conservation and efficiency are really two quite different things but both are generally refered to by the term 'conservation.' Here's a simple example of the difference: my car could get 80 mpg and that would be quite efficient; I could drive only 2,500 miles a year and that would be conservation (I currently drive about 10,000 miles per year). Efficiency is getting the same use out of less input/cost. Conservation is cutting back on input/saving cost by using less. I firmly believe that it will be easier to 'sell' efficiency measures to the average consumer than it will be to convince them to start conserving. After all, efficiency is just smart. Both are clearly necessary but let's distinguish between the two in order to make some of our work (getting people to enact efficiency measures) a LOT easier.

Regardless of which term we use, I would like to object to the common stigma that using less somehow means enjoying life less or necessitates some kind of decrease in standard of living. I try to practice a lifestyle that minimizes my impact on the world. There are plenty of areas where I can still improve but there are little things everyone can do without impacting their quality of life. These include:

1) Buying the most fuel efficient car you can (if you have to buy one at all, subscribing to a car sharing plan like Portland-founded FlexCar can be a good option for many urbanites as well) and drive it as little as possible. This probably means living near your work/school which not only saves fuel but also improves your quality of life by limiting the time you spend in gridlock commuting to work (definitely NOT the most enjoyable hours of your day) and increasing your free time. It also of course saves you money on fuel costs and adds to your disposable income, another increase in quality of life.

2) Making your house as energy efficient as you can. An easy and effective first step is to purchase compact fluorescent light bulbs, starting with your most heavily used lights and continueing until you run out of sockets. Each CFB may cost more upfront but consumes a fraction (1/4) of the energy of your incandescent bulbs and will save you lots of money over its lifetime ($20.00 USD or more over its lifetime Ive read). That lifetime is, incidentally, much longer (3+ years, compared to maybe only a few months for an incan bulb) and thus requires less time chaning bulbs, going to the store to purchase more bulbs etc. Another great step is to shell out a few more bucks to replace major appliances (like your microwave, water heater, stove, fridge etc) with EnergyStar rated appliances when they get old or when you feel like making an investment in your home. These again cost more up front but save you lots in reduced energy use. Other energy efficiency upgrades include better insulation (a very cost effective option), double-paned windows, storm windows in the winter, awnings over windows in the summer, utilizing ambient sunlight as much as possible, the list goes on. Again, lower utility bills = more disposable income = higher quality of life, not lower.

3) Purchase clean energy options from your local utility if they have the option. I purchase 100% wind power from my local provider and it costs me a very affordable amount more each month. This one costs a bit but means that you can sleep easy knowing that no air pollution or greenhouse gases were emitted and no salmon and other river critter habitat was destroyed to power your new compact fluorescent lightbulbs and EnergyStar appliances. Heck, use the savings from your new energy efficient house to purchase green power options for the rest of you energy use. It will likely balance out for no net cost to you (Im just guessing, havent done the math here but it makes sense to me).

4) I'm gonna throw this one out there because it works great for me but I know its probably going to be more controversial than the last couple: go vegetarian! The issues surrounding uneccesarily raising and killing animals for your culinary enjoyment aside, the environmental impacts of the meat industry are astounding. The Confined Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs (aka industrial farms) that the vast majority of your meat comes from consume enormous amounts of water as well edible grains that could be going straight to feeding people (it takes something like 10 times the nutritional content in grains and other feedstocks to produce a pound of beef). They produce tons of pollution, waste and runnoff and as they are designated agricultural rather than industrial (at least in the US) they are exempted from nearly all pollution control laws like the Clean Air Act. In many areas they are THE largest polluter in the area, contributing methane (a potent greenhouse gas) to the atmosphere, nitrogen runoff into streams, etc. The Sierra Club reports that "According to the Environmental Protection Agency, hog, chicken and cattle waste has polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in 17 states." Furthermore, "Livestock produce an enormous amount of waste - about 2.7 trillion pounds of manure a year." As for quality of life impacts, despite much common opinion to the contrary, it is EASY to be vegetarian and doesnt mean eating less enjoyable meals. I happen to think I eat quite well and have learned to cook dozens of enjoyable vegetarian meals. Not to mention that if you are a Thai, Chinese, and Indian food fiend like myself, you will find endless delicious vegetrian options when you go out to eat. If you you're not convinced, let me suggest an alternative: reduce the amount of meat you consume by having at least one meat-free day a week. That wont take much effort, is a nice incremental improvement and you may just find that you enjoy the meals you eat on your meat-free day even more than the other meals.

5) Finally, buy local whenever you can. This is one I need to get better about myself. The number of transport miles driven each year in order to get your goods from wherever they are purchased to your local store grows every year. Our economy is moving more and more towards an unsustainable model of further and further seperated supply and demand locations. As Peak Oil continues, this model will become less and less feasable. So start adapting early by buying local food and goods when you can. Shop at a farmer's market for fresh produce, fruit and dairy if there is one around (you'll probably get even better groceries for the same or cheaper prices that way - again better quality of life). It will cut down on fuel consumption (used to transport fuels) and the associate consequences (pollution, green house gases etc) associated with your lifestyle as well as do your part to start the transition to a more sustainable economic model.

We can all do our part to live a less-impactful but fully enjoyable lifestyle. Again, its more that we, as responsible citizens of the world, should all strive to do.

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